Three recommendations for Canada’s defence review

From consulting NATO to weighing the cost of personnel, defence expert Steve Saideman lists key considerations.  

By: /
May 13, 2016
The CC-130J Super Hercules aircraft of Canadian Forces' 463 Squadron arrives at Canadian Forces Base Trenton November 30, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill

This week, I had the chance to participate in a meeting with two of the members of the Advisory Panel for the Canadian Defence Review: Margaret Purdy and Gen. (ret.) Ray Henault. (I am a big fan of Purdy as she keeps plugging my book!)

The event was organized by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute
(the defence contractors association). The attendees and presenters were mostly ex-military, but the audience included a couple of senators, individuals who had served in government and those continuing to serve. It was a Chatham House event, so I cannot say who said what, except I can say what I said. So, below is my statement, more or less, as I riffed a bit. 

As the new government considers Canada’s defence in a challenging world, there are many topics to address. While others will focus on threats, I think one way to organize the discussion is to focus on what the money is spent on—equipment, operations and personnel. The media and the parliament tend to focus almost entirely on the procurement of equipment. I might guess that much of the discussion at the various roundtables will be centred on that as well, so I will focus elsewhere—on operations and on personnel. My points will be simple ones—that NATO drives Canadian operations, that readiness is often overlooked, and that the size of the CAF is something that needs to be considered. 

1. Recognize the importance of NATO.

First, my observation of this Liberal government is that NATO is an afterthought. The focus on UN and peacekeeping fits with Liberal values and is aimed at reversing the efforts of the previous government. In their defence platform, NATO was only briefly discussed. But the reality is that whenever NATO engages in an operation, Canada shows up and expends a great deal of effort: Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya and now the reassurance mission. Canada has opted out of coalitions of the willing, and there are too many UN missions so Canada has to pick and choose. But with NATO, Canada participates, so the review should consult NATO and consider what the alliance will need from Canada down the road. 

My guess is that the Canadian Armed Forces will be disappointed—that NATO will not demand a full spectrum military but perhaps want Canada to focus on some things Canada does well, even if it means doing other stuff less. Which things/stuff? The people in Brussels and Mons may have some answers to those questions. The British consulted with NATO extensively during their recent review. I hope this review does the same.

2. Don’t underestimate the readiness factor.

Second, one of the big differences between American and Canadian debates about military spending is that you don’t hear the word “hollow” much up here. In the U.S., there is always the concern that there is not enough spending on training, maintenance and operations, that the military will be big but not capable. In Canada, most of the discussion is on procurement. But we need to think seriously about how operations/maintenance/training is funded as that determines readiness—can Canada fight well when it has to? Despite being out of Afghanistan, Canada faces a pretty high pace of operations—rotating into and out of Eastern Europe on a regular basis as part of NATO’s reassurance missions, supporting the training mission in Iraq. But when the budget gets squeezed, it almost always comes out of readiness, as procurement has its own calendar and as personnel costs are seen as fixed. 

3. Account for the real cost of personnel.

This leads me to my third point: personnel costs are nearly 50 percent of the budget. So, any defence decisions should take seriously this part of the budget. I am not saying that we need to cut pay or benefits, but that the size of the force is a key constraint that cannot be ignored. If one assumes that Canadians will not want more money spent on defence or that this government is unlikely to do so, then the size of the force is a key consideration for whatever is planned. 

A related trend is this: with every defence program becoming more and more expensive, Canada will buy less. The next fighter plane purchase will certainly lead to fewer planes than the original F-18 procurement. The shipbuilding program is not going to lead to 15 ships. So, we are likely to need fewer pilots and fewer sailors. To keep the intra-CAF peace and also to face the current budgetary reality, cutting the Army’s size down a bit is probably a least-worst solution. 

I do think that the best decision would be for Canada to spend more on its military, but I recognize that this is a non-starter. Whatever increases will probably not catch up to inflation. I also recognize that Canada will continue to spend more and get less due to the insistence on buying Canadian built equipment even when better/less expensive stuff is available. Given these trends, the CAF is in for hard times ahead—expected to keep up the pace of operations while avoiding hard decisions about priorities. Perhaps the Defence Review will lead to some difficult decisions actually being confronted.

For the author’s post-meeting reactions, visit his personal site here