Defence Policy based on National Interests
VAdm (ret) DREW ROBERTSON
© 2015 FrontLine Defence (Vol 12, No 5)

Post-election, will you be looking forward to the inevitable Defence Policy review? When the newly-minted Liberal Government takes power, it will be confronted by both the declining capability of the Canadian Armed Forces and the rising complexity of the international security environment – neither of which was foreseen in the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS). Both factors create compounding risks to our national interests.


First delivered in 1963, our national interest in maintaining capable maritime forces should have dictated replacement of the Sea Kings in the 1990s. After the initial replacement contract was cancelled by Prime Minister Chretien in 1993, the government procurement efforts lacked urgency, with the result that the second replacements still aren’t all delivered, and those that have been delivered won’t be fully capable operationally for several more years. (Photo: MCpl Patrick Blanchard, CF Combat Camera)

The ambition of the CFDS was to allow Canada to be a “credible player on the world stage” through international leadership that could make “a meaningful contribution to the full spectrum of international operations.” But beyond lowering today’s readiness, the removal of $45 billion from the envisioned 20-year window (until 2026) of “stable and predictable funding” has rendered the CFDS force structure unachievable (at least without targeted additional funding), and exacerbated the damaging delays in defence procurement.

In part, these problems stem from a strategy based on making a contribution abroad, rather than a clear appreciation of the capabilities required to safeguard our national interests. After all, a “meaningful contribution” seems to have been redefined as “whatever is available to send”, rather than what is really needed for our security interests.

It’s as if we Canadians don’t believe our participation matters internationally and can’t see our own national interests. Worse, without a clear sense of those interests, governments over the past 20 years have failed to bring any sense of urgency in addressing the recapitalization of the CAF’s fighting fleets – the air and naval fighting fleets in particular. The result has been a steady erosion of Canada’s ability to act in its sovereign interests. Yet changes in the security environment remind us that growing risks to our security and prosperity demand capabilities that can safeguard those interests.

As just one example of the changed environment, consider the recent actions of Russia and China – two countries not even mentioned in the CFDS even though much about their power and potential for many of their recent actions could have been foreseen when that document was first published. The actions of these two great powers have repeatedly violated international norms. Indeed, in the past two years alone, at least one and in some cases both have undertaken: coercion of neighbours through force; unilateral action over disputed territories, water, and airspace to demonstrate de facto sovereignty; invasion of neighbouring states; annexation of territory and changing borders by force; attempts to temporarily fence part of the global commons (the high seas) for national control; and the fomenting of insurgency in neighbouring states.

For both, violating international norms is not a by-product of their actions; attempting to change them is central to their strategies. Their actions have not been about mere disputes over rocks and shoals or tactical level opportunism; rather they should be seen as being driven by their strategies for regional control. Their actions and apparent strategies put our national interests at risk, by clashing with the U.S.-led regional security regimes in Europe and Asia, and challenging international norms that have underpinned our prosperity and security for the past 70 years.

These are not challenges the U.S. should have to address alone. NATO’s strength is derived from political and military risks being collectively borne by all allies. Nor, given the ongoing U.S. defence cutbacks, should one expect the United States to have the capacity to address these and other challenges around the globe without meaningful allied and partner participation. A U.S. force posture that today requires, for example, naval deployments of nearly 10 months to maintain the persistent forward presence that deterrence and assurance require is not sustainable. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs noted in the latest US Military Strategy, “global disorder [since 2011] has significantly increased while some of our comparative military advantage has begun to erode.” Additional cuts due to sequestration potentially loom ahead, and with them greater risk for U.S. and NATO strategies.


A quick internet search brings up numerous instances where CF-18 Hornets have been intercepting Russian aircraft in the approaches to North America, and with our NATO allies in Europe. First procured in 1982 during the Cold War, the CF-18 Fighters are still flying and their replacement has been mired in delays since 2010 when the Government announced it would purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 under a sole source contract. (DND Photo 2007)

The actions of Russia and China require that NATO in Europe, and the U.S.-led security regime in Asia, respond to the repeated violations of international norms by reassuring allies and partners while deterring conflict, coercion, and adventurism, in part through credible military capability persistently deployed in both regions.

Our allies need our participation in the U.S.-led security regimes that underpin the international rules-based order. More importantly, Canada’s vital trade and security interests in the stability of Europe and Asia, as well as attendant security interests in continental defence, are at risk. So too, more generally, is our interest in the maintenance of international norms, without which global security and our national prosperity are threatened. For Canada, beyond participation in the regions, the current and developing capabilities of both Russia and China also require continental cooperation in defence of the air and maritime approaches to North America, including in the Arctic.

There are important and complex issues on which we have mutually beneficial cooperation with both countries: in trade with China, and counter-terrorism with Russia, for example. But neither is likely to abandon their regional strategy.

International efforts to deter their strategy execution while also furthering international engagement and cooperation, may take many years. Yet, if Western nations are engaged in a multi-decade challenge, attempting to both integrate China and Russia into international norms while deterring adventurism and preventing misadventure, the cost of our participation in deterrence will be judged more than worthwhile if that effort achieves these goals and so avoids conflict that could damage our security and prosperity.

There are, of course, many other existing and developing security risks and challenges, whether regional such as terrorism and instability in the mid-East, or thematic, like ballistic missile defence and cyber security. The new government will have to assess the risks that such issues pose to our national interests as it crafts a defence policy.

A serious review of Canada’s defence policy would be driven by current and future risks to our national interests.  Such a policy would ensure the government remains seized by the urgency of recapitalizing and restoring the capacity for relevant sovereign action in the Canadian Armed Forces in general, and in our fighting fleets in particular.

Any lesser effort at policy formulation might allow us to make token contributions internationally, but would not likely be sufficient to safeguard our interests at home and abroad, through meaningful participation with our allies and partners in shaping a favourable security environment and defending our security and prosperity.

In such important work, let’s hope the “open and transparent review process” pledged by the new government to create a defence white paper begins with a comprehensive assessment of our national interests.

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Vice-Admiral Drew Robertson (retired) is a former Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy and is member of the CDA Institute Board of Directors.

This article is an updated version of one originally in ON TRACK, Vol 20, No 2 (Fall 2015), pp. 5-6, and is reprinted here with permission of the CDA Institute.

The full edition can be found online at www.cdainstitute.ca/images/on_track/On_Track_20.2.pdf
© FrontLine Defence 2015

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