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‘Canada First’ and Déjà Vu?

by Martin Shadwick

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In the federal election campaign of 2004 – which now, curiously, seems a lifetime ago – the Conservative defence plank included an increase in the strength of the Regular Force to at least 80,000 personnel, as well as the acquisition of a “modest number” of pre-owned main battle tanks, new tactical and strategic airlifters, and new maritime helicopters. It also envisaged ongoing upgrades of the CF-18 Hornet and the acquisition of “at least two hybrid carriers” for helicopter support and strategic lift.

The Conservative defence package was not particularly lavish, but it did provide the Liberals – the latter rendered increasingly nervous by the sponsorship scandal – with useful fodder for negative advertising. In short order, the Conservatives were being pilloried for their “massive military build-up,” their support for “aircraft carriers,” and their supposed choice of defence over other national priorities. The defence strategy proffered by the Conservatives, in and of itself, did not cost them the 2004 election. Nevertheless, the ‘spin’ placed upon that strategy by their political opponents and the failure of the Conservatives to parry those attacks effectively – when combined with the perceived vulnerability of the Conservatives on the social policy front – did materially assist their political foes.

That may, in part, explain the intriguingly different approach to national defence adopted by the Conservatives in the federal election of 2006. Rolled out incrementally and regionally – an astute move – during late 2005 and early 2006, the new Conservative defence strategy included an increase in Regular Force strength to at least 75,000 personnel, as well as a new airborne battalion and three “rapid reaction battalions,” and the creation of new “territorial defence battalions” in or near major urban areas. Also envisaged were new tactical and strategic airlifters, new fixed-wing search and rescue (SAR) aircraft, continued upgrading of the CF-18 Hornet and CP-140 Aurora fleets, a doubling of the size and capacity of the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), a “new replenishment ship [and] a new transport ship for the Pacific fleet,” the “improving and enlarging” – without troublesome specifics – of the Atlantic fleet, and the launching of a frigate/destroyer replacement program. The Conservative agenda for the Arctic included “three new armed naval heavy icebreakers,” a military-civilian deep-water docking facility, a new underwater sensor system, a new army training centre, the stationing of both SAR and utility transport aircraft in Yellowknife, enhanced air surveillance provided by two new unmanned aerial vehicle squadrons, and the bolstering of the Canadian Rangers by up to 500 additional personnel.

Substantially more detailed and ambitious than its 2004 forebear, the new plan should, in theory, have provided useful opportunities for the other political parties – particularly when some of its components, such as the “armed naval heavy icebreakers” and the “territorial defence battalions,” were ill conceived. The Liberals certainly tried to attack the territorial defence battalions, but only managed to wound themselves with a ludicrous, if officially unused, ‘troops in the streets’ television commercial seemingly designed to foster public fears of some sort of police state.

At root, however, the Conservatives’ ‘Canada First’ defence strategy was politically difficult to attack because its components – indeed, its very name suggested a strong focus upon home defence and the protection of Canadian sovereignty, and the downplaying, at least implicitly, of expeditionary operations outside Canada. Both home defence and sovereignty protection were popular with Canadians, and both also helped to distance the Conservatives from criticism that they were ‘too cozy’ with Washington. Association with the ‘Canada First’ defence strategy, and the label, also played a later role in helping to forestall or blunt criticism of the Harper government’s post-election procurement and other defence initiatives. These actions have included six-to-eight Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships, assorted Arctic training and harbour facilities, the Halifax-class Modernization/Frigate Life Extension program, a troika of multi-role Joint Support Ships, new tactical and strategic airlifters (with deliveries of the latter, the much needed CC-177 Globemaster III, already well underway), heavy-lift helicopters, main battle tanks (i.e., the Leopard 2), medium-sized logistics trucks, and sundry other vehicles. When one recalls the deluge dumped upon the Mulroney and Campbell governments for a single procurement program (i.e., the EH 101 helicopter), the decidedly muted political, public, and media response to Ottawa’s recent defence initiatives has been remarkable – even if one allows for the influence of the 9/11 attacks upon Canadian attitudes.

The ‘Canada First’ moniker does carry some risks, however, in part, because its perceived focus upon home defence and the protection of Canadian sovereignty could be seen, at least in some quarters, to represent a disconnect with the heavy expeditionary focus evident in the current commitment to Afghanistan. Nor has it gone unnoticed that the bulk of the post-2006 election defence procurement has been oriented more to expeditionary (and specifically Afghanistan) commitments than to home defence and sovereignty protection commitments.

It fairness, it should be noted that many of the recent procurement initiatives – tactical and strategic airlift come readily to mind – are genuinely multi-role and can be responsive to both home defence/sovereignty protection and expeditionary requirements (and, for that matter, to military, quasi-military, and non-military requirements). Acquisitions or projected acquisitions, with an obvious tilt to domestic (and, on occasion, continental) and expeditionary requirements, such as the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship and the Leopard 2 main battle tank, are more the exception than the rule. Relevant in this regard is the observation on the DND website that ‘Canada First’ entails a “commitment to strengthen Canada’s multi-role, combat-capable defence force.” Indeed, even the initial ‘Canada First’ statements issued in late 2005 and early 2006 noted, albeit quietly, that one could not have just a home defence/sovereignty protection military establishment: “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 that Canada must be able to fulfil United Nations and NATO commitments, often on multiple continents, often simultaneously.”

Nevertheless, there are risks associated with the ‘Canada First’ mantra – risks heightened by the continuing absence of a holistic and comprehensive government policy document on defence, and by apparent shortfalls in the human and fiscal resources available, or likely to be available, for national defence. If these are not addressed, some of the disquieting disconnects and painful resource allocation problems associated with defence policy during the Trudeau years could be repeated. Déjà vu, indeed.

Long-time observers of Canadian defence policy will recall that, in 1969, the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau unveiled a list of defence priorities that included: (a) “the surveillance of our own territory and coastlines, that is, the protection of our sovereignty”; (b) the defence of North America in cooperation with U.S. forces; (c) the “fulfilment of such NATO commitments as may be agreed upon”; and (d) the “performance of such international peacekeeping roles as we may from time to time assume.” One observer, writing in Survival, lamented Ottawa’s failure to clarify “the extent to which the first priority must be satisfied before attempts are made to meet the requirements of lower-priority tasks.” This led to widely varying interpretations of the priority list, and launched a seemingly unending debate over the adequacy (or inadequacy) of the military’s sovereignty protection capabilities. The potential for a contemporary replay of this debate, which became increasingly sterile during the Trudeau era, is quite real.

Another problem that became apparent during the Trudeau era was a marked reluctance to modify the four defence priorities officially. “Sovereignty protection,” once enshrined as the nominal first priority, could not be set aside easily. This had unfortunate consequences. When, in 1975, a variety of geo-strategic, economic, and other factors belatedly restored the prominence of NATO in Canadian defence planning, the associated Defence Structure Review attempted to graft a more NATO-oriented defence posture onto a priority list originally formulated as part of a less NATO-oriented defence posture. Defence minister Barney Danson, and others, attempted to rectify this anomaly by pressing for a new white paper, but the Trudeau government never did produce a successor to 1971’s Defence in the 70s. In the absence of a new white paper, or even a reasonable facsimile, ministers and senior DND officials often resorted to convoluted verbal gymnastics to explain how the old 1969-1971 priorities could support a decidedly NATO-centric defence posture.

One could argue that the disconnect between early Trudeauvian defence semantics and later Trudeauvian defence policy (and defence procurement) did not really matter. After all, the NATO-oriented Defence Structure Review of 1975 did bequeath a plethora of vital procurement programs, including the CF-18 Hornet tactical fighter and the CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft, the Leopard 1 main battle tank, and the Halifax- class patrol frigate. Perhaps, but the disconnect remained unworthy and intellectually suspect. That experience need not, and should not, be repeated. The Harper government has made great strides in pursuing the recapitalization and transformation of the Canadian Forces, but the process will not be complete until it produces a comprehensive and holistic policy document to tie together the complementary streams – be they home defence/sovereignty protection, continental or expeditionary – of Canadian defence policy.

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

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