Defence Review
Feb 15, 2016

Where have we been and  where are we going?

Canadian defence policy reviews have varied greatly in structure and process for almost 30 years. Some have been wide-ranging in scope and consultation while some have been largely internal Government activities. Some have had the underpinnings of parallel foreign policy reviews. Most have focussed on roles and missions, while some have been focussed on the level of appetite for international engagement, and still others have verged upon being equipment plans.

There are at least two other factors that need to be understood related to the development of Canadian defence and security policy. The first is that a factual understanding of complex defence and security issues in Canada is virtually non-existent, often reverting to myth and rumour.

It is also true that no defence review is ever really “policy neutral” because of competing views related to myth and military appetite, not to mention the reality of the existing force structure. A struggle to define and control the defence policy focus is often the initial and often pervasive debate.

Recent History
By way of reminder, the 1987 White Paper on Defence was prepared within a Cold War mind set, and it therefore reinforced Canada’s commitments to NATO, but was quickly overtaken by geopolitical events.

The next policy review resulted in the  Canadian Defence Policy 1992 which reaffirmed Canada’s traditional defence commitments: “the defence of Canada, participation in NATO, cooperation with the United States in the defence of North America, and active involvement in United Nations peacekeeping operations.”

The process that led to the 1994 White Paper, which was arguably the most comprehensive in the recent past, and included much public consultation and a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons with a mandate to consult widely with Canadians and Allies.

The 1994 Paper called for “multi-purpose, combat capable armed forces able to meet the challenges to Canada’s security both at home and abroad by maintaining sufficient level of military force to: deal with challenges to Canadian sovereignty in peacetime, participating effectively in multilateral peace and stability operations and, if and when required, in the defence of North America and our allies in Europe, and in response to aggression elsewhere.”

It was not until 2003 that Defence Policy came back onto the Government agenda, leading to three (International, Trade & Defence) coordinated policy statements in early 2005. The process around developing these policy statements was largely internal to Government.

The Defence Policy Statement 2005 (DPS) pointed out “that a greater emphasis must be placed on the defence of Canada and North America than in the past.”

It concluded that: “The Canadian Forces will continue to perform three broad roles: protecting Canadians, defending North America in cooperation with the United States, and contributing to international peace and security. To do so, our military must be effective, relevant and responsive, and remain capable of carrying out a range of operations, including combat.

Fast forward to the Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS) of 2008, which was an attempt to put a Conservative stamp upon the 2005 Liberal DPS. This exercise was not a true policy review, and was developed internal to the Department of National Defence. The CFDS stated: “the Canadian Forces must be able to deliver excellence at home, be a strong and reliable partner in the defence of North America, and project leadership abroad by making meaningful contributions to international security.

The long-promised ‘CFDS Update’ never saw the light of day, most likely because, after reductions in funding, the resultant capability loss was seen as politically unpalatable.

What does the Historical Context tell us?
In some form, the defence of Canada, the defence of North America in cooperation with the United States, and contributing to international peace and security have been consistent across all policies. While these policy tenets are unlikely to change, their relative priority and the ways and means to deliver them almost certainly will.

Along the way, the concept of peacekeeping as part of the international commitment has waxed and waned over the years, provoking major debates about the need for peacekeeping versus the need for combat capability. Finally, the relative importance of the defence of Canada has steadily grown.

What process makes best policy?
While it is generally accepted that the best public policy approach to any policy review should be as wide ranging and transparent as possible, and ideally anchored to clear foreign and domestic policies, the reality has been that no recent Canadian defence policy has realistically delivered upon the intent – either because there was a government change shortly after, or the dollars to support the announced plans withered and then disappeared.

In the absence of a policy aligned to available resources and an ongoing commitment to fund that policy, it is doomed. Sadly, this is the history of Canadian defence policy.

Liberal Government’s Pronouncements
Among its other commitments, the current Liberal Platform states: “We will develop the Canadian Armed Forces into an agile, responsive, and well-equipped military force that can effectively defend Canada and North America; provide support during natural disasters, humanitarian support missions, and peace operations; and offer international deterrence and combat capability.

“We will maintain current National Defence spending levels, including current planned increases. We will not let Canada’s Armed Forces be shortchanged, and we will not lapse military spending from year to year.”

These two statements indicate that, all things being equal, the new Government may be committed to essentially the current roles and spectrum of missions, and to stable funding. Given the current fiscal situation in Canada, the best case will be the Government delivering on its promise to fully maintain DND funding – but even that will be difficult to do.

On the stable funding issue, every government over the past 30 years has also made this commitment, and then reneged.

It is a widely held view that CFDS 2008, upon which the current force structure is based, was/is not adequately resourced – a challenge the new Government has inherited. Realistically, this means that for the Government to achieve the commitment of an “agile, responsive, and well-equipped military force” suggests either less breadth of military capability and/or less capacity. This potentially means a very different Canadian Armed Forces in the future.

It is also instructive to review the Defence Minister’s mandate letter, which states the following: “As Minister of National Defence, your overarching goal will be to ensure that the Canadian Armed Forces are equipped and prepared, if called upon, to protect Canadian sovereignty, defend North America, provide disaster relief, conduct search and rescue, support United Nations peace operations, and contribute to the security of our allies and to allied and coalition operations abroad.” These words are very similar to the Liberal Platform but drops the reference to combat capability which may or may not be deliberate. It also suggests that disaster relief, search and rescue and UN peace operations are now seen as fundamental missions (versus derived roles) with a potential higher priority than to the broader international missions. These nuances will only become obvious as the promised defence review unfolds.

The Government has made three statements, almost all identical, about the need for a review of current defence capabilities and the need for a new defence strategy in the Platform, in the December Throne Speech, and in the Minister’s mandate letter.

By way of example, the Throne Speech states: “the Government will launch an open and transparent process to review existing defence capabilities, and will invest in building a leaner, more agile, better-equipped military.”

The phrase “open and transparent” is consistently used which strongly suggests that the upcoming process will go beyond an internal Government exercise which is strongly supported given the importance of getting Canada’s current and future defence needs right.

Another interesting phrase above is “leaner”. This can be construed in many ways but again only the outcome of the promised defence review will tell. If it means being able to divest of unnecessary defence infrastructure this would be an excellent start but if it means the perennial less “tail and more tooth” debate is much more militarily complex and is unlikely to free up sufficient resources to avoid difficult choices.

Given the Government’s focus on transparency and its pronouncements, it is hoped and considered likely that the promised defence review will be open to Canadians and broad in scope. That said, there will be many challenges to ensure that the discussion to come will be informed based upon factual information and not on either polemic rhetoric or emotional myth.

The outcome of this defence review will shape Canada’s defence stance and Government options for years to come. Knowing that it is impossible to predict what the future will bring and having been involved in defence policy issues for over 40 years, I can safely say that proceeding on the basis of some utopian world future is unlikely to serve Canada well and even more importantly could result in our men and women being tasked to undertake missions for which they are neither equipped nor trained. While there is always a price to pay in gold to get defence right it is even more important that the far higher price in human treasure is not paid by the men and women of the CAF.

We have had some hints of what the upcoming review might include: First of all, additional financial resources are unlikely.

Second, given the hints about the higher priority of some non-combat missions/roles, the debate of balance between peacekeeping and combat capability will undoubtedly be re-ignited. In this debate, a hard headed and factual understanding of the realities and dangers of the geopolitical situation of today and of the future will be required. Indeed, is there any peace to be kept?

And third, given the resource situation, the issue of asymmetric capabilities across the spectrum of the existing force structure will almost certainly arise. If so, difficult and painful decisions will be required because even to retain the current breadth and depth of capability will likely require additional financial resources.

Finally, no matter the process or outcome, it is important to ensure that the debate is informed and factual, with a full understanding of the implications for Canada’s future. It is also essential that the outcome(s) are aligned to available financial resources and with a long-term commitment to those resources – anything less will be a disservice to Canada and our men and women in uniform.

Vice Admiral Ron Buck served as Commander of Maritime Command (2001-2004) and retired after serving as VCDS (2004-2006).