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Commentary

Leopard 2 tank crew

DND photo IS2008-9184.

A Canadian Leopard 2 tank crew in Afghanistan.

Darkness Revisited?

by Martin Shadwick

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There is clearly no good time for a global economic downturn – not to mention a global economic meltdown – but the current economic difficulties have emerged at a particularly inopportune moment for Canada’s hard-pressed armed forces. Still very heavily committed in Afghanistan – and with the damage inflicted by the Chrétien-era ‘decade of darkness,’ and, to be fair, by some decisions late in the Mulroney period, far from repaired, with the Harper government’s Canada First Defence Strategy understandably yet to bear substantial fruit, apart, of course, from notable exceptions such as the C-177 Globemaster III strategic airlifter and the Leopard 2 main battle tank, and with problems on such Martin-initiated capital projects as the Joint Support Ship and the Cyclone multi-role maritime helicopter still unresolved – the Canadian Forces must now operate in an even more stressed fiscal environment. Although the Harper government, to its credit, vowed in the 19 November 2008 Speech from the Throne to “...continue to rebuild and arm the Canadian Forces with the best possible equipment,” its ability to do so in the face of ever-rising and competing demands upon the public purse remains decidedly uncertain. The will to do so is certainly there, but adequate funding may not be.

The current defence and defence economic environment is in some respects reminiscent of that prevailing during the Mulroney years. In the 1984 federal election campaign, the Progressive Conservatives pilloried the Liberals for failing to bridge the ‘commitment-capability gap,’ and pledged to “honour the commitment” upon their election. A number of steps, such as additional personnel for the mechanized brigade in Germany, were quickly implemented, to be followed in June 1987 by a new white paper. The latter proposed a host of additional measures, including a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines and a sweeping reorganization and re-equipment of the Canadian army. The white paper’s grand design, however, was eviscerated less than two years later – one of the most visible victims of the April 1989 federal budget’s quest for deficit and debt reduction. The 1987 White Paper would, in any event, have been rendered a historical curiosity by virtue of the end of the Cold War in 1989-1990, but the fact remains that the Mulroney government pulled the proverbial trigger on its own defence strategy prior to the end of the Cold War.

Similarly, the Conservatives pilloried the Liberal record on defence in the 2004 and 2006 elections, and pledged major initiatives to renew and resuscitate the country’s defence capabilities. Upon its election in 2006, albeit with a minority, the Harper government moved quickly on a number of major capital acquisition projects – some already delivered, as in the case of the aforementioned C-177s, and with others, such as a new fleet of C-130J Hercules tactical airlifters, and the upgrading of the Halifax-class patrol frigates, ‘in the pipeline.’ It then followed up with a somewhat more comprehensive vision of its defence posture in the Canada First Defence Strategy of May 2008. Like the Mulroney government before it, the Harper government must now grapple with implementation at a time of intense – infinitely more intense – economic challenges. In essence, will it ultimately be forced to jettison its stated defence policy, as the Mulroney government did 20 years ago, or will it be able to find some way to save, salvage, or repackage at least the core of the Canada First Defence Strategy?

The defence uncertainties engendered by the deeply worrisome global financial crisis make it even more regrettable that defence policy did not make so much as a cameo appearance during the 2008 federal election campaign. True, Canadian elections rarely feature high profile debates over foreign and defence policy, but, during the elections of 2004 and 2006, defence at least managed to struggle onto the radar screen. Afghanistan should have surfaced in a meaningful way in 2008, but with both the Liberals and the Conservatives ‘carrying baggage’ on the issue, a ‘de facto non-aggression pact’ no doubt appeared prudent. The campaign platforms of the federalist parties offered few specifics on defence, and certainly – if somewhat understandably – they failed to explore the prospects for defence in the face of economic peril. That said, some of the parties, most notably the NDP and the Green Party of Canada, could conceivably have argued that their defence plans were inherently less ambitious than those of the Canada First Defence Strategy, and, therefore, more credible and affordable in tough economic times.

The NDP statement on defence policy envisaged three priorities for the Canadian Forces: (1) assisting “...people facing natural catastrophes, including floods, earthquakes, forest fires and other emergencies, both at home and abroad”; (2) providing “support for peace- making, peace-building and peacekeeping around the world”; and (3) defending “Canada from potential attack”. The New Democrats also sought to “...ensure that the Arctic is protected and defended through the Coast Guard and civilian enforcement of Canadian Law along with an adequate – but not excessive – military capability.” The latter meant jettisoning naval-crewed Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships – summarily dismissed as “slushbreakers” – with Coast Guard-crewed icebreakers. The Liberal defence statement observed “...[that] Canada’s ongoing commitment to the military mission in Afghanistan has depleted our ability to deploy the Canadian Forces elsewhere in the world,” arguing that a “...firm end date on the military deployment in Kandahar” would restore the Canadian Forces’ “...flexibility...to respond to emergency situations both domestically and abroad.” A Liberal government would “...remain committed to the money allocated in the fiscal framework to the Canadian Forces over the coming four years – much of which was originally committed by the Liberal Budget of 2005” and “...promote the sovereignty and interests of the Arctic not only through military or marine infrastructure, but also through environmental protection, surveillance, search and rescue, and by encouraging the sustainable use of the Arctic’s natural resources by our Arctic peoples.” For its part, the Green Party of Canada pledged “...[to] restore Canada’s peacekeeping role and help to build a permanent UN force to respond to conflicts and climate disasters.” The Conservatives, having released their Canada First Defence Strategy earlier in the year, had little new to say about defence in their policy platform, but did devote particular attention to sovereignty and security in the north.

One potential ‘plus’ in the current political and financial environment is that the Canada First Defence Strategy, although far from adequately fleshed out in the Harper government’s statements in May and June 2008, has not – unlike its Mulroney counterpart of 1987 – proved to be a ‘political lightning rod.’ The Canada First Defence Strategy is patently not perfect, but it is reasonably sound in its fundamentals and clearly more saleable to the Canadian public than the Mulroney government’s controversial 1987 White Paper. To some extent, this may stand the Department of National Defence (DND) in good stead, but it will not insulate the Canadian Forces from the country’s current economic woes or from those seeking deficit-reduction-driven cutbacks in public sector spending. Even those willing to increase government spending and incur deficits in order to stimulate the economy are unlikely to turn in the first instance to the defence sector.

Standard operating procedure in such times, both in Canada and abroad, is to seek out savings in the personnel, operations, and maintenance (POM) components of the defence budget. There is always at least some scope for further reductions in this sphere, but they must be tempered by the realization that previous cutbacks, including those promulgated during the “decade of darkness,” have already claimed the obvious (or safer) targets, and that the potential for POM savings is necessarily more limited – particularly in the army and on the airlift side of the air force – when one is engaged in active combat operations. Elements or organizations not so engaged are clearly more vulnerable to personnel reductions, reduced training opportunities, and the parking of equipment. Further base and related closures cannot be ruled out – who in the Canadian defence community cannot readily volunteer one or more candidates for closure? – but it would require expending valuable political capital at a time of minority government, would appear counter-productive to economic stimulation, and would further reduce the visibility and footprint of the Canadian Forces.

In the procurement realm, any projects not already completed – 429 Squadron should consider itself very fortunate indeed to have received its full quota of C-177s – or so far advanced that major changes are impractical could fall under the microscope for delay, de-scoping, or cancellation. Again, there are very real limitations as to how far this can be taken without jeopardizing operations in Afghanistan or, on a much broader scale, seriously weakening or invalidating the Canada First Defence Strategy. Some observers have posited that capital projects that have already suffered noticeable slippage, such as the nascent order for 16 CH-47F Chinooks, could prove particularly vulnerable to reappraisal.

On the other hand, DND could benefit from carefully selected short-term measures to stimulate the Canadian economy. The Trudeau government, as some readers will recall, expedited a number of previously scheduled DND procurement programs in 1983 as part of the Special Recovery Capital Projects Programme. Medium trucks, and new-build or ‘reset’ light armoured vehicles, constitute but two contemporary possibilities. On the ‘bricks and mortar’ front, as the government itself noted in the Canada First Defence Strategy, DND also needs to replace or refurbish a great amount of aging infrastructure. There are, of course, limitations to this approach. During the Great Depression, as American strategist and naval historian Norman Friedman has reminded us, the Roosevelt administration “...saw naval expansion as a valuable lever to speed recovery, and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 16 October 1933 permitted warship construction with public works funds.” In a modern-day Canadian context, however, even a sudden and massive infusion of new or accelerated funding for the Joint Support Ship (or its successor[s]) and the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship would not, for obvious reasons, permit the Canadian shipbuilding industry to begin ‘cutting steel’ tomorrow. Ottawa also must eschew make-work projects of doubtful operational effectiveness. Yellow Dash 8s and CL-415s, for example, would generate useful and timely work for the Canadian aerospace industry, but they would not constitute credible replacements for the current Buffalo and Hercules search and rescue aircraft.

It is no less true for being obvious that, in the final analysis, the degree to which DND is impacted by the financial crisis will, in large measure, be determined by the severity and duration of the crisis. It is therefore discouraging to note that Ontario, the former powerhouse of the Canadian economy, was hemorrhaging manufacturing and head office jobs (the “hollowing-out” phenomenon) well before the current crisis. Although the trials and tribulations of the automotive sector naturally monopolized political, public, and media attention, the cumulative loss of manufacturing jobs in small and mid-size companies was no less real. Consider the fate of the manufacturing operations of Toronto-based Hallmark Canada, the long-established producer of greeting cards and related products. Long a model of enlightened foreign direct investment, this American-owned firm did not pull out of Canada during earlier economic downturns (or in the wake of free trade), and continued production in Canada – some 95 percent of which was exported. Yet, in early June of 2008, the firm announced that it would cease production in Canada, shift production to plants in the United States and elsewhere, and eliminate 200 well-paying Canadian jobs. Such jobs, and others like them, are most unlikely to return to Canada even when the global economy rebounds to something approximating ‘normal.’ In such an environment, finding the financial resources – and the public will? – for a credible Canadian defence capability is going to become increasingly difficult.

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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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