The Need for a National Defence Policy and Strategy

15 September 2012

On 12 May 2008, the Government of Canada published the Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS). Four years later, Canada ceased combat operations in Afghanistan with the intent to withdraw by the end of 2014.

Budgets 2011 and 2012, as well as Strategic Review reductions, have cut the defence budget to the point where it must be obvious to even the most optimistic observer that the CFDS is not (and probably never was) affordable. In the time-honoured Canadian way, expenditures for some of the more important Defence ­programs have lately been “re-profiled” (political code for cuts).

Between 1980 and 2011, the Federal Government transferred approximately $350.5B in health funding to the Provinces (this figure does not include added billions transfered in support of other provincial social programs). During that same 1980-2011 period, the Federal Government spent approximately $399B on defence. Similar amounts, and yet, health and social ­programs are a Provincial responsibility, whereas defence and security of the nation is a purely ­Federal responsibility.

Studies on capital equipment stipulate that 25% is the minimum required to ­sustain a force and, if transformation is desired, that need increases to 28-30%. Yet equipment investment stipulated in the CFDS was a mere 12%. Thus, even if fully funded, the CFDS meant a steady erosion of CF capability given current structure and policies.

Historically (with rare exceptions), Cana­dian governments constrain defence spending yet support social programs. This is primarily because, in our peaceful part of the planet, it is difficult for voters to grasp the full imperative of defence spending, whereas social programs affect them in very obvious ways.

This article argues that Canada needs to be realistic and take a top down approach to developing an affordable defence policy and defence structure matching resources with government policy rather than play the normal self-indulgent and wasteful Canadian game of “cut, reorganize, redistribute and shave the ice cube”. Although such activities may resonate well with the electorate, too much can undermine security and sovereignty.

Regrettably, Canadian governments seldom explain, other than in broad fuzzy terms such as “values”, what they expect our nation’s military to be capable of. Thus, the armed forces continually struggle to do everything with less, which, ultimately, is never doable.

Given the reality of Canadian defence spending by all political parties, it would be appropriate for government to conduct a top down National Security Policy review based on Canada’s vital national interests. This should then lead to a new Defence Policy – a policy not based on what the DND/CF believes it needs (given no real government direction) but, based on ­government direction derived from vital national interests. Essentially: what Canada needs and what Canadians are willing to afford.

Without an approach based on vital national interests, Canada’s perceived Defence Policy seems based on the philosophy that “boots on the ground”, specifically foreign ground, are key to Canada’s Defence. This philosophy shows a flawed understanding of national and vital national interests and how they need to shape Security and Defence policies. A predilection for “boots on the ground” led to our engagement in Afghanistan, a war that was in no way based on Canada’s vital national interests. A move not to commit ground forces in Libya and perhaps to stay away from the civil war in Syria may be the result of emerging recognition by government that perhaps Canadian defence posture is mal-defined.

To be absolutely clear, a vital national interest is that which is directly tied to Canada’s peace and security, and if threatened, puts Canada at existential risk. Defense of national vital interests requires a national commitment to expend Canada’s youth, blood and treasure to survive. On the other hand, a non-vital national interest, or what some in Canada might call a “value”, is softer, more intangible and perhaps, over time, changing. Examples include economic welfare and human rights. If these interests are threatened, there is no repeat, no existentially threat to Canada – especially if the threat is in another country.

Defence and security of the nation is a purely ­Federal responsibility.

Thus, the argument stands that Canada should not expend its youth, blood and treasure to counter threats to “values”. With the exception of WWII, the Cold War and the direct response to 911 there have been no real threats to Canada’s vital national interests in the last or the current century. However, lacking a National Security Policy based on a firm understanding of Canada’s vital national interests, Canada has for many decades taken a series of short term decisions focused on “values” rather than vital national interests – spending our youth, blood and treasure in the mistaken belief that defending these values contributes to Canada’s security and curries favour with Allies. In reality, these policies have undermined Canada’s ability to defend her vital national interests.

History and reality should teach us that nations have interests but they tend not to have long memories. Canada’s “boots on the ground” in both World Wars had little effect on our post war international standing. Given our contribution to victory, why then were we not considered for a seat on the UN Security Council, whereas nations that contributed much less now sit on the Council? The endless draining rotations of battle groups through the Balkans

in the 1990s failed to get Canada a seat at the table crafting the Dayton Accord; neither have our more recent efforts in Afghanistan realized any resolution of the significant cross-border trade or other issues vital to Canada. Thus although “boots on the ground” may be required, they cannot be Canada’s exclusive nor most important defence focus. To do so ignores the reality of real threats to Canadian vital national interests and our means to defend against them. Essentially, Canada needs to be able to look after herself first. We must remember that no other nation will, unless it is in their vital national interest to do so.

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, will most likely arrive on our shores by air/space/cyber or by sea. Surrounded by oceans and air space, only forces and agencies that can operate in these environments can defend our vital national interests. The unfettered 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 unfettered use to potential enemies – is a vital national interest to Canada and should be the key to Canada’s defence strategy. Only a navy and an air force can fulfill this role. A capable navy and a capable air force, due to their inherent mission and operational flexibility, should thus also form the basis of Canada’s other key vital interest of “International Stability”. Noted British historian Paul Kennedy described the Allied navies as the constant and unchallengeable wall that stood against the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. This strategic reality is illustrative of defending a vital national interest against an existential threat.

Our constant historic strategic reality is that Canada has relied on the sea both 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.

Recognizing that Canada is unwilling to commit, short of war, adequate resources for defence, any National Security Policy and Defence Policy needs to ensure, first, the strategic security and well-being of the nation, and second, how best to contribute to overall global security.

We have in the past tended to seek balance on the assumption that strategic surprises can be countered. But balance has and never will be possible due to Canadian political realities. Thus Canada needs to tailor its’ Defence Policy and military capability to protect it’s vital national interests within the resources allocated by government. Only then can Canada implement an achievable Defence Policy. Tailoring defence forces based on the nation’s vital national interests will give government the forces and the flexibility to counter existential threats to Canada and the flexibility to deploy and support forces for international operations while managing constrained budgets. To do otherwise perpetuates the ongoing and inefficient process of “cut, reorganize, redistribute and shave the ice cube”.

Ian Parker, a retired naval officer with 37 years in the Canadian Navy, is currently a defence and strategic analysis consultant. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.
© FrontLine Defence 2012