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CDA Institute guest contributor Robert Burroughs, an MA student at uOttawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affair, advocates shifting the discussion on defence policy away from platforms to one that addresses what we actually want our military to do.

As we wait for the Munk Debate on Canada’s Foreign Policy, featuring Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, and Thomas Mulcair, it is a good time to talk about defence.

All three major parties have made some form of defence-related statement, an example of which can be found on Esprit de Corp‘s website. Senator Hugh Segal’s proposal that there be a dedicated debate on defence issues is not an inherently bad one . In fact, it might actually be a good thing for an election that is finally starting to make sense.

For what it’s worth, I think that a section during the foreign policy debate would suffice, instead of a stand-alone debate. I say this because I am not sure any leader (except perhaps the Prime Minister, but he’s not likely to stray far from championing the government’s work and swiping left at both Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau) has the ability to sustain a two-hour debate on defence-related issues.

I say this because our track record in Canada over the past couple of years for serious defence-related discussion and debate is pretty abysmal – anyone who has attended a House of Commons defence committee meeting can attest to that. My biggest fear is that the debate would turn into a nationally-broadcasted version of said committee, during which the participants either opt for the esoteric, overly-theoretical route or focus too much on the widgets of defence matters. By the latter, I mean the numbers, i.e., we have too many soldiers, we should spend more than 1 percent of GDP on defence, we need to “rebalance” the fleet (by moving one frigate from Halifax to Esquimalt), etc.

We are all guilty of widgeting on defence matters, possibly because we don’t know enough (and the military doesn’t make it easy enough to grasp the lingo and concepts), possibly since it makes for good headlines, or possibly because our experiences with the military have been so siloed. The easiest widget of all to focus on is defence spending. As someone who tries to stay away from most procurement / money-related issues in the defence realm, this is a particular peeve, not simply because it does not solve anything. So when David Akin tweeted back in May wondering whether “we can have a serious chat about defence spending” during this election, my first reaction was to ask whether “we can have a [serious] chat about defence policy that doesn’t only focus on spending levels.”

Likewise, when Scott Gilmore published his article in August claiming that the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) had deteriorated to the same state as that of Bangladesh, it was hard not to allow the monumental eye roll that ensued.

Since Gilmore wrote his piece in Maclean’s magazine, in which he dedicated two pages talking about HMCS Athabaskan‘s lack of seaworthiness, the ship has left for NATO’s UK-led Trident Juncture exercise, along with the modernized HMCS Halifax frigate and one of the Victoria class submarines. Not bad for a sixth tier navy, as naval analyst Ken Hansen has criticized the RCN for becoming. It’s important for us to talk about Gilmore’s article because it arrived as the latest in a series of usually misinformed or factually incorrect pieces talking about our navy’s capabilities. Although yearning for what retired US admiral Stanley Weeks called “more seriousness” when discussing our position as a maritime nation, we are simply not in a position to understand the implications of a capable navy. Gilmore’s article is but one example of this.

For starters, Hansen’s analysis is over a year old and Leadmark itself also states that one cannot simply count up the in the number and type of platforms in a navy’s possession and assign a corresponding rank without first assessing its other capabilities – something that both Hansen and, to a larger extent, Gilmore do not do convincingly. Both of these authors point to the loss of command and control (C2) function and a logistics gap. Gilmore focuses more specifically on each platform, implying that it is the platform itself that is essential to the RCN’s ability to produce these capabilities. Such a mindset was phased out of Allied militaries with the end of the Cold War.

Albeit imperfectly in the eyes of some, the RCN has at least taken steps to temporarily address these gaps, such as leasing Chilean and later Spanish replenishment ships ad interim. The nature of C2 has also evolved. No longer are specific platforms integral to the delivery of this capability. This allowed the RCN to equip four of the modernized Halifax class frigates with the ability to integrate a C2 function. Are these capability gaps serious? Yes. But what are we not doing now as a result of current gaps? While having access to area air defence and replenishment are essential to the self-sufficient task force model, what is it that the RCN’s critics (or the government, for that matter) would have it do in addition to what it is already doing if these capabilities were available?

Furthermore, Gilmore claims that the RCN can no longer mount missions “without significant help from others.” Yet he ignores that Canadian defence policy does not necessarily demand such a capability for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Worse still is his ludicrous assertion that the RCN is not a blue-water navy that has an ability to operate “across the deep waters of open oceans.” Canada has maintained a continuous or continued maritime presence for the better part of the past decade in up to four seas. For example, in addition to the three vessels in the North Atlantic, Canada has this summer deployed naval assets to the Caribbean, and to the Mediterranean. The RCN has also ably demonstrated its adaptive abilities by improving its command experience, as demonstrated both at RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) 14 and earlier this year with Task Force Arabian Sea.

This isn’t the say that the RCN doesn’t have its problems – most senior officers likely have serious concerns about the feasibility of the current National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. And that’s before they start talking about a submarine replacement programme. The RCN could also do a better job of explaining the importance of programs such as the Halifax-class Modernization/Frigate Life Extension (HCM/FELEX), which will produce modernized platforms that are just as capable, if not more so, than the old Iroquois class destroyers. With their command and control upgrades and improved air defence capabilities, it is not likely that we will miss the capabilities the old destroyers used to give us.

If we are to have a mature, informed discussion about defence policy in this country, then we must start with a fundamental concept: what do we want our military to do? All parties and all members of the defence community can likely agree on certain key areas: (a) we need to clean up the military procurement process; (b) we should be doing a better job at taking care of our veterans (while understanding that veterans policy is not necessarily defence policy); (c) we need an updated defence policy. What will ultimately separate parties is how they articulate what it is they envision the CAF to do during their mandate. Pretend for a moment that availability of resources is not an issue; what do we want to do? Now factor in the scarcity of resources; what is it that we can do? Somewhere in there we should find a reasonable defence plan.

To parrot Gilmore, who is to blame for our inability to have a proper national discussion about defence issues? Arguably, all of us. But more specifically, our elected leaders. None of them are even asking the question: what do we (Canada) want the CAF to be able to do? Forget repeated procurement boondoggles or naval platforms “left to rot.” Give me one politician who would know what to do with a fully staffed and funded 60-ship fleet with no procurement problems.

It may be politically-savvy to talk about fixing defence procurement problems during an election campaign. But the reality is if our parties don’t know what they’d do with the capabilities they procure, then the entire conversation would be for naught.

Rob Burroughs is a student at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. His research focuses on Canadian defence policy, civil-military relations, and Canada’s foreign policy framework. (Image courtesy of Nova Scotia, Canada.)

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