It has been five years since the government published the Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS). Since then, it has ordered the withdrawal of Canadian forces from combat operations in Afghanistan and ordered the final withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, deployed forces to conduct operations off and in Libya, conducted counter piracy and counter drug operations in the oceans of the world, and invested significant resources in the Canadian Armed Forces. As the tempo of operations tapers off, the government has, like all previous governments, reduced the DND budget. Perhaps now is a good time for the government to reassess the CFDS.
With rare exceptions, Canadian governments historically constrain Defence spending because there are few enduring votes in defence.
In essence, living next to the U.S.A., Canadians intuitively sense that their defence is catered for by the U.S. machine, and feel secure in directing their tax dollars towards social programs rather than defence and security.
As Andrew Cohen concluded while commenting on a recent Maclean’s survey “Canadians are the luckiest people in the world – if only because in the lottery of neighbours, we drew the United States of America”. As a result of this perceived geographical advantage, Canadian Governments have been able to dabble in peacekeeping, submit the Canadian Forces to endless social and organizational experiments, and generally starve it without having to fear the consequences of an inadequate defence posture.
With consideration to such realities, this article argues that Canada is now at a crossroads. One road leads to a Defence Policy that recognizes Canada’s strategic strengths and is both achievable and affordable. The other is simply a continuation of a default policy of “balance”, which has (and always will) lead to a force structure that is incompatible with the needs of Canada, and Canadians will not pay for.
This road perpetuates the status quo, whereby the Canadian Armed Forces, facing increased resource restrictions, has no option but to continue their failed processes of “cut, reorganize, redistribute and shave the “ice cube”.
To start, we need to understand that, with the exception of the Navy, Canada’s armed forces evolved, not based on analysis of national interests or indeed vital national interests, but through its involvement in two World Wars, one Cold War, and through forced partisan political re-alignment.
By way of definition, a vital national interest is an immutable interest which is directly tied to Canada’s safety and security, and if threatened, puts Canada at existential risk. Defense of national vital interests requires our collective commitment to expend Canada’s youth, blood and treasure to survive as a nation. One can argue that since the Second World War Canada has prolifically expended her youth, blood and treasure on events that did not threaten our vital national interests but were based on an emotive or “values” way of thinking.
As mentioned earlier, geography is a great, yet significantly unrecognized, Canadian strategic asset. In terms of security, Canada can almost be considered an island. Threats, other than internal, typically arrive on our shores by air/space/cyber or by sea. What does that mean in terms of security and prosperity?
In particular, ocean threats impact many vital components. Our constant strategic reality is that Canada has relied on the sea to move her trade, to defend herself, and to go to war. Thus strategically, the most important aspect of our security, supporting our vital national interests, has been and will continue to be the ability to move on, below or above the world’s oceans. Canada must safeguard the capabilities and efficiencies of forces and agencies that can operate in these environments so they can defend our vital national interests.
The major existential threats to Canada as we know it are; internal national unity strife, proselytization, weapons of mass destruction, and world-wide economic instability. The first two are civil issues requiring non-military strategic policies and actions; the third is a military issue but is, in reality, madness; and the fourth is also a military issue in that the control of Canada’s ocean areas (including the airspace above and below and the unfettered use of the world’s oceans – including our ability to deny use to potential enemies) is vital in that economic growth and prosperity is vital to its continued existence and hence is a vital national interest. Only a navy and an air force can fulfill this role, a standing army is a strategic luxury.
Some will argue that such an approach will not be acceptable as it does not recognize Canada’s great peacekeeping legacy, our effort in Afghanistan, or our “values”. First, peacekeeping is a myth. Essentially, it is little more than “conflict delay” and if the two parties desire to fight they will (witness the expulsion of the UN from the Sinai in 1956). A peacekeeping force must be requested by the warring factions, under terms agreed to by both sides.
Many now view western efforts in Afghanistan as a strategic failure. The government of the day indicated that our forces were going to Afghanistan to defend Canada’s national interests, ensure Canadian leadership in world affairs and help the rebuild of that country. What national interests? What leadership? At best these are values, not vital national interests. Canada’s existence was not threatened by the events in Afghanistan. Why expend our youth, our blood and our treasure on values? If a nation, a people or indeed a culture desire to live in the 7th century, let it – as long as it does not threaten Canada. If it does pose a threat, we need the reach out to counter that threat, far from our shores, leveraging our strategic geographic reality and technology. This is translated into high technology air and sea-based capabilities which include the ability to insert a capability on the land.
Canadian policy makers need to recognize that, short of global war, Canadians will not commit the resources necessary for a robust and balanced military when given the choice between defence and social spending. Hence they need to focus effort and resources towards military capabilities that will ensure, first, the strategic security and well-being of the nation (the protection of our vital national interests), and second, how best to leverage these military and civil capabilities to contribute to overall global security (which also supports vital national interests). Thus, when it comes to resource distribution within the Canadian Armed Forces, rather than focus on superficial tactical level reports such as the 2011 Report on Transformation, our strategic and political leaders should focus on developing a policy that is based on our vital national interests and what Canadians are willing to afford. Taking such a strategic approach will be a formidable challenge for Canada’s defence and security leadership.
For the past decade or, Canada’s defence leaders have focused, not at the strategic level, but at the operational and tactical levels. They plan and execute well, but the ability to develop strategic concepts, allocate and prioritize resources that support government policy seems to be a step too far. As a result, the ability to take tough strategic decisions is absent, and by default a cautious “balanced” approach supported by a mantra of “boots on the ground” has taken hold. There is, for Canada, no balance.
Realistically, only one army can invade Canada – and it is not likely to do so. Thus the Canadian Army, as constituted, is an expensive policy luxury. What Canada needs is a defence structure based on the ability to control our airspace, our ocean approaches, and the means to deploy expeditionary capability by air and by sea.
This means a larger and more combat-capable air force, one that can conduct combat operations over land, over sea, and from the sea, plus a larger, more combat- and amphibious-capable navy able to extend influence on land, with the army configured to conduct deployed air-transportable and amphibious operations.
Configured thus, the Canadian Armed Forces would be capable of protecting our vital national interests as well as contribute to global security. The force would support Canadian Foreign policy and be supported by the Canadian taxpayer.
To recognize and refocus the Canadian Armed Forces based on real threats to Canada, our vital national interests, our strategic geographic reality, and our historic resource realities, will take courage – courage to think strategically, courage to place historic service and partisan rivalries aside, courage to act in the best interests of the nation, and courage to be honest with ourselves.
Ian Parker is a defence and strategic analysis consultant with CFN Consultants.
© FrontLine Defence 2013