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Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan talks with reporters before a morning session at a cabinet retreat at the Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, N.B. on Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan talks with reporters before a morning session at a cabinet retreat at the Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, N.B. on Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)


Liberals urged to boldly revamp defence policy Add to ...

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is being urged to significantly shrink plans for the next generation of military hardware in order to meet budget constraints and to consider cutting the size of the Armed Forces to free up more money for capital acquisitions.

An open letter from two leading defence analysts at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute urges Mr. Sajjan to try to build a national consensus as the Forces plan for new ships and planes that will affect this country’s military capabilities for as long as 70 years into the future.

Retired colonel George Petrolekas, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and senior analyst David Perry are offering the defence minister tips to achieve the “leaner, more agile, better-equipped military” the Trudeau government promised in its December Speech from the Throne.

They say the Canada First Defence Strategy mapped out by the former Conservative government is hopelessly underfunded. The annual defence budget now exceeds $20-billion per year and automatic yearly increases already programmed into the fiscal framework will shortly hit 3 per cent. But even this budget track, backed by all three major parties, is not enough.

“Proposed investments dictated by the existing strategy, crafted in 2008, outstrip the supply of available funding by tens of billions of dollars,” they write.

“As you update the strategy to account for new priorities and potential threats, the funding pressures are likely to intensify.”

They warned Mr. Sajjan not to overpromise like the previous government. “Avoid that trap. As a government you will be criticized for being unable to deliver your promises, and your armed forces will feel as if they have been misled.”

The analysts urge the minister to rebuild the public affairs team at the Department of National Defence to the level it reached during the Afghanistan war so that the ministry can properly engage Canadians to help build a national consensus on what the military should look like in an era where American dominance is waning.

“Greater consensus can help make sense of global complexities. … Russia is no longer the partner it recently was, and its new assertiveness gives us reason to reassess how we defend North America. China’s economic and military power continues to grow,” they say.

“In North Africa and the Middle East the recent promise of an Arab Spring has morphed into a patchwork of regional instability led in principle by the Islamic State and its franchises using terrorism locally and abroad from a territorial base in failed states.”

Canada needs to improve its sclerotic military purchasing system, the Canadian Global Affairs Institute authors say – and could learn from its allies as it restructures its defence capability.

“Think outside the box and consult widely and often outside the department. Your government has indicated it welcomes the best advice available, and the greatest innovations will come from without, not within. Many of our allies have used exactly this type of outside perspective on their defence reviews,” they write.

The way forward could include a smaller military. “You also inherited a military funded for 68,000 regular troops and 27,000 reservists. Shrinking the military to liberate funds for capital spending should be investigated, so long as key personnel skills are retained and any capability reductions carefully considered.”

The biggest problem ahead is the massive shipbuilding effort to renew the Royal Canadian Navy.

“The most significant, complex and pressing example you face is with shipbuilding – which is not simply a defence procurement but also a matter of industrial policy, employment and regional benefits,” Mr. Petrolekas and Mr. Perry write.

“Critical decisions must be made in the next year on projects which will recapitalize the navy’s combat fleets. You must specify how many and what type of ships will be built, who will design them and integrate their combat systems.”

The next generation of fighter jets – an issue which bedevilled the former Conservative government – is another huge decision for the Liberals who have promised to keep the controversial F-35 fighter-bomber out of contention.

Some projects are too far along to significantly recast. “Many procurements are already in contract, like the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship, or soon will be, like the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft. Marginal changes are possible, but as you discovered with the interim naval oiler project, whole scale adjustments in the short term are difficult unless you are willing to accept considerable delays.”

And finally, the authors plead for Mr. Sajjan to give senior Defence officials more manoeuvrability, arguing they are constrained by petty rules that need to be changed.

“Generals once entrusted to lead soldiers in Afghan combat now need ministerial approval to offer a visiting counterpart a glass of wine. The deputy minister, accountable for $19-billion a year in spending and well over $100-billion in defence investments, must authorize the juice and muffins if his subordinates hold a conference.”

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