The Limits of Civilian Oversight

The F-35 debacle points to a key problem in the Canadian military: lack of expertise.
By: /
April 9, 2012
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It has been an awful week for civilian control of the Canadian military. Apparently, only the auditor-general can get real answers about the cost of the F-35. Given that parliamentarians have been asking questions like this for a few years now, this underlines both the opacity of the Department of National Defence (DND) and how incredibly feeble Parliament is when it comes to monitoring DND. The news at the end of the week is not going to make things any better: DND is cutting one-third of the positions at its educational institutions (the Royal Military College of Canada, the Canadian Forces College, and the Royal Military College of St. Jean). This, plus the cuts to the Security and Defence Forum, points to a key problem in Canadian civilian-military relations and civilian control of the military: shrinking expertise.

For any government seeking to control any agency, there is a basic problem: the agency will have more information and more expertise than the people seeking to exert control. This is especially the case when it comes to the military, where secrecy is actually required some of the time, and where the gap in expertise is vast. One can argue that it is the job of the minister of national defence and the folks in DND to oversee the military, and parliamentarians have told me exactly that. The auditor-general’s report shows that this mechanism of civilian oversight of the Canadian Forces is incredibly lacking. There are two other ways that civilians can facilitate oversight: via Parliament, and through improved civilian expertise. Unfortunately, recent events and trends suggest that civilian oversight is going to remain problematic, and even worsen.

I have been telling my students for the past few years that there is no parliamentary oversight over the Canadian military. I would normally say that procurement is the exception to that rule, but the F-35 fiasco suggests that is not even true. Why do I make such a claim?  Because parliamentarians lack the basic requirements for engaging in oversight over the Canadian Forces: interest, expertise, and clearances. Because of the nature of Canadian politics, there is really no incentive for any member of Parliament to dedicate much time and effort to learn about the Canadian military. MPs do not spend much time on the defence committee, so even defence critics lack real understanding of how things work. And even if they did understand, they cannot ask penetrating questions, or even know what questions to ask, since they lack security clearances. They cannot hold the feet of the generals and admirals to the fire, since the officers can say, “We cannot tell you.”

Worse still, the members of Parliament that I have talked to about this accept the situation and prefer to remain relatively ignorant critics rather than informed overseers. This contrasts sharply not just with representatives and senators in the U.S. Congress, but also with the parliaments in Europe. Sure, the Brits, Aussies, and New Zealanders have a similar legacy of ill-informed parliaments, with Question Period with the ministers serving as the only real forum for raising concerns. The problem, of course, is that this is public, and much of what might need to be discussed is private. The Dutch, the Germans, and the other continental European countries hold closed sessions so that their MPs can ask important questions and get real information from their ministers and their military officers. After the fiascos of the detainee investigations and the F-35, the members of Parliament might just consider opening up their imagination about what parliaments can do to supervise the military. Depending on the ministers to do the oversight for them does not seem to be working very well.

Civilian expertise is another important check on any military. The more that the non-uniformed people know about the military, the harder it is for the officers to fool the public.  Before the Second World War, there was relatively little civilian expertise about the military in any advanced democracy. After the war, scholars and experts became important alternative sources of information about modern militaries. In Canada, the Department of National Defence supported this development through two key mechanisms: its own educational institutions and the funding of civilian research.

DND operates the Royal Military College of Canada, the Canadian Forces College, and the Royal Military College of St. Jean. These schools not only educate military officers, but also employ academics who study the military. By providing jobs and funding to scholars who focus on the military, DND is helping to breed knowledge about the Canadian Forces (and militaries elsewhere). However, one-third of the professors working in these institutions are about to lose their jobs due to defence budget cuts. This will significantly weaken civilian expertise at a time when there seems to be a great need for understanding the Canadian Forces and the challenges they face.

The second mechanism, funding of civilian research, was largely done through the Security and Defence Forum (SDF), an agency within DND. SDF supported research by scholars throughout Canada, but is now facing the axe, apparently losing 80 per cent of its funding. This will mean that all the research centres throughout Canada will lose much of their revenue, and will thus be forced to close down or scale back their activities. These centres not only did research, but also transmitted their findings to the Canadian public via media, conferences, and education.

The decline in civilian expertise resulting from these budget cuts is not just bad for professors – it is also bad for Canada. The media will be less able to assess what is going on and communicate it to the public since they rely on experts to help them understand the meaning of ongoing events, the implications of various technologies, and the trade-offs of alternative strategies. It would not be so problematic if the military and current government were transparent, but that is not the case, as the auditor-general’s report demonstrates quite clearly.

I have a great deal of respect for the Canadian military, but the past several years indicate that the current government and military have a strong tendency to smooth over whatever happens rather than being upfront about it. I am convinced that the Canadian military behaved responsibly in difficult circumstances when it came to the challenge of transferring detainees in Afghanistan. But rather than being transparent and clear about the problem as it arose, its tendency seemed to be to deny, deny, deny. That angered the politicians, gave the media the sense that there was smoke and fire, and ultimately distracted everyone from focusing on the really important questions of the day, such as whether the mission was worthwhile and what it was for. The same dynamic has largely been true for the F-35s: Greater transparency would have meant less hostility. As usual, it is not so much the crime, but the cover-up, that is the problem. I don’t mean to say that something criminal has occurred, but rather that the instinct to pour secret sauce on any decision, event, or problem does not do anyone a service, as the truth often does get out, and then it is far more controversial. With the eventual decline in civilian expertise, we may find that the secret sauce gets thicker and penetrated far less often.

Photo courtesy of Reuters