Two recent reports from the Senate Standing Committee offer sobering contributions to the national discussion on Canadian defence policy, writes Charles Davies. Both reports should be read together, especially in advance of the government’s planned release of its Defence Policy Review.
By Charles Davies, May 19, 2017
It would be a mistake to only look at the headlines of the recent report released by the bipartisan Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence, titled Reinvesting in the Canadian Armed Forces: A Plan for the Future.
The report’s proposals are certainly eye-catching - from canceling the government’s interim Super Hornet acquisition to increasing defence spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2028 to undertaking a multitude of costly defence capability upgrades. However, the real thrust of the report, together with its companion document released in April, is a call for fundamental change in how the Government of Canada manages defence.
The two reports need to be read together. Indeed, the April one is in many ways the more important of the two – by setting out five fundamental areas of reform seen as necessary to correct the chronic mismanagement of defence by successive governments, both Liberal and Conservative.
The first of these is the proposal to progressively increase defence spending to 2 percent of GDP. Many critics argue that this figure is arbitrary and even meaningless, or that the target is unaffordable. Neither argument is valid. While there are many ways to look at nations’ defence expenditures, the closest thing to a globally accepted measure is percentage of GDP. It is also a good way to assess the importance of defence relative to a country’s overall wealth.
More to the point, it is the measure all NATO nations, including Canada, have agreed to use. As for affordability, countries like Australia, the UK, France and others either spend 2 percent of GDP (or close to it) or plan on increasing it to that level. If it is affordable for them, then it is affordable for Canada. It is simply a matter of political will. Whether the Senate’s target date of 2028 is realistic may be a different question. That’s a lot of new spending to undertake over a relatively short period of time for any government bureaucracy, let alone one as chronically constipated as Canada’s.
Defence procurement is a complex and difficult undertaking for all nations. But it is well documented that Canada is less efficient at turning defence “bucks” into “bang” than most of its allies.
The Senate’s solution for part of this latter problem is their proposal to make DND fully responsible for defence procurement. With multiple departments now involved, we have the problem that “everyone is responsible so no one is responsible” for delays, cost overruns, and other failures. Defence procurement is a complex and difficult undertaking for all nations. But it is well documented that Canada is less efficient at turning defence “bucks” into “bang” than most of its allies. The Senate’s proposal for a single point of accountability therefore has undeniable merit, although no one should underestimate the challenges of implementing it, particularly alongside a major increase in procurement.
The third proposal is to place greater emphasis on cyber security and critical infrastructure protection, a requirement that recent events have again highlighted. Both areas are properly recognized in the report as having a wider continental dimension, with cyber security entailing an even broader global dimension. The Senators call on the government to develop an integrated and joint strategy with our US neighbours and other partners.
The report also highlights the importance of examining defence policy alongside national security and foreign policies, something the current government’s Defence Policy Review failed to do.
The Senate’s fourth proposal is for a cyclical review of Canadian defence policy every four years. In recent decades Prime Ministers have undertaken a defence policy review only once during their time in office, meaning there have been gaps as long as 16 years. The report also highlights the importance of examining defence policy alongside national security and foreign policies, something the current government’s Defence Policy Review failed to do – although Ministers Freeland and Sajjan have belatedly begun to connect foreign and defence policy to some degree. Cyclical reviews of defence and national security policies every four or five years to keep them current in the face of evolving threats are common in other Western nations, and Canada should do no less.
Finally, the report calls on the government to build a more enduring political consensus around defence policy – by working with the House of Commons and Senate to create more stability and reduce waste in spending. Defence investments typically take years or even decades to plan and implement, so decisions taken by past governments have largely shaped the military options the current government has available. Today’s decisions will similarly shape the options of future governments. Politically driven direction changes every time a new government comes to power are, as a consequence, hugely wasteful of the limited funds allocated to defence, and the Senators quite rightly argue that the defence of Canada should be an issue above partisan politics.
The Senate Committee’s recent Defence Policy Review report needs to be read within the context set out by its earlier April report. The document is not “pie in the sky” wishful thinking. It is an important narrative outlining just how extensive the investment needs of the Canadian Armed Forces will be over the coming decade or more, and the consequences of failing to meet them. More to the point, taken together the two reports represent a clear call to the current and future governments to take their important responsibilities for defence and security more seriously than their predecessors over the past several decades have done.
Many knowledgeable commentators believe that the world is going through a time of tectonic change in the global order – from Russian adventurism in Ukraine and Syria to expanding Chinese influence in the South China Sea and globally with its One Belt One Road initiative. Today, even the most optimistic observer will acknowledge the unpredictability of future defence and security challenges facing Canada. These two Senate reports are important and sobering contributions to the national discussion we need to have about the defence capabilities our nation will need for the coming decades, and how to deliver and sustain them efficiently and effectively. They are serious reads.
Colonel Charles Davies (Retired) is a Fellow of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.