Strategic Outlook 2015
© 2015 FrontLine Defence (Vol 12, No 1)

On February 19, during the Ottawa Conference on Defence and Security, the Conference of Defence Associations ­Institute will launch officially the 2015 edition of Canada’s Strategic Outlook. Ferry de Kerckhove, author of the report,  highlights some of the report’s main points and ­conclusions for FrontLine readers.

August 2014 – From Left: Gen Tom Lawson, CDS; CWO Kevin West; and Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, arrive at the Canadian War Museum. (DND Photo)

The backdrop: As the second largest country in the world, and with the longest coastline, Canada is a country of ‘strategic distances’ (coast to coast over 5000 km, and Ottawa to Resolute Bay almost 3500 km). The Canada-U.S. border – the longest in the world – is about 8900 km, including the Alaska border of about 2500 km. These combined factors present not only a formidable defence problem, but also a major sovereignty enforcement challenge.

Needless to say, the evolving international security environment complicates the security calculus for Canada – 2014 was an extraordinary year marked by two major crises which have led, just after the end of our engagement in Afghanistan, to Canada taking part simultaneously in two military missions. The first involved the dispatching a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) contingent to Europe to support the sovereignty of our Eastern European NATO partners and stand up to Russia’s aggressive posture; the second included sending a training mission and another CF-18 contingent as part of the U.S.-led coalition to counter the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate’s aggression in Iraq and Syria.

The world is simultaneously facing: the apparently delusional leader of a nuclear power; a China playing hot and cold between a leading role in the world economy and flexing its muscle in the China seas; the insanity and single-mindedness of a group like the Islamic State; the gigantic mess in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan; the continuing killing fields in Syria; and, to top it all, an international economy with the price of oil playing yo-yo in a mix of politics and economics. The negotiations with Iran offer a field day for both optimists and pessimists.

The Canadian Government’s responses to these crises, and beyond, have significant implications for this nation’s future defence posture. While the Harper Government did commit (early in its mandate) to build a stronger military, the more recent commitment to balance the books in time for the next election has caused a significant deviation from that strategy. While a strong testament to its resolve, the timely and effective responses provided by Canada’s Armed Forces to the global events mentioned, mask a considerable decline in their capabilities and readiness.

Despite recent encouraging decisions regarding the rebuilding of Canada’s Navy, it enters 2015 significantly weakened as the Government’s deficit cutting has resulted in a 23% cut in the Navy’s funding to keep what remains of the available fleet at sea. The Air Force is awaiting a decision on the replacement of its ageing fleet of CF-18 aircraft. While doing better, the Army still suffers from under-equipment and under-manning.

The Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS) of 2008 has never had a stable funding model and, as such, has seen steadily greater cuts. The defence budget is now smaller in inflation-adjusted terms than it was in 2007. Capital spending has declined for the last four years, in part due to an inability to replace major equipment, leaving approximately 25% of funds budgeted for capital spending unspent for each of the last four years, to the tune of more than $1 billion per year. Capital spending is now approximately 14% of Defence expenditures, the lowest level since 1977/78 fiscal year.  At the current rate, rust-out is the likely outcome. The growing backlog of spending required in future years will be aggravated by the loss of purchasing power for deferred equipment.

DND’s program exceeds the financial resources and lacks the staff with the right training and experience to implement it. The cumulative effect of deferrals and delays will be that most of the fighting fleets of the RCAF and RCN will be replaced around 2025, creating a procurement demand that must be resourced, or the CAF’s capacities will be further reduced.

Unless resourced (including the possibility of further deferrals as existing equipment ages), the effects of money not spent on capital – the constant, higher rate of inflation eating into purchasing power; procurement deferrals, delays and cancellations – will impose serious choices on future leaders. We are entering a period of continued decline, diminished CAF capabilities and capacities, less training and lower output, with consequently reduced influence on the world stage and weakened contribution to our own security, domestic and international. This is not where a G-7 country with Canada’s interests would wish to be.

Fundamentally, given that financial constraints are driving strategy, and not the other way around, a full, independent, transparent rethink is absolutely essential. But all instruments of influence must be considered, not just defence, hence our “yearly call” for foreign, trade, aid, security, as well as defence, policy reviews.

The consequences of all this should be made clear to Canadians. Defence may not be much of an election issue, but that does not mean Canadians don’t want effective armed forces. Convincing politicians that we are on the wrong path will require taking ownership of the issue. This year’s elections only reinforce our call on the emerging Government of Canada to undertake a full foreign, trade, development, and defence review in order to present a unified vision of Canada’s role in the world and of the requirements, globally, to exercise it. In simple terms, what do we want to do in the world, and how!
Ferry de Kerckhove served as Canada’s High Commissioner to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Ambassador to the Republic of Indonesia and Ambassador to the Arab Republic of Egypt. He is currently the Executive Vice President of the CDA Institute.
© 2015 Frontline Defence