The Defence Policy Review does not represent a break from past White Papers, writes James Fergusson. It also contains more problematic elements, not least a disconnect in how to deal with the United States.
By James Fergusson, June 14, 2017
On the surface, the Defence Policy Review (DPR) document (a white paper by another name, but out of fashion because of the concept’s British colonial legacy) has much to be applauded for. A long term plan, increased spending, detailed, costed procurement programs, and a commitment to people. In twenty years, all will be well.
But, twenty years is a very long time in politics. If history is a guide, one cannot help but recall the bold, detailed 1987 White Paper, gutted and obsolete in two years as a function of the new geo-strategic environment and national economic problems. Regardless, even if the Canadian economy remains relatively good over the next twenty, this is no guarantee that future governments, Liberal or not, will actually follow through on the DPR’s commitment.
This, of course, is the easy criticism of the DPR. Indeed, one should not be surprised by the government’s decision to push defence investment down the road, well after the next federal election. But then, by the next election, even if the Liberals are re-elected, the DPR will be long forgotten. The DPR in many respects is politically brilliant. It pleases the pro-defence attentive public (the optimism following its release is indicative), and directs attention away from key substantive issues facing National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces to whether the government will actually follow through.
Even if the Canadian economy remains relatively good over the next twenty, this is no guarantee that future governments, Liberal or not, will actually follow through on the DPR’s commitment.
Moreover, it may be even more problematic if the government does follow through. Notwithstanding the thorough discussion across every possible threat environment (and in the absence of any clear threat prioritization), the threat environment twenty or even ten years from now is anyone’s guess, as is the real future requirements of the Canadian Armed Forces, future technological developments and the real costs of future equipment. In effect, the DPR proposes to acquire capabilities of significance for today, or the next five years, not for ten or twenty years down the road.
Naturally, no one can predict the future ten or twenty years out. Thus, the real assessment of the value and utility of the DPR is what is planned over the next five years, and the answer is not very much. In this regard, the DPR is very much the same old, same old. Despite its lovely rhetoric, it doesn’t truly represent a break from past White Papers.
Look, for example, at the proposals in the 1971 Defence White Paper, and the investments subsequently made over the following decade or so – two different beasts. Thus, what the government plans to do as detailed in the DPR is not likely to be what it does years from now. And, of course, if the Liberals win re-election, there will not be a new DPR (white paper), regardless of how much the world changes.
There are also other disconcerting elements. Generally, most observers believe that a DPR should follow, after a Foreign Affairs (now Global Affairs) policy review. One may surmise that the speech of the Foreign Affairs Minister, Chrystia Freeland the day before the release of the DPR fits this bill. But, in it, she raised significant questions about Canada’s ability to rely upon the United States for defence (it seems that no one can stop themselves from taking a shot at Trump).
Thus, the real assessment of the value and utility of the DPR is what is planned over the next five years, and the answer is not very much.
Yet, the DPR, naturally, commits the government to rely upon the United States for the defence of North America (Canada). Without America’s contribution to the modernization/replacement of the obsolete North Warning System (NWS), along with other core elements of the North American defence relationship, the costs of a truly national, unilateral approach to the defence of Canada is far beyond the willingness of this or any government to pay for. Can you say disconnect!
In addition, the DPR, like the 2005 Defence Policy Statement of the Martin government and the 2008 Harper Canada First Defence Strategy, boldly asserts Canada’s ability to lead international operations (engage à la the DPR). Yet, the reality of Canada’s ability to sustain roughly 3,000 personnel in long term operations places Canadian leadership on the strategic margins, and likely engaged in operations of little, if any, direct relevance to Canadian defence and security. Even in these operations, Canada needs to rely, as all of the NATO allies, on American capabilities and support. Canada goes nowhere, or should go nowhere without American support. Slamming the United States may be good politics in Canada for this government, but it is divorced from Canadian strategic reality.
In addition, the DPR commits the government to maintain full spectrum forces. Before then, it was general-purpose forces, followed in the 1994 Defence White Paper by multi-purpose combat capable forces. What any of these concepts truly means for all the actors is an open question. Regardless, full spectrum forces will be whatever the Forces possess at the end of day.
Moreover, Canada has not truly had full spectrum forces largely since World War II. The gradual process of specialization has occurred in an ad hoc manner, driven primarily by the relationship between the life cycle of a capability and the budget situation. It is wonderful to have the government through the DPR identify fifty plus capital programs over the next twenty years. But, there is no explicit priority set relative to the unpredictable future, notwithstanding the naval surface combatant investment to date. Nor should there be relative to an unpredictable future.
Slamming the United States may be good politics in Canada for this government, but it is divorced from Canadian strategic reality.
The fighter replacement is itself indicative of the problems associated with the DPR. Before one applauds the decision to acquire 88 fighters, with an operational date of roughly 2032 (regardless of the Super Hornet question, wisely avoided in the DPR), an increase of 23 fighters from the Harper F-35 decision, the timeline from today to requests for proposals (RFP), contract and acquisition is mind boggling. After nearly twenty years of involvement in the replacement of the CF-18 Hornet, an RFP should be out the door in months, if not weeks or days.
By the time the new fighter is acquired, the CF-18s will be roughly fifty years old, and long out of date relative to allied fighter fleets, unless the government plans to invest significant amounts of money on upgrades. Furthermore, given the reality of the fighter market, the only choice will be the F-35. In other words, the government, which painted itself into a corner, is kicking the fighter down the road to avoid embarrassment. Even more, the reality of technological change means that the CF-18 (and Super Hornet) will likely be the last manned fighter in Canada. Multi-purpose drones are the wave of the future – and perhaps this is what is truly meant by the somewhat vague commitment to procure armed drones.
In the end, the DPR is a policy document really about the here and now, with a timeline set far in the future. It has something for everyone, but whether everyone gets something remains to be seen. In this regard, the DPR will join the previous white papers in terms of their relevance. This should be no surprise – it is Canada, you know.
James Fergusson is the Director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.