The news that the Canadian army is getting back its “pips and crowns” as rank insignia is the latest in a series of moves the Conservatives have been making over time to reclaim the 1950s as the model for Canadian society. The air force and navy are “Royal” once more and the navy has the “executive curl” back on its officer’s uniforms. Army formations and units have been given back their old names. The War of 1812 suddenly matters.
No doubt this latest move will play well with some element of the party base – although one wonders how many people will change their vote to Conservative because of pips and crowns. These insignia will look a bit funny on green uniforms (only in Canada, you say), but perhaps this will be used down the road as justification for shifting the army back to khaki.
All of this is harmless enough, and the cost is infinitesimal in the context of the overall defence budget. But what’s more serious is that these moves to recreate the past increasingly seem to be substitutes for an actual post-Afghanistan defence policy and for expensive but much-needed re-equipment programs.
Crafting a new defence policy would be hard. It would involve making difficult and controversial choices about which military capabilities to retain and which not to retain, since Canada can’t afford to maintain front-line combat capabilities across all three services unless the defence budget is significantly increased. It would also involve confronting the politically explosive question of which bases to close.
In place of this, we have pips and crowns. It’s all beginning to take on the appearance of a magician’s sleight of hand: “Don’t worry about the lack of policy or new equipment, look over here at all these shiny new pips and crowns. Boy, talk about a commitment to our boys and gals in uniform!”
Thus, the Royal Canadian Navy has its old name back, and its officers are beginning to look a bit more British than American – but it has no new replenishment ships. Years after these vital ships were to have been replaced, and after one false start, the project remains stuck at the design stage. On top of that, the project has been woefully underfunded.
The government will cry poverty, of course. But this doesn’t obscure the fact that they have so misspent so much as to be largely to blame for the mess. But surely the Conservatives can’t be blamed for the global financial crisis, you say? Fair enough, but the historic surplus they inherited had been largely frittered away on such things as boutique tax cuts before the crisis hit. They had to go so heavily back into debt when stimulus spending was required, and now appear to be relying on pips and crowns to distract from their inability to fulfill their defence promises.
So what’s next? Well, if the government is running true to form, my bet is a resurrection of the old air force (sorry, RCAF) ranks. Instead of having majors, lieutenant-colonels, colonels and brigadier-generals, the RCAF will soon have squadron leaders, wing commanders, group captains and air commodores marching about.
They had better march aggressively. The way things are going, they won’t have any actual airplanes to fly once the F-18s have reached their “best before” date.
Peter Jones is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.