Commentary

DND photo HS01-2017-0940-559 by Master Corporal Chris Ringius

A work party from HMCS St. John’s clears fallen trees and other debris from roads during Operation Renaissance as part of the relief efforts taking place on the island of Dominica following the destruction left by Hurricane Maria, 27 September 2017.

Dialogue on Defence

by Martin Shadwick

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In today’s unsettled and troubling international geo-strategic environment—one shaped by a partial reawakening of Cold War-like dynamics, an erosion of diplomacy and a surfeit of brinkmanship, tensions between Russia and NATO, security and other stress points in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, the continuing scourge of global terrorism, nuclear proliferation (i.e., North Korea), the uncertainties and tensions inherent in Trumpian approaches to American and global peace and security, and a host of other issues and dilemmas—Canada arguably confronts its greatest foreign, defence, and international security policy challenges since the end of the Second World War. That will necessitate grappling with the future of continental defence—including collaboration with the United States on improvements in surveillance and control, and the renewal of the aging North Warning System and, potentially, Canadian involvement in ballistic missile defence—as well as with the future Canadian roles in NATO, international peace support operations (under UN or other auspices), multilateral counter-terrorism and other global peace and security endeavours. Increasingly, Ottawa will also need to grapple with the ramifications of environmental change for Canada’s armed forces (including the contentious issue of military involvement in domestic and global disaster relief operations and the emergency evacuations of Canadian nationals). On the procurement and force structure fronts, the ‘operationalization’ of the Trudeau government’s 2017 defence policy statement will require difficult and costly decisions on the interim and definitive fighter aircraft projects (with the Bombardier-Boeing imbroglio and the subsequent Bombardier-Airbus link-up as unorthodox sidebars), the virtual rebuilding of the Royal Canadian Navy, and the re-equipping of Canada’s regular and reserve land forces.

Bombardier Aerospace/Multimedia Gallery

Bombardier C-Series aircraft artist conception.

Issues of this gravity and cost demand thorough, thoughtful, and informed discussion and debate. Unfortunately, as the Vimy Report has reminded us, “public discussion of international security affairs” in Canada “is poorly informed. This has led to weak decision-making by governments and produced inferior outcomes for Canadians.” Reversing—or, more realistically, blunting—this lamentable national trait in a way that meaningfully engages Canadians, their media, and their parliamentarians will require an almost Herculean effort by a diverse and eclectic range of actors. In the absence of such a campaign, however, Canada will be doomed to a 21st Century replay of the unbalanced, unduly partisan, and often breathtakingly ill-informed national ‘debates’ that have too often dogged defence and international security policy issues in Canada, including—to cite but one period of time—the debates associated with North American Air Defence Modernization (NAADM), the proposed acquisition of the EH101 maritime helicopter and nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), and the Canadian response to the American invitation to participate in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in the mid-1980s and early-1990s.

A useful cautionary tale, the muddled and highly politicized debate over North American Air Defence Modernization and alleged links to the contentious Strategic Defense Initiative (itself the subject of a less than impressive discourse) generated an abundance of heat, but distressingly little light. In his Globe and Mail column of 21 March 1985, Jeffrey Simpson argued that “foolish and irresponsible attacks by opposition MPs…against…[NAADM’s] North Warning System may have confused the gullible. The Liberals had been negotiating a badly needed modernization of the DEW Line. The Conservatives, to their credit, clinched the deal with a package that asserts rather than diminishes, Canadian sovereignty.” The opposition “pretends that somehow the North Warning System is linked to [the] Strategic [Defense] Initiative. No one has been more sharply critical of SDI than your faithful observer…but no link exists between North Warning and SDI.” A significant contributing factor to the flawed NAADM debate was the Canadian media’s almost-total neglect of air defence modernization in the years leading up to the inking of the NAADM accord in March 1985. Political excesses and weaknesses in media coverage also played a role in the distressingly unbalanced and cliché-ridden debate over the Mulroney government’s proposed acquisition of the EH101 maritime helicopter (which was routinely but misleadingly characterized by some critics as a “Cadillac,” a “Cold War ASW helicopter,” or an “attack helicopter”). This is not to suggest that the Chrétien government necessarily erred in its 1993 decision to terminate the acquisition of the helicopter, or to fault the media for posing tough questions about the EH101, but some reportage must be faulted for its failure to pose the same tough questions of the would-be alternatives to the EH101. Similarly, the Mulroney government’s 1987 pledge to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines—unceremoniously jettisoned less than two years later—may or may not have been strategically and/or financially sound, but Canada was undeniably ill-served by yet another superficial and ill-informed debate.

Greg Bajor/Alamy Stock Photo/ATMRY0

AugustaWestland EH-101 medium-lift helicopter.

In retrospect, it is unfortunate and in certain respects surprising that the arrival of some new or reinvigorated actors—and their associated publications, conferences, and expertise—did not more noticeably elevate the quality of Canadian defence and international security policy discourse between the mid-1980s and early-1990s. Relevant actors included, but were not confined to, the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies (CISS), the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security (CIIPS), the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA), the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament (CCACD), the Canadian Institute of International Affairs (much older than many of the other NGOs, and admittedly, not defence-centric in mandate, but nevertheless valuable), a higher-profile Canadian Defence Quarterly (the public-private professional journal of the Canadian Forces) and, most notably, the dozen or so university research centres funded to a significant degree by DND’s Military and Strategic Studies (MSS) programme (later renamed the Security and Defence Forum).

The Business Council on National Issues (since 2001, the Business Council of Canada) also generated some useful defence and defence-industrial studies during the relevant timeframe (although some critics not surprisingly saw these as self-serving). Specialist business coverage of defence and defence-industrial issues also expanded during the period. Notable examples included the Financial Post and other Maclean-Hunter publications including Aerospace Canada (and its successors) and The Wednesday Report (a weekly newsletter aimed at analysts and senior decision-makers in government, the armed forces and industry). On a very different media front, the appearance of CBC Newsworld in mid-1989 added yet another vehicle for discussing defence issues. International coverage of Canadian defence also expanded, most notably via the stellar reporting of Sharon Hobson in Jane’s Defence Weekly. The 1980s and the early-1990s also witnessed comparatively good transparency in defence decision-making, as well as comparatively good media and academic access to senior civilian, military, and industry decision-makers. Relevant parliamentary committees enjoyed a higher profile as well.

One can, of course, posit that the debate over such issues as NAADM, SDI, SSN, and EH101 would have been even less well informed and less edifying in the absence of the aforementioned actors. It also no less true for being obvious that most Canadians—certainly the general public but also significant elements of the defence-attentive public—would simply not have seen or followed (or cared about) the substantial outputs from defence-relevant non-government organizations, the MSS centres, or specialist defence and defence-industrial publications. More tellingly, given the blame that some pundits placed upon over-zealous, ill-informed politicians, and less-than-adequately- informed journalists, much of that expanded output was apparently also missed or ignored by politicians and journalists. Did that reflect failures on the part of politicians and journalists, insufficiently vigorous outreach by non-governmental organizations, research centres and other actors, or a range of other—perhaps quintessentially Canadian—factors and forces? Is there any possibility that Canadians might witness and participate in higher quality defence discussion and debate in 2018 and beyond?

DND photo BN52-2017-0003-044 by Master Corporal Louis Brunet

Canadian nationals stranded in the Caribbean following Hurricane Irma board an RCAF CC-177 Globemaster III departing Provindeciales Airport in the Turks and Caicos, as part of Operation Renaissance, 14 September 2017.

In this regard, it is important to note that some of the familiar actors of the mid-1980s and early-1990s—including the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, and the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security—no longer exist. The Canadian Institute of International Affairs morphed into the more robust Canadian International Council in 2007. In 2008, the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies folded its operations into the CIC as, in effect, the Strategic Studies Working Group (SSWG). A partnership between the CIC and the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute (now the Canadian Global Affairs Institute), the SSWG sought to “ensure that the then new CIC would not lose sight of defence and security issues.” There is debate as to how effectively that goal has been realized. DND’s Security and Defence Forum, in its traditional guise, was short-sightedly axed late in the Harper era, ostensibly as an economy measure, but political, bureaucratic, and military annoyance over policy and other criticism from SDF-funded university research centres, and the perception that SDF centres were mere “talking shops” were probably more telling. The resulting closure or downsizing of many SDF centres—and the repositioning of others to focus upon non-defence issues—silenced some important voices with respect to Canadian defence. The Trudeau Liberals, to their credit, have pledged to bolster academic outreach (i.e., $4.5 million per year for a “revamped and expanded defence engagement program,” including collaborative networks of experts, a new scholarship program, and an “expansion of the existing expert briefing series and engagement grant program”) although the full scope of this plan remains to be publicly revealed. Much lower profile, but still a noteworthy loss to informed discussion, was the recent closure of the online Canadian-American Strategic Review—a veritable fount of useful information on Canadian defence policy, procurement, and defence technology.

DND photo ET2017-0047-15 by Master Corporal Chris Ward

With HMCS Ottawa and her crew in the background, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit S. Sajjan take part in a press conference at CFB Esquimalt, 2 March 2017.

On an infinitely more positive note, the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI)—with its extensive and diverse array of conferences, policy papers, policy updates, a quarterly Dispatch and electronic bulletins—can rightly claim to be “Canada’s most credible source of expertise on global affairs,” including defence, diplomacy, trade and development. It is indispensible to thoughtful analysis, discussion, and debate on Canadian defence policy and related themes. A more recent undertaking, but one with considerable potential, is the online Vimy Report. The mission of the Vimy Report “is to raise the quality of national debate on security and defence issues which matter to Canadians. To do so, it must liberate discussion from the preserve of government, political partisans, and special interests; broaden the parameters of what is considered acceptable opinion; and draw attention to the information and views of professionals who have worked in the field.” Other vehicles for discussion and debate include the repositioned NATO Association of Canada (ex-Atlantic Council of Canada), the Conference of Defence Associations/Conference of Defence Associations Institute (CDA/CDAI) and—one hopes increasingly, given the usefulness of its recent survey of Canadian defence analysts regarding the interim fighter project—the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Another resource, one now being tapped with increasing regularity, is the growing cadre of retired Canadian officers holding advanced degrees in war studies, international relations, political science, and related fields. With very few exceptions, this resource simply did not exist in previous decades. Particular note should also be taken of the dramatically-expanded corps of academics at the Canadian Forces College. Multiple parliamentary committees clearly remain relevant to the broader discussion of Canadian defence policy, although, with some exceptions—such as recent official testimony regarding ballistic missile defence—it would appear, at least circumstantially, that committee proceedings and reports currently draw less media and public attention than in the 1980s and early-1990s.

On other fronts, Canadian Defence Quarterly ceased publishing in 1999—some years after the cessation of DND funding—but its mantle has been more than effectively passed to Canadian Military Journal (from 2000, the in-house professional journal of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence), and the three service-specific professional journals, two in-house (army, air force) and one private-public (navy). Maclean-Hunter’s trade publications, such as Aerospace Canada and The Wednesday Report have long since disappeared, as indeed has Maclean-Hunter, although The Wednesday Report survived in private hands into the 1990s. A number of relevant multi-purpose and/or trade journals, including Esprit de Corps, launched in 1988, are still extant. The Canadian profile in foreign defence journals, including Jane’s Defence Weekly, has, however, diminished dramatically in recent years. The CBC, CTV, Postmedia (i.e., National Post, Ottawa Citizen) and the Canadian Press have some most able journalists assigned to defence, but the staying power of this contribution to defence discussion and debate remains uncertain, given the broader crisis in Canadian journalism occasioned by the rise of internet news platforms and other powerful forces. Moreover, the reduced transparency, access to decision-makers, and proclivity to secrecy displayed by some recent Canadian governments have posed challenges for journalists, pundits, and academics alike.

DND photo HS01-2017-0940-545 by Master Corporal Chris Ringius

A work party and a CH-124 Sea King helicopter from HMCS St. John’s arrive on the island of Dominica during Operation Renaissance, a relief mission in the Caribbean following the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, 27 September 2017.

Nonetheless, in the final analysis, the degree to which one can elevate the quality of the national discussion and debate on security and defence is not simply a function of the vehicles or fora—be they non-governmental organizations, university think tanks, the general media, professional journals, online blogs or parliamentary committees—at our disposal. To a very large degree, public interest (or apathy) in defence is a function of the collective concern over the state of the international security environment and Canada’s place and role, or potential place and role, in that environment. If Canadians believe, for any number of reasons, that they live in an increasingly dangerous world, they are more likely to display interest in or concern with respect to Canadian foreign, defence, and international security policy. Moreover, few of the challenges and issues confronting Canada—be they the rebuilding of the armed forces, Canada’s future roles in ballistic missile defence (particularly given strains in the American-North Korean ‘relationship’), NATO, peace support operations and counter-terrorism—are not of the short-term, quick-fix variety. They are deserving of the sustained attention of Canadians, and a more thoughtful, well-informed and constructive discussion and debate.

Martin Shadwick has taught Canadian defence policy at York University in Toronto for many years. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly, and he is the resident Defence Commentator for the Canadian Military Journal.

ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo/CCPNCR

NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium.