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Opinion Deal of the century: Trudeau’s defence review will reverberate for decades

George Petrolekas served with the military in Bosnia, Afghanistan and NATO and was an adviser to senior NATO commanders and is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Dave Perry is the senior defence analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Together, they published an open letter to the Minister of National Defence.

There has not been a full, cohesive and transparent defence review in Canada since the 1994 Defence White Paper. The Liberal government has promised to deliver one by the end of the year.

Given the decades required to develop and then use military capabilities, no other government review will be as consequential or long-lasting, given the size and breadth of National Defence. If history is any guide, equipment choices alone will affect defence until the turn of the next century. Given how many future governments the review affects, this exercise must become a national effort.

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The Trudeau government inherited a military funded at $19.1-billion a year or 1 per cent of GDP – far below NATO's target of 2 per cent of GDP – for 68,000 regular troops and 27,000 reservists.

The previous government's defence strategy had many initiatives to commend it, but its proposed investments outstripped the supply of available funding by tens of billions of dollars. At its most basic level, defence strategy must be in alignment with the budget. Reducing the size of the Canadian Forces to liberate funds for capital spending should be on the table, but should also be examined as part of a broader review of the appropriate size of the entire defence apparatus, including civil servants and contractors.

As a starting point, the government must articulate in greater detail Canada's role in the world and how defence fits into that effort. The world is increasingly shifting toward multipolarity, with less American engagement. Add in Russia's new assertiveness, China's rising-power status and Middle East instability, and our traditional thinking on global security is now being challenged. Natural disasters, narco-violence, population displacements from conflict, resource scarcity and economic disparity create international human security and humanitarian issues that are no less demanding or complex.

In truth, there are more threats in the world than we could ever afford to address with our military and diplomatic or aid initiatives. For Canada, defining that which we must do independently and what we can only achieve with allies will, in part, dictate the capabilities we require.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan must consult widely outside the department to seek innovative solutions. Visiting our allies also affords an opportunity to see how they build ships, procure equipment, develop strategy and manage crises. Briefings cannot supplant first-hand observations.

In the short term however, the reality is the government will be constrained by legacy decisions. Many procurements are already contracted, or soon will be. Major adjustments to ongoing procurement plans will be difficult without imposing new delays. Any palpable improvement to military capability will only be realized if a sclerotic procurement process is transformed. Ad-hoc secretariats, layers of review boards and byzantine financial gateways provide political cover instead of effective procurement.

The government must also clarify its vision on industrial policy and how it intersects with defence spending. For example, the national shipbuilding strategy is also an industrial development and jobs creation strategy, in addition to a defence procurement. If there are premiums to be paid to fund the former, does that mean we will have less defence, or will the government ensure defence requirements remain top of mind.

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Beyond procurement, rampant inefficiencies in administration need review. The deputy minister, who oversees billions of dollars in capital programs, also signs off on budgets authorizing subordinates to serve coffee, juice and muffins at a conference. The optics of accountability have overtaken the efficiency of management.

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