The DND's Strategic Uncertainty

There's one big problem with the Department of National Defence's effort to articulate strategic clarity argues Steve Saideman – the Harper government.
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October 15, 2013

The new effort by the Department of National Defence to save money via 'Defence Renewal' has a variety of aspects that can and should be examined.  Saving a billion dollars a year would be significant, representing more than five percent of the budget.  However, besides the various hopes and dreams built into this process, there is one piece that is almost stunning in its lack of realism – the part about strategic clarity:

Strategic clarity is the articulation of a clear organizational direction and strategy for success, and the translation of that strategy into specific goals and targets throughout all levels of the organization. It is an essential component of ensuring priorities and resources within an organization are aligned and focussed on delivery a set of commonly shared objectives.

There are two basic problems here: much of this lies outside of DND; and thus far this government has done a lousy job setting priorities.

Sure, it would make a great deal of sense for DND to figure out what its future is and then orient itself around that.  However, the pattern of the past several years indicates that the strategic direction of the CF and its civilian masters is subject to fairly rapid change at the whims of the folks in the Prime Minister’s Office.  As far as I can tell (including conversations in Brussels and Ottawa with people who should know), DND and the CF were not involved in the decision to send 900 troops to Afghanistan for the training mission that is now wrapping up.  The announcement earlier this year to send a single plane to help out the French in Mali for a very short bit of time with a series of extensions also seemed to lack any military input – it seems hardly credible that the French would only need a few days of help. 

One could argue that there has been much stability in Canadian strategy.  There have been no modifications to the key document, the Canadian Defence First Strategy, except for all of the aspects that have been overtaken by events, such as much investment in a northern port, delays in the new vessels for patrolling the Arctic, and the like.  Indeed, this document represents a largely unaddressed cleavage between Harper and the military – the latter is still focused on its day job of working within NATO while Harper is apparently not a big fan of the alliance and is most interested in bilateral military efforts.

So, the first problem with the new plan for Strategic Clarity is that it is not clear what Canada’s strategy is these days.  The second problem is related to the first – the above definition of Strategic Clarity would seem to require prioritization and difficult choices.  Given that the government has continued to try to continue major procurement projects for all three branches of the CF, that it refuses to consider cuts in the number of troops in the CF, and has downplayed the effects of spending cuts on readiness, I would have to say that Harper and his team are lousy at setting priorities.  To be sure, the CF isn’t so great at this either, although the Army has shown some interest by asking to cut the Close Combat Vehicle.  Otherwise, peace within the unified CF might be best kept by giving everyone the big-ticket items they want.  Hard choices, like dealing with the sub mess, continue to be avoided.

Thus, I am skeptical about this Defence Renewal effort.  The people writing the documents have the right idea – if you can figure out what Canada’s strategy is and stick to it, then choices about how to shift the money become clearer.  Actually shifting the money, making personnel cuts, and the like would still be politically difficult but would be easier to explain and defend.

The problem is that politicians decide strategy, as it should be, which makes it harder to predict.  And with this government, clarity is not likely, so setting up a plan based on strategic clarity is very problematic at the least.  It is more of a hope than a plan, and the two should not be confused.  Perhaps strategic clarity should focus on being clear about how to manage strategic uncertainty.