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Time to get serious about defence preparedness
Posted on Jan 25, 2018

Secretary of Defense James Mattis proclaimed a new defence strategy for the United States military on January 19th. Although this very important announcement from Washington was unfortunately overshadowed by the U.S. government shut-down, which happened on the same day, it should not be overlooked. Let's examine the Mattis announcement.

With this new strategy, the United States intends to emphasize competition with the world’s two other major military powers, Russia and China, over the Global War Against Terrorism that has been at the centre of U.S. military considerations since the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

What this means in plain English is not necessarily that the United States anticipates major state-to-state war with either China or Russia, but that it considers itself falling behind the military preparations those two countries are making to dominate large swaths of the globe. 

In other words, the U.S. will shift defence spending and planning from insurgency to deterrence over at least the next decade. The U.S. will turn its focus back to ensuring that American military forces can defend against and if necessary defeat the militaries of Russia and China in any possible confrontation, military or diplomatic, that may take place anywhere on the globe. At the same time, it is admitting that terrorism, though deadly, messy, and challenging, does not pose any existential threat to the United States or its interests – but the rising military power of both China and Russia do.

Mattis thus recognized a basic historical fact: guerilla or terrorist forces hardly ever win anywhere, but are expensive and time consuming to fight while posing little or no basic threat to national existence or interests. A bomb killing dozens or even hundreds of worshippers in a mosque somewhere in the Islamic world wreaks havoc on victims and their families, but does nothing to shake the foundations of the U.S., EU, or other countries. Only in very rare circumstances, such as the blowing up of trains in Spain prior to the Spanish election in March 2004, which impacted that election, can any real movement be detected.

In the last decade and a half, while the U.S. spent hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places, Russia rearmed effectively, China transformed its military, and each nation has integrated new technologies in both the traditional military area and in the general sphere of “cyber-war” (which is really just a modern extension of non-kinetic war that humankind have waged at least from the days of the Bible). They spend less than the United States on a per capita basis, but they are getting better results. 

What does all this mean for Canada? Basically that we are even less prepared for this new American strategy than we were prepared to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. We have been caught with obsolete fighter jets, virtually no replenishment at sea, old and very restricted under-sea forces, an army that is still focused on the last war we fought, and political leadership that is more consumed by jobs, contracts, and procurement dollars than transforming the Canadian Armed Forces into what it must surely be in the next few decades - a skilled and well trained winger or defence man for the people who really have to score the goals if the game is on – the Americans. 

In fact the object for the U.S., for NATO and for Canada is to build military strength to such an extent that our rivals will think twice before daring to challenge us. As Roman philosopher Vegetius declared centuries ago, “if you want peace, prepare for war.” The Chinese and Russians have taken that lesson to heart, it’s about time our American allies – and us – do the same.

– David Bercuson, Research Director, Canadian Global Affairs Institute