New CDS, Old Tensions?

Steve Saideman on why the new chief of the Canadian defence staff is behaving just like his predecessor.
By: /
October 30, 2012
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 Yesterday, General Tom Lawson replaced General Walt Natynczyk as chief of the Canadian defence staff (CDS) – the most senior position in the Canadian Forces (CF). Almost immediately, Lawson spoke about the budget challenges ahead, raising some questions about the proper role of the CDS. He said that there is “very little fat” to cut in the defence budget. His statement was immediately seen as controversial, because Prime Minister Stephen Harper had made it clear in his speech at the promotion ceremony that tough times are ahead, and that the defence budget will have to bear its proper share of the fiscal discipline to come. 

To be clear, there is a formal restriction that the Canadian Forces are not supposed to comment on policy issues. Indeed, one could be seen as breaking the law by asking Canadian military officers to comment on the policies of the government (not that this stops academics like myself or journalists from asking away). So, Lawson’s proper response to Harper’s statement about the budget, according to the folks tweeting at me, should have been “ask the Department of National Defence” or “we can strive to be more efficient.” 

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We can look at this in a couple of ways. Perhaps Lawson is just not yet fully versed in the expectations of his new job. Well, Natyncyzk made similar comments in his farewell address, and he has been the soft-spoken CDS for four years. Thus, we probably cannot consider this to be a rookie mistake.

Is it that Lawson is deliberately making a statement to let everyone know that while he might have been Harper’s choice, he is not going to be his puppy? Perhaps but is Lawson, in other words, just asserting his independence?

That Lawson is behaving the same way Natyncyzk did, only warily agreeing to some cuts rather than embracing a significant decrease in defence spending, suggests an institutional explanation – that the CDS is not just the commander of the Canadian Forces and a loyal public servant, but is also an advocate for the CF. This, of course, raises questions about how much advocacy is appropriate.

The challenge here is that, as in all advanced democracies, the relationship between civilian and military leadership is both robust and delicate. It is robust in that the CF will accept civilian authority (there is not a real crisis in civil-military relations right now). It is delicate in that military and civilian leaders often misunderstand each other: The military tends to be confident in its relative superiority in terms of expertise, and the civilian leadership is often quite concerned about any criticism from those with expertise. This tension is particularly palpable now, as we have a prime minister who is known for his concern about message management. 

Let’s get to the “heart” of the matter: Will the CF resist further cuts? No. The Canadian Forces really do not have the same kind of means to do so as the American military, which can play Congress off against the president. Party discipline in Canada means that budget cuts that hurt individual ridings cannot snowball into resistance within Parliament. Moreover, the Conservatives will not face much resistance from the other parties, because none of the other parties can take strong stands in favour of more defence spending. It is always easiest for parties on the right side of the political spectrum to cut the defence budget, and especially so with the Liberals in disarray and an NDP with a pacifist past.

The real budgetary challenge facing the CF is that the weapons systems of tomorrow cost far more per unit than the ones of the past. (The F-35 is not the only system that costs far more to buy and far more to maintain than the weapons technologies of previous generations.) The increased costs of these programs may crowd out spending on other defence priorities, such as readiness, training, and the like. The shifting of command structures from four commands to two (Canadian Joint Operations Command and Canadian Special Operations Forces Command), as advocated by retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, will not offset the expensiveness of the new weapons systems, as it was only intended to move personnel from headquarters back into combat positions, rather than reduce the number of personnel.

This speaks to Lawson’s statement yesterday that there is “very little fat” to cut in the military budget: The Canadian Forces do not have heaps of excess capacity. They have only three infantry regiments to take turns in foreign deployments, and only the bare minimum of fighter planes to guard the skies of Canada while deploying a handful when needed in the skies over Libya and the like.

The increasing costs of weapons systems means that the quality-versus-quantity balancing act becomes a question of all or nothing: Either Canada invests seriously in repairing its submarines and developing the next generation of submersibles, or it gets out of the business entirely. The cut here would be of meat, not of fat. When Canada buys the fighter planes and builds the ships, it may not be able to afford to go on significant deployments. This, again, would be cutting meat, not fat. Balancing budgets in the 21st century requires more than a few tweaks.

It is the job of the CDS to speak truth to power, making it known that significant savings can only be realized by cutting capabilities. The prime minister needs to understand this, as does the Canadian public. Hard choices are ahead. Speaking up on his first day in office may not have been Lawson’s best move, but Canadians need to realize that they need to make hard choices.  Kicking the can down the road is not a good way to plan for the future.