In considering its Speech from the Throne, the government must absolutely announce a process for crafting a new Defence White Paper. At a minimum, a recalibration of its 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy should commence, a strategy which is now outdated given fiscal pressures on the government and the Canadian Forces. Not to do so risks entering the Canadian military into a period of turbulence and uncertainty not seen for decades – maybe not darkness, but certainly twilight.
The Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence together comprise the largest discretionary portion of the government’s budget. The two entities consist of 68,000 regular force uniformed personnel and some 25,000 defence civil servants with a total budget of $18 billion. But beyond simple budget dollars, the vision that the government articulates for its Armed Forces has everything to do with what the Canadian Forces can do on its behalf, how and with what it equips itself and how ready for action it is.
In a recent interview, former Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier articulated the issue quite well: manpower comprises over 50 per cent of the defence budget, some 17 per cent is dedicated to equipment purchases and most of the remainder to ensuring that ships sail, airplanes fly and soldiers train. Given current manpower levels and the commitments to purchase new ships, airplanes and army vehicles, there is not enough funding to do all those things and maintain readiness. Something will have to give.
For the past three years, in Libya, in Mali, and now on Syria, the refrain often heard is “no boots on the ground.” That would seem to indicate that large land forces (the Army) will not often be used in the near future. If our security interests follow trade, then Canada’s emerging trade with the Asia Pacific region, already more significant than any region other than the United States, imply that the foreseeable future will require greater seaborne presence; in all likelihood, the Navy then becomes the glue that binds the other services, especially if an amphibious capability is considered. However, since the Libyan campaign, most NATO contingency planning has largely been based on aerial interventions.
As recent events in Nairobi made clear, terrorism and counter-terrorism are not dead, and Somalia and Mali indicate a continuing role for counterinsurgency, recent difficulties in Afghanistan notwithstanding. Finally, considerations with respect to North Korea, Iran, the continuing interception of narcotics in the Caribbean, and tensions in the South China Sea require forethought in how the government views potential future conflict and Canada’s potential roles.
Which of these scenarios is given strategic priority shapes the composition of and balance between Canada’s Special, Land, Maritime and Air Forces – and in turn the type of equipment they acquire. Do we need tanks and close combat vehicles or are lighter, more rapidly deployable land forces desired? Do we need aircraft to penetrate hostile air defences, or will our priority be domestic air sovereignty? Do our interests demand a globally capable navy or something else? All these considerations must be balanced by the nation’s fiscal wherewithal.
And that does not even take into account how Canada would wish to act during cataclysmic events such as earthquakes, tsunamis or hurricanes in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the world, as an extension of our foreign and international aid policies, which imply a somewhat different range of capability. Similarly the government’s expectation that the Forces should respond to emerging threats such as cyber-warfare have yet to be articulated in a national strategy.
Beyond the international landscape, the role of the CF in domestic responsibilities needs to be more clearly specified. To date, the CF has served as the backbone of Search and Rescue and in the protection of Canadian sovereignty, but also as the tool of ultimate response when Canadians are threatened at home. Within a domestic context, however, these roles barely skim the surface of what is possible. For example, if our most important trading relationship is with the United States, does the CF have a role to play with other government departments holistically, in creating a North American security perimeter, a maritime and land-based extension of NORAD whose aim would be to eliminate security risks to both Canada and the United States and in turn lead to a more open border, vital for our citizens and trade?
Without strategic direction, efforts like the recently announced defence renewal seeking to find $1-billion in efficiencies are valuable but lacking strategic context. One hopes that the lack of illumination is not a precursor to another period of darkness.
George Petrolekas is a board member of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and was an advisor to two Chiefs of the Defence Staff. Dave Perry is a senior analyst with the CDA Institute, and is a columnist with the Canadian Naval Review.