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Views and Opinions

Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay

DND photo FA2010-0218-10

Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay announces the governments intention to purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, 16 July 2010.

Comparison Shopping

by Martin Shadwick

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It is supremely ironic that two of the most ideologically dissimilar prime ministers in the history of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Stephen Harper, were both confronted with a perceived requirement to essentially rebuild the Canadian Forces (CF). The efforts of the Harper government to repair the damage attributed, directly or indirectly, fairly or unfairly, to Jean Chrétien’s infamous “decade of darkness”—most recently underscored by the mid-July 2010 decisions to re-launch the Joint Support Ship (JSS) project in modified form, and to proceed, more controversially, with the acquisition of 65 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft—need no introduction in these pages. The efforts of the Trudeau government to cope with an earlier “decade of darkness,” however, have been largely neglected in the messy post-Cold War, post-9/11 strategic environment. The two “decades of darkness” are not totally interchangeable, since Pierre Trudeau’s, unlike Stephen Harper’s, was largely self-inflicted, but comparisons between their respective rebuilding efforts could prove instructive.

The “decade of darkness”(or, in the vernacular of the day, the “commitment-capability gap”) that the Trudeau government attempted to address in its Defence Structure Review (DSR) statement of 1975 arguably commenced with the budgetary challenges of the late Pearson era, but its true origin was the massiv defence retrenchment of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Predicated upon the belief that the emergence of a less polarized geo-strategic environment (i.e., détente) would permit a deep reduction in Canada’s military capabilities, the defence policy of the early Trudeau era envisaged a multi-year freeze in defence spending, sweeping reductions in military manpower, the halving of Canada’s NATO contingent in Germany, the elimination of heavy armour and nuclear weapons, reduced attention to NATO commitments and increased attention to domestic sovereignty protection and related tasks, and the cancellation or downsizing of myriad capital projects. So deep were the cuts that Rod Byers of York University warned in early 1975 that “…for the first time since the interwar period, the armed forces may be approaching an era where it will not be possible to maintain a combat capability.” Ironically, the 1973 decision to proceed with the acquisition of heavy-lift helicopters made Pierre Trudeau the first Canadian prime minister to acquire the Boeing CH-47 Chinook; the second prime minister to do so, many years later, was Stephen Harper.

The Defence Structure Review restored NATO to its preeminent position in Canadian defence policy, and signaled the beginning of the end of the Trudeau government’s de facto “decade of darkness.” The product of a less benign strategic environment, entreaties from allies (with European leverage much enhanced by Canada’s quest for a “contractual link” and enhanced trade with the European community), and Ottawa’s belated recognition of the industrial and regional benefits of defence procurement, the DSR heralded a major increase in Canadian defence spending and a broad array of procurement initiatives. These included the CF-18 Hornet fighter and the CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft, the initial tranche of Halifax-Class patrol frigates, and the air defence conversions of the Iroquois-Class destroyers, the Leopard 1 main battle tank, assorted trucks and utility vehicles, a family of small arms, and literally hundreds of smaller projects.

Now that the Harper government has encountered more substantial debate over at least some elements of its recapitalization agenda, it is intriguing to recall how little political, public, and media hostility was generated by the Trudeau government’s volte-face on defence policy and its associated recapitalization program. This is not to suggest that criticism and controversy were missing in action – indeed, the New Fighter Aircraft (NFA), the Long-Range Patrol Aircraft (LRPA), and the Canadian Patrol Frigate (CPF) programs, in particular, generated a good deal of heat at certain junctures in the procurement process – but it is to suggest that overall political, public, and media reaction was comparatively muted, given the not-insignificant sums required by the rebuilding of the Canadian Forces. Indeed, a substantial percentage of the fairly limited amount of criticism that did appear took the position that the Trudeau government should be spending even more national treasure on national defence. There was also some criticism, particularly during the late 1970s and early 1980s, that the Trudeau government had failed to provide an adequate intellectual foundation or rationale for its new defence policy and associated procurement package, but this line of attack was essentially confined to academics, Parliamentary committees, assorted non-governmental organizations (most of which, in any event, were unabashedly pro-defence), and editorial writers. Certainly, there was little or no evidence that the lack of such a foundation – of the type that might have been provided by a substantial and well-articulated (i.e., European-style) white paper – jeopardized broader public and other support for Trudeau’s new-look defence policy.

The comparative dearth of negative reaction could, in part, be attributed to a broader recognition, albeit frequently more implicit than explicit, that the early promise of détente had been exaggerated, and that a less benign geo-strategic environment justified additional Western defence spending. Also recognized by more than the chattering classes were the risks for Canada in being seen by allies as a security ‘free-rider,’ particularly given the myriad security and non-security links between Canada and the United States, and the security-trade nexus identified by Canada’s European allies, and that the defence cutbacks of the late 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s had eroded not only the combat capabilities of the Canadian Forces, but also their ability to perform such important non-military and quasi-military responsibilities as search and rescue and fisheries protection. Other factors that tended to blunt criticism of Ottawa’s new stance on defence included heavy promotion of the industrial and regional benefits of military procurement (Trudeau on more than one occasion lauded the CF-18 as an “economic megaproject”), a Parliament that was broadly supportive of a military renaissance, and a comparatively healthy economy. The defence procurement process itself was also a factor. Although some projects (or major portions of some projects) were, in essence, sole-sourced, the truly massive projects, including NFA, LRPA, and CPF, utilized competitive and reasonably transparent tendering. This process may not have built public support per se, but it did prevent the real or perceived evils of sole sourcing from becoming a political, public, and media cause célèbre. A final factor was Pierre Trudeau himself. Given his history, and his past declarations on defence and security policy and Canada-U.S. relations, it was essentially impossible to cast him as an eager-to-spend Cold Warrior, or a camp-follower of the United States.

The Harper government’s defence modernization initiatives constitute, as this column has previously observed, “…the most noteworthy defence procurement package since the heady post-1975 days of Pierre Trudeau’s Defence Structure Review.” They include dramatic improvements in airlift (i.e., the CC-177A Globemaster and the CC-130J Hercules), a modernization and life-extension program for the Aurora, 15 CH-147F Chinooks, 65 F-35A Lightning II fighters, six Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS), a (fluid) number of Joint Support Ships, and 12 modernized and life-extended Halifax-Class frigates. Other elements of the package include ex-Dutch Leopard 2 main battle tanks, several thousand logistic trucks, additional M777 howitzers, an ambitious Family of Land Combat Vehicles (FLCV), and a wide variety of equipment for use in Afghanistan. Further down the road, but included in the government’s Canada First Defence Strategy, are major surface combatants and replacements for the Aurora.

The leading elements of the Harper modernization package, like their Trudeau-era counterparts, encountered relatively little political, public, or media criticism. This in large measure reflected the broader impact of 9/11 and related developments on the Canadian national consciousness, and Canadians’ gradual recognition that the oft-cited “decade of darkness” had served to erode core combat capabilities at a time of growing geo-strategic uncertainty. Some of the early purchases had originated under Liberal governments (and were consequently more difficult to attack in Parliament) while others, notably those related to mobility, were, as one observer noted, “…unlikely to offend anyone with tender sensibilities.” Special purchases that served to protect Canadian lives in Afghanistan were virtually immune to criticism, even from those who harboured profound reservations over the Canadian role in that troubled nation. Complaints about sole sourcing and the perceived loss of opportunity for the Canadian defence industrial base most assuredly did surface, but, in most early cases, they were comparatively straightforward to turn aside, due to a lack of credible, and readily available, alternatives (as in the case of the CC-177A and the CC-130J).

Some of the more recent project announcements have continued to dodge both visibility and criticism. The 2010 version of the Joint Support Ship, for example, received virtually no media attention upon its relaunching, even though it represented a not-insignificant ‘walk back’ from the program endorsed by the Harper government in 2006 (and an even more dramatic reduction from the pre-Harper plans that, at one point, included up to four such ships, replete with floodable well docks). The 2006 plan, which envisaged three reasonably multi-purpose ships for underway support to naval forces, sealift, and in-theatre support to joint forces ashore, proved unaffordable and was aborted in 2008. The new plan includes two ships (with an option to acquire a third) optimized for underway support to naval task groups, with the ability to deliver “…a limited amount of cargo ashore” and space and weight allocations “…for the potential future inclusion of a limited joint task force headquarters for command and control of forces deployed ashore.”  Both new and existing designs will be considered for what amounts to an AOR+. Ironically, modern foreign designs are not all that plentiful, given that many navies have given amphibious sealift vessels priority over AORs. The abandonment of the earlier JSS concept is not necessarily a horrendous development – hybrid designs invariably involve awkward design trade-offs – but it is sobering to observe that two decades of effort were expended on the JSS concept and its forebears.

Some other projects, most notably the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship and the Family of Land Combat Vehicles, have generated far more attention than JSS – in either its 2006 or 2010 iterations – but the first Harper-era procurement initiative to generate full-scope debate and controversy is the plan to replace the now-veteran, fourth-generation CF-18 Hornet with the fifth-generation F-35A Lightning II multi-role fighter. In Ottawa’s view, “…not only does the F-35 meet all of the Canadian Forces operational requirements for a next generation fighter aircraft, the F-35 offers the best value by providing exceptional capability at the lowest cost with excellent benefits and opportunities for the Canadian defence industry. This acquisition will equip the Canadian Forces with the aircraft it needs to defend Canada’s sovereignty and contribute to the defence of North America and international security.” Ottawa has committed approximately $9 billion to the acquisition of 65 F-35 aircraft – effectively the minimum necessary to retain a critical mass of Canadian fighter capability – “…and associated weapons, infrastructure, initial spares, training simulators, contingency funds and project operating costs.” Delivery of the new aircraft is expected to commence in 2016. The Canadian aircraft will essentially be the F-35A, but it is expected that certain enhancements, such as an in-flight refueling probe and a drag chute, will be pursued in conjunction with some other customers for the Joint Strike Fighter.

Debate over the F-35 may make the debate over the NFA/CF-18 pale by comparison. When the dust settled on the CF-18 decision, there was a strong collective sense, both inside and outside of government, both inside and outside of the Department, that the right aircraft had prevailed in the NFA competition. Such a prompt and strong consensus could prove elusive in the case of the F-35, although the Department is convinced that the F-35 is the right choice for myriad reasons. Some issues, such as the merits of one engine versus two, will till familiar territory, but others – most notably those related to price (which is effectively beyond Canada’s control), performance (i.e., a fifth-generation fighter versus 4.5-generation alternatives) and process (not strictly sole-sourcing, but certainly not NFA-style tendering) – could prove somewhat more controversial. The F-35 decision, for example, quickly drew strong endorsements from the National Post and the Globe and Mail, but also drew blistering attacks from Michael Byers and Jeffrey Simpson. From a governmental perspective, criticisms from former Associate Deputy Minister Alan S. Williams over process, and from internationally respected aviation journalist Bill Sweetman over price and performance, could prove somewhat more challenging to deflect.

It is useful to ask whether there are lessons here from the Trudeau experience, if not with the CF-18 (because it did not produce the same type of controversy as the F-35), then with defence modernization as a whole. The point was made earlier that the defence modernization efforts (and concomitant constituency-building efforts) of the Trudeau government did not appear to suffer unduly from the lack of a solid intellectual foundation (i.e., a white paper or white paper-like document). It is not clear that the same could be said today. Admittedly, the Harper government’s decidedly compact Canada First Defence Strategy document is already a mighty tome when placed alongside the few pages of Hansard that were consumed by then-defence minister James Richardson when he announced the results of the Defence Structure Review in 1975. Nevertheless, the Harper government could conceivably do its defence cause some good – particularly given the uncertain geo-strategic environment, the troubled economy, and the myriad competing calls upon the public purse – if it produced a robust and well-argued policy document. It would also do well to remember that although Pierre Trudeau harboured ideological and other reservations about defence and defence modernization – reservations clearly not shared by Stephen Harper – those reservations made it easier for Trudeau to undertake defence modernization without suffering a noticeable public, political, or media backlash.

5th generation cockpit of the F-35 <em>Lightning II</em>

DND photo FA2010-0218-02

The high-technology, 5th generation cockpit of the F-35 Lightning II.

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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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