The Pro-Military Paradox

Steve Saideman on why the Conservative government's decision to refuse a Canadian Forces cutback isn't pro-military.
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May 28, 2013
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In a previous post, I talked about the budget challenges facing the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence.  Last week, a story came out that made it clear that the folks who are really in denial are not the Canadian Forces but the Harper government.  Specifically, the Canadian Army wanted to cancel a program (really!) to buy new armoured vehicles.  The $2 billion saved would go to operations, maintenance, and training efforts that are currently facing cuts.  The government said no. 

To be clear, civilians should reign supreme in these types of decisions – civilian control of the military means that the military advises but the civilians decide.  The problem here is that the decision is being guided even more than usual by politics and in a negative direction.  Yes, all decisions are political, with many considerations involved and competing ideas of what is best for the country.  In this case, the government wants to avoid being criticized for yet another bad procurement process.  Trying to avoid criticism is not likely to lead to the pursuit of the national interest.

Most importantly, this decision fits into a larger pattern: the Harper government has cut the military’s budget but has demanded that the military not change its size or cut the big procurement programs.  This allows the government to look like it is pro-military and pro-industry.  But with these two parameters set, it can only mean that the cuts will come from training, maintenance, and operations.  In the U.S., which has its own dysfunctional budget politics with the dynamics of the sequester forcing cuts without strategy, there is at least a discussion of “hollowing out the force.”  The U.S. politicians remember that cuts after Vietnam meant that the armed forces could not afford to practice properly, and so would not be able to fight well if they were sent into harm’s way. 

In Canada, there has been little discussion of the risk that the Canadian Forces will lose their edge because the cuts will reduce training and maintenance.  Expensive equipment requires a lot of effort to keep it working.  Helicopters, ancient or not, tend to break, for instance.  So, if you cannot order parts, one tendency is to cannibalize the broken equipment and use the parts to keep other equipment  in the air or at sea or on the road.  Keeping the military in fighting form requires hours in the air, it requires practicing combat in the field, and it requires being at sea.  All of this costs money that comes from the operations/training/maintenance budgets. 

In this case, the Army prioritized doing the stuff that keeps their edge over getting new vehicles.  The government, because it does not want to look bad, focused on more new equipment.  In this case, the military’s priorities are clearly correct.  It is a lot easier to lose one’s edge than to re-gain it. 

Of course, there is another larger pattern here – the Conservative government is unlikely to deploy the military any time in the near future,  so perhaps they are gambling that a few years of hollowing out the force is OK because there will be few consequences.  Unfortunately, the world has a tendency to be a bit less predictable than maintenance cycles, and the government may find itself pressured by allies or by circumstances to use an un-ready military.  Or it will bequeath the problem to the next government, which will be in a poor position when the world comes a-calling.

If the government acknowledged these tradeoffs between current spending and future equipment and justified the choice, this all might make sense.  Thus far, we have not seen the government do so, as it prefers to appear to be pro-military rather than actually heed the military’s advice on this one.  While the Canadian Forces are not always right, it is pretty obvious that they are in this case.  After all, they grew up listening to this song.