Canada’s Strategic Dilemma

Canada's geography and stability make it secure. That security has allowed politicians to duck the hard choices needed to modernize its military.
By: /
May 1, 2014
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This column is drawn from Steve Saideman’s opening statement for his testimony on May 1, 2014 before the Standing Committee on National Defence.

The starting point for any conversation about Canadian security is that Canada is in a rare position in the world: geography limits the threats Canada faces while its economic strengths and political stability mean that Canada is quite secure compared to the rest of the world.

While there is much talk about terrorism, cyber, and other unconventional challenges, the reality is that Canada is secure enough that it can make mistakes without paying too high a price. This is a good thing since Canada tends to make mistakes because its politicians refuse to face the tradeoffs and make the hard choices needed to confront the changing realities of 21st century defence. Of course, mistakes can be still be quite serious as they can endanger Canadian soldiers, pilots, and sailors.

To be clear, many of the defence procurement challenges are neither new to Canada nor the fault solely of the current government.  That Canada is facing re-capitalization of its navy while having to purchase replacements for the core of the Air force is a real problem.  In my family, we try to only buy one car at a time and space those purchases out so that we are only paying one car loan at a time… until a school bus rammed my younger car.  In the case of Canada, the lifespan of the ships and planes was entirely predictable, so it should not have been the case that Canada needed to replace all of its ships, planes, and Arctic patrol vessels at the same time. Even if the way the accounting works for defence allows for multiple projects simultaneously, Canada has not yet proven that it has sufficient expertise inside government to manage multiple programs simultaneously. And, clearly, we do not have the shipyard space to be building many different ships at once.

Still, this government has been in office for quite a while yet it refuses to face the tradeoffs that must be addressed. The best example of this is the notion that more than CAD$3 billion can be cut without any consequences. But the most important and least necessary denial of reality is this: keeping troop levels to a symbolic level of 100,000 people is costly and almost entirely unnecessary. Personnel costs are a huge part of the budget, so one should cut there as well as in other places.

The refusal to do so, combined with the large procurement projects, means that cuts will fall on operations, maintenance, and exercising—each of which are integral to operational success. In the United States, there is always concern about the hollowing out of the force—that there will still be a large amount of equipment and many soldiers, sailors, marines, and pilots—but they will lose their sharp edge due to a lack of practice. This is what is going to happen in Canada.

Here, these consequences are being ignored for the symbolism of being strong on defence by keeping the force at 100,000. Experts know that the government in Ottawa today is spending about the same as it was spending in 2006 once you control for ordinary inflation. The problem, of course, is that inflation in military equipment is hardly ordinary.

A flat budget is problematic when inflation is significant. Exacerbating this is the move to emphasize the “industrial” benefits of defence programs so that systems built in Canada are advantaged in competitions over those that do not lead to Canadian jobs but are cheaper and/or more effective. The shipbuilding program seemed like a good idea—have a nation-wide competition to decide where in Canada the ships are built. The problem is that restarting long dormant shipyards means that Canada will be paying a premium for these ships—and a hefty one at that. The ships will be much more expensive and almost certainly less capable than those made in Europe or elsewhere. This will almost certainly mean fewer ship, which means that the Department of National Defence (DND) should be thinking now of what a smaller navy means, including what kinds of cuts can be made to the number of sailors, since fewer ships should mean fewer sailors.

Of course, this speaks to an enduring problem—Canada’s military should be designed to fit Canada’s strategy—an assessment of the threats Canada faces, the means by which those threats will be dealt with, and the balancing of commitments with capabilities. Unfortunately, the Canada First Defence Strategy was overcome by events years ago.

A new strategy that takes seriously the fiscal constraints and the increased costs of equipment would recognize that Canada will have to do less with less, including a smaller army, a smaller air force, and a smaller navy. Canada can still be a good partner in NORAD and a good ally in NATO as long as the forces it contributes to various missions are not hollow—small is better than hollow.

Rather than cutting by default and by accident (literally in the case of the Navy), Canada can and should make the difficult—and strategic—choices. This government is actually in an excellent position to do so, since, here is where I display my political science, the opposition parties are unlikely to pick up votes from those who want more defence spending.

To be sure, these problems are not unique to Canada, as most advanced democracies face similar problems: tighter budgets, defence procurement “challenges”, and alliance commitments. Of course, Canada can choose the traditional path—which is to muddle through—but this time, the stakes are higher since the programs are so very expensive while all of this is coming to a head at the same time.