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Defence and the Conservatives

by Martin Shadwick

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Defence policy has not, by and large, been the forte of post- Second World War Canadian governments. If one omits the brief post-World War II component of Mackenzie King’s lengthy prime ministerial tenure – and the brief periods in office of Joe Clark, John Turner and Kim Campbell – one is left to ponder the defence policy records of the governments headed by Louis St. Laurent (1948-1957), John Diefenbaker (1957-1963), Lester Pearson (1963-1968), Pierre Trudeau (1968-1979, 1980-1984), Brian Mulroney (1984-1993), Jean Chrétien (1993-2003) and Paul Martin (2003-2006).

Arguably the best of the lot – indeed, the accomplished manager of the much-revered (some would posit over-hyped) ‘golden era’ of Canadian foreign and defence policy – was the Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent. To a degree rarely seen in Canada, the St. Laurent government matched ambitious defence policy rhetoric with impressive fiscal, human and materiel resources. Although the architect of some sensible foreign policy initiatives, the subsequent Progressive Conservative government of John Diefenbaker muddled and procrastinated its way through the Canadian defence policy landscape and damaged the Canada-U.S. security relationship. The returning Liberals, under Lester Pearson, restored a measure of stability to defence policy, if not defence organization, but were preoccupied with domestic issues and day-to-day political survival in back-to-back minority governments. Pearson’s 1964 white paper on defence offered some intriguing initiatives, but its vital re-equipment agenda did not survive the arrival of Pierre Trudeau. The new prime minister’s early declarations on defence policy offered too benign an assessment of East-West relations, thereby helping to facilitate a near-ruinous meltdown of Canada’s military capabilities. A more realistic defence policy emerged in 1975, arguably spurred as much by trade and diplomatic calculations as by a sober reappraisal of the changing geo-strategic environment, but nevertheless prompting a substantial increase in defence spending.

Critics, such as Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney, charged that the increase was insufficient to bridge the ‘commitment-capability gap’ and pledged to “honour the commitment” upon his election in 1984. A number of measures, such as additional personnel for the mechanized brigade in Germany and the signing of the North American Air Defence Modernization accord with the United States, quickly followed. His 1987 white paper proposed a host of additional measures, including the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, but it was eviscerated by the budget of April 1989 and then rendered a historical curiosity by the sudden end of the Cold War.

The subsequent Liberal government of Jean Chrétien further reduced defence spending and the size of the Canadian Forces, but also pledged, in its 1994 white paper, to maintain a “multi-purpose, combat-capable” defence establishment. The 1994 white paper was, in many respects, a sensible and pragmatic document, but it remained chronically underfunded. Chrétien’s successor and former finance minister, Paul Martin, unveiled an unusually holistic International Policy Statement on diplomacy, defence, development and commerce in early 2005. The defence component of the policy quartet pledged to provide “greater protection for Canadians at home, while allowing Canada to play an enhanced role” in the post-9/11 world, but sceptics pointed out that even supposedly fast-tracked procurement programs were moving with tortoise-like speed.

This tour d’horizon does not suggest 60 years of defence policy wasteland – well, not a total wasteland. But it does point to a plethora of ‘gaps’ between commitments and capabilities, as well as between rhetoric and resources, to mind-numbing procrastination and troubling politicization, to a host of false starts, and, perhaps most importantly, to a lack of sustained political attention to, and interest in, questions of defence and international security policy. Can Stephen Harper’s government do better?

Rolled out incrementally, and regionally, during late 2005 and early 2006, the Conservative’s ‘Canada First’ defence strategy envisaged a major increase in regular force personnel (to at least 75,000), an additional 10,000 reservists, and a substantial boost in defence spending. Under their plan, defence spending would amount to “$5.3 billion above the currently planned levels over the next five years, reaching $1.8 billion above current [Liberal] projections in 2010-2011.”

Conservative pledges included a new airborne battalion (650 regular force personnel) at Trenton, three new “rapid reaction” battalions (each with 650 regulars) at Comox (thereby restoring a regular army presence in British Columbia), Bagotville and Goose Bay, and the creation of new “territorial defence battalions”, each with 100 regulars and at least 400 reservists, in or near major urban areas. Other measures included the acquisition of “at least three strategic lift aircraft”, continued replacement of the Hercules and fixed-wing search and rescue fleets, continued upgrading of the CF-18 and Aurora fleets, “doubling the size and capacity of the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART)”, a “new replenishment ship [and] a new transport ship” for the Pacific fleet, “improving and enlarging the Atlantic fleet”, the initiation of a frigate/destroyer replacement program, and additional personnel to bring existing army, navy and air force units up to full strength.

Arguing that Canada’s sovereignty protection capacity in the Arctic was “threadbare”, the Conservatives envisaged the stationing of “three new armed naval heavy icebreakers in the area of Iqaluit” (“armed” was not defined, but presumably no one is suggesting transferring the weapons suite from the first of the decommissioned Iroquois-class destroyers to create the world’s first area air defence icebreaker), the construction of a military-civilian deep-water docking facility to accommodate them, the creation of a new underwater sensor system, the building of a new army training centre in the area of Cambridge Bay (shades of Mulroney’s abortive Arctic Station Project), the stationing of both search and rescue and utility transport aircraft in Yellowknife, providing eastern and western Arctic air surveillance through new unmanned aerial vehicle squadrons in Goose Bay and Comox, and the bolstering of the Canadian Rangers with up to 500 additional personnel.

The ‘Canada First’ defence plan is fascinating at both the micro and macro levels. Although the specifics will undoubtedly prove problematic, comparatively few Canadians would dispute the need for some additional funding and personnel or take umbrage at such initiatives as a modest Arctic training centre, an expansion of the DART, or improvements in airlift. However, if the Conservatives have the C-17 in mind, they had better keep a wary eye on the pending closure, even with the Australian order, of the C-17 production line. Other proposals, such as the regular/reserve territorial defence battalions, are more doubtful. As Jack Granatstein notes in a Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century commentary, “this foolish idea”, if implemented, would “fritter away scarce trained regulars in penny packets. Far better to build up existing reserve units and give them the resources to act in a crisis in their communities.” On the other hand, the Conservatives did benefit politically when their plan for territorial defence battalions prompted the Liberals to produce the ludicrous, if officially unused, ‘troops in the streets’ television commercial. The plan to station new airborne or rapid reaction battalions at four airbases faces obstacles as well.

The Conservatives’ attention to the Arctic is most welcome, but, given competing naval priorities, the aging of the coast guard’s icebreaker fleet, and a host of doctrinal and bureaucratic issues, the proposal for three “armed naval heavy icebreakers” will undoubtedly prove problematic. Two heavy icebreakers for the coast guard, with a naval communications suite, compatibility with the forthcoming CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopter, and limited armament (presumably naval-manned, given long-standing coast guard antipathy to armament), could constitute an acceptable compromise. It would still be prudent, however, to provide some all-naval presence in the Arctic, perhaps in the form of an ice-capable seabed operations vessel.

At the macro level, it is intriguing that the ‘Canada First’ defence strategy implicitly downplayed expeditionary operations outside Canada. This was politically astute, in that most Canadians support enhanced homeland security and sovereignty protection capabilities, and because such an emphasis – including the tough line on Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic taken by Stephen Harper shortly after the election – helps to distance the Conservatives from criticism that they are ‘too cozy’ with Washington. Somewhat paradoxically, the heightened attention to homeland defence and sovereignty protection could also reassure the United States about Canada’s commitment to enhanced continental security in the post-9/11 environment.

It is conceivable that the heavy domestic content of the ‘Canada First’ strategy could generate tension – both fiscal and otherwise – between the homeland/continental and expeditionary mandates of the Canadian Forces, but it is also apparent that many of the projected capabilities are multi-purpose. Airlifters than can move relief supplies to Kamloops can also move armoured vehicles to Kabul. It is useful to note, as well, the statement in the ‘Canada First’ documents that “the primary objective of the federal government is to defend our nation’s sovereignty, and the Canadian Forces are central to this national objective. Sovereignty means Canada must be able to fulfill national responsibilities, to provide effective emergency response and to protect our vast territory. At the same time, sovereignty means Canada must be able to fulfill United Nations and NATO commitments, often on multiple continents, often simultaneously.” Similar themes appeared in defence minister Gordon O’Connor’s 23 February 2006 address to the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. That said, “three armed naval heavy icebreakers” could pay for quite a few armoured vehicles.

On balance, the Conservative defence strategy includes some new and intriguing elements, but is also reminds one of earlier eras in Canadian defence policy. These include the homeland defence and sovereignty protection orientation of early Trudeau defence policy, the earnest attempt by the Mulroney government to bridge the commitment-capability gap, and the dual homeland/ continental and expeditionary focus of Martin’s International Policy Statement. Unfortunately for the Canadian Forces, it is also noteworthy that defence was not included in the five key priorities of the Harper government (i.e., accountability, anti-crime measures, tax relief, health care and child support), that the Harper government is very much a minority government, and that defence – however deserving – will still have to compete with numerous other claims upon the public purse.

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Martin Shadwick teaches Canadian defence policy at York University. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quartely.