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The Canada First Defence Strategy

by Martin Shadwick

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The Harper government’s much anticipated Canada First Defence Strategy was officially rolled out – ‘rushed’ out, in the judgment of such pundits as Don Martin of the National Post – on 12 May 2008. Speaking in Halifax, the Prime Minister stressed the implications for the Canadian Forces of the post-Cold War “decade of darkness,” observing that “...even as new conflicts erupted in Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere, our military was starved and neglected. They kept getting new responsibility, but not the tools to keep them going. Equipment was rusting out, manpower was declining, morale was sinking. We did almost nothing to assert our sovereignty in our north, in our Arctic. We had to hitch rides on American aircraft to deliver troops for disaster relief within our own country. Our capacity for peacekeeping, delivering humanitarian assistance and taking up arms when necessary began to noticeably diminish.”

“If a country wants to be taken seriously in the world,” asserted the Prime Minister, “it must have the capacity to act.” To that end, the Canada First Defence Strategy – “...our government’s comprehensive long-term plan to ensure the Canadian Forces have the people, equipment and support they need to do what we ask them to do” – would “...strengthen our sovereignty and security at home and bolster our ability to defend our values and interests abroad.” The three broad priorities of the Canada First Defence Strategy would be the defence of Canada and the protection of Canadians at home, meeting Canada’s responsibilities for continental security, and being a “...robust and reliable contributor to global security and humanitarian interventions.”

The Canada First strategy, noted Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay, embraced “...long-term stable predictable defence funding,” improvements in infrastructure and readiness, additional military personnel (for an end-state of 70,000 regulars and 30,000 reservists), and the continued recapitalization of the Canadian Forces. In addition to capital projects already completed, under contract, or projected, (i.e., four C-17A Globemasters, 17 C-130J Hercules, 16 CH-47F Chinooks [and, as a short-term measure, six CH-47D Chinooks], 100 Leopard 2 main battle tanks, assorted trucks, six to eight Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships, three Joint Support Ships, and modernization of the Halifax-class frigates), the procurement agenda would now include 15 “...new surface combat ships to replace our aging fleet of destroyers and frigates,” 10 to 12 new maritime patrol aircraft to replace the Aurora, 17 new fixed-wing search and rescue (SAR) aircraft (an increase of two from the figure cited in the 2008-2009 Report on Plans and Priorities, and arguably sufficient to permit – at long last – a permanent SAR presence in the Arctic), 65 next-generation fighter aircraft to replace the CF-18, and a new family of land combat vehicles and systems.

Five brief ‘backgrounders,’ of varying comprehensiveness and utility, supplemented the Harper and MacKay speeches. Essentially an overview, the first explored the four pillars upon which military capabilities are built (i.e., personnel, infrastructure, readiness, and equipment), the relationship between Canada First and Arctic sovereignty, and the “...considerable economic benefits for Canadian industry” of the long-term funding framework. The remaining backgrounders were devoted to: sovereignty and security in the Arctic; readiness, infrastructure (including a pledge to “...replace or refurbish approximately 25 per cent of DND infrastructure holdings within 10 years, with approximately 50 per cent being replaced or refurbished over 20 years”), personnel, and equipment; the long-term funding formula for the Canada First Defence Strategy; and equipment acquisitions since the election of the Harper government in 2006.

Media and other reaction to the Canada First Defence Strategy was decidedly tepid, not because of fundamental disagreements with the basic tenets of the strategy, but because of the paucity of information and the absence of a formal document – thereby echoing some of the complaints surrounding the Trudeau government’s pivotal defence policy pronouncements of 1969 and 1975 – and the perceived extent to which earlier Harper-era defence statements and announcements had been ‘repackaged’ or ‘regurgitated’ in the May 2008 speeches, backgrounders, and briefings. Don Martin, for example, gave the Conservatives credit for confirming “...a constant direction forward by pledging annual money boosts, a major manpower increase and orderly equipment upgrades,” but lambasted the government for providing a “...20-year glimpse into the Canadian military’s future,” but no real strategy. He found it “...clearly presumptuous to envision Canada’s place in the world two decades hence without providing any clear emphasis or directional preference for domestic, continental or international challenges,” adding that the “...real purpose of the strategy was to arm the Prime Minister with military plans for election campaign battle.”

A Toronto Star editorial opined that “Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Canada First Defence Strategy turns out to be more of a motor pool maintenance schedule than a bold new vision for the military in the 21st century.” In its view, the strategy reflected “money without a vision,” although, to be fair, the editorial might have acknowledged the sea change from the usual Canadian defence dilemma of ‘vision without the money.’ On a more positive note, the Winnipeg Free Press welcomed “...the government’s brief that Canada has a moral obligation to participate in military expeditions to relieve suffering and enhance global security.”

Particularly useful analysis was offered by Dave Perry of Canadian Naval Review. While acknowledging the strong dose of déjà vu in the May speeches and backgrounders – such as the restating of previous initiatives on sovereignty and security in the Arctic, defence procurement (i.e., the C-17As, Leopard 2s, and the Joint Support Ships), and the reduced expansion of military manpower – he correctly noted that the MacKay ‘shopping list’ of 15 surface combatants (thereby permitting, if realized, the one-for-one replacement of existing destroyers and frigates), maritime patrol, fighter, and fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft, and land combat vehicles and systems was indeed new. More telling were his comments that “...the Tories have arguably put forth a largely moderate agenda which appears more focused on pragmatism and re-election than advancing any major Conservative agenda,” and that the “...defence strategy is...competent, long term planning, devoid of any exciting new promises that might attract criticism for outlandish spending plans and un-needed equipment.”

At the time of the prime ministerial and ministerial speeches in Halifax, journalists were left with the very clear understanding that a public domain document detailing the ‘new’ strategy was not in the offing. It was therefore a matter of some surprise when a 21-page version of the Canada First Defence Strategy quietly surfaced on the Department of National Defence website over the evening of Thursday 19 June 2008. The unorthodox timing promptly generated speculation about a deliberate attempt to avoid media and other attention – see, for example, the Macleans’ blog of Paul Wells – since, as Brian MacDonald, Senior Defence Analyst of the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA), has noted, its appearance “...followed the unveiling of the Liberal Party’s ‘Green Shift’ carbon tax policy earlier in the day and immediately preceded the House rising for its summer break on Friday...” The Admiralty, of course, had perfected this little controversy-avoidance stratagem long before the Internet age.

The 21-page paper reaffirmed the home defence, continental defence, and international security priorities of the Halifax speeches, and added six “core missions.” To that end, the Canadian Forces would “have the capacity” to: (a) conduct “...daily domestic and continental operations,” including in the Arctic and through NORAD: (b) support “...a major international event in Canada, such as the 2010 Olympics” (admittedly important, but is this genuinely a “core” mission?); (c) respond to a “major” terrorist attack; (d) “support” civilian authorities during a crisis in Canada, such as a natural disaster; (e) “lead and/or conduct a major international operation” for an “extended period of time”; and (f) deploy forces in response to crises elsewhere in the world “for shorter periods.” The document called for a “...fully integrated, flexible, multi-role and combat-capable military” (‘niche,’ at least for now, is clearly passé), stressed the need to enhance the aforementioned “four pillars,” and quite correctly noted the importance of a “whole-of-government” approach to meeting security requirements, both domestically and internationally. Defence industrial issues received noteworthy attention, with Ottawa pledging that it would “...continue to improve the way it procures new equipment, fostering greater transparency and engaging industry earlier in the process.” All very well, but the industry would no doubt have preferred reassurances on the degree to which it is being asked to assume financial, project management, and technical risk.

The Achilles’ heel of the document, however, is the paucity of detail and analysis. Its equipment section, for example, does little more than re-state the projected ‘shopping list’ of new surface combatants, fighter aircraft, “maritime patrol aircraft” (the reversion to that old term is disconcerting and potentially ominous), fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft, and land combat vehicles and systems. Perfectly valid rationales can be advanced for each of these systems, but they are not to be found in the pages of the June document. The plan for 15 major new surface combatants appears particularly vulnerable, partly because of its high cost and exceptionally long lead times – thereby placing it at the extended mercy of multiple future governments – but also because some will argue that such a pronounced emphasis upon frigate/destroyer-type vessels will leave the navy short, or devoid of, other, potentially more relevant capabilities and vessels.

Similarly truncated are its assessments of the current and future strategic environment, military technological and doctrinal trends, force structure, personnel issues, and last but certainly not least, the place of defence and the Canadian Forces in broader Canadian foreign and international security policy. Some of these themes are, of course, explored in other documents – the 2008-2009 Report on Plans and Priorities, for example, provides some useful insights on the impact of changing demographics on military recruiting – but they were nevertheless deserving of enhanced visibility in the June document. A selection of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), also posted on-line in June, provided a few useful details, but too often fell back on the ubiquitous “...much work remains to be done to continue implementing the Canada First Defence Strategy, and further details regarding key projects will be forthcoming.” Even some comparatively innocuous projects, such as the long-mooted new northern utility aircraft, received such treatment.

On the other hand, as Brian MacDonald has noted in a thorough and insightful Commentary (No. 4-2008) for the Conference of Defence Associations, the Canada First Defence Strategy “...provides an interesting and helpful innovation in the inclusion in it of a twenty-year ‘new long-term funding framework’ for the [Department of National Defence], a feature which was not characteristic of previous White Papers and Policy Statements.” The distinguishing features of the long-term funding framework, elements of which pre-dated the June document, included: (a) the “...promise of an annual ‘Real Growth’ in the defence budget of 0.6 [per cent] from a [FY2008-09] baseline of ‘approximately $18 billion’”; (b) the “...promise that any operational deployments, such as that to Afghanistan, will be funded separately from the baseline defence budget”; and (c) “...the impact on the capital budget of the adoption of Accrual Accounting and Budgeting.”

The MacDonald study expresses a number of “caveats and cautions” about the new funding framework – including the impact of future inflation rates, the “...question of whether the calculation of incremental cost fully captures the reduced service life of vehicles and equipment that have been subjected to the high usage and extreme environment of Afghanistan,” the ‘pluses and minuses’ of Accrual Accounting, and the ramifications of a flawed procurement system – but concludes that the new political attitudes and approaches to the funding of defence in Canada (for which, he notes, both the Conservatives and the Liberals can claim credit) – at least provide “...hope that we have made the initial steps in avoiding the ‘Canada Without Armed Forces’ crisis that we had previously warned against.”

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


Photo by David Langlois

The Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy.

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