Andrew Leslie: Canada Must Get More Serious About What is Happening Overseas: Ukraine, Budget 2022, & Readiness and Retention

An Interview with LGen (Ret'd) the Honourable Andrew Leslie

Canada Must Get More Serious About What is Happening Overseas: Ukraine, Budget 2022 & Readiness and Retention

What is the purpose of the defence policy review and what would an upcoming review need to address?

Over the course of my 35-year career as a soldier and four-year career as a politician, defence policy reviews have always been opportunities to create efficiencies in the Department of National Defense (DND). Going in, the intent is to determine what kinds of things can be done better, faster, and smarter, and for less money—the bottom line is important, and the leaders of the policy review team are usually rewarded for how much they manage to save. Another common thread through all the defence policy reviews I’ve suffered through—notice my use of the word suffer—is that there’s almost invariably a solemn promise to use all the accrued savings and reinvest it into defence capability in the years to come. In my experience, this has never once happened. Ever.

Rarely are defence policy reviews commissioned for the right reasons—the only time I’ve seen that happen was under Prime Minister Martin. He intended to take a good long look at Canada’s role in the world and, quite rightly, started with a foreign policy review; this then led to a defence policy review, nested within a clear statement of objectives vis-à-vis foreign policy. It addressed diplomacy and leadership while putting resources into international infrastructure mechanisms, such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank; the participants were fully aware of the benefits of having and using a well equipped and well-trained military that could do hard things, both at home and overseas, especially as part of an international coalition or alliance. Participating in missions with the UN, NATO, NORAD or coalitions of the willing (fighting in Afghanistan) were prominent as a means of helping maintain the respect for international laws and rules of behaviour. The linking of the various strands of international problem solving (diplomacy and leadership, trade and sanctions, military deterrence or the application of force, and international development). The current government has no apparent understanding of how these strands are woven together and has demonstrated an acute aversion to getting involved or taking any even moderate risk with international military-focused missions.  

The idea of the upcoming defence policy review originated prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I suspect there’s going to be a dramatic change to whatever the original intent might have been. Instead of trying to find efficiencies and effectiveness (cuts), what they will likely find is that the DND, the CAF and Global Affairs do not have the tools or the numbers and types of people it needs to face the looming threat of what appears to be a rekindled Cold War, one that is a lot hotter than anything we have seen since the end of the Second World War.

With regard to domestic and expeditionary operational focus—do you think that we can do both given the increasing volatility of the international security environment?

A lot of people would prefer that our armed forces never go anywhere and never do anything internationally; let others worry about it, they say. While I try to understand that point of view, the increasingly frantic efforts of this and other government to avoid international entanglements has never worked. We are an interconnected world. A great deal of our wealth generation is due to international trade. Our economy is doing remarkably well—our GDP is bigger than Russia’s. This is, in part, directly attributable to the security, stability, and respect for the rule of law which has arisen out of international institutions like NATO and the UN, both of which Canada was a founding member. Russian is active again. Its actions are absolutely horrific and for no discernible reason beyond the self-aggrandizement of Vladimir Putin.

Just like COVID, this war is having a ripple effect on the world order. We’ve seen tectonic shifts amongst some of the strands of international diplomacy and trade. So, can we do both domestic and international? Domestic military operations are only rarely the threat or application of force. The vast majority of domestic is response to civil emergencies, providing relief in the aftermath of floods or forest fires, medics helping at senior facilities —you don’t need soldiers to do that, though. We need to think about establishing an emergency response organization, which can be partially voluntary. There are several very good models we could follow internationally, akin to what both France and Germany have done. Our armed forces have as their principal missions the defence of Canada, reinforcing our sovereignty and security, and contributing to international peace and stability. All these action items must be done while ensuring that we are mostly in lockstep with our biggest partner, the U.S, via defence of the North American continent via NORAD.

The U.S isn’t terribly interested in our internal affairs, but the key decision makers in Washington are increasingly focused on our contributions to NORAD and continental defence, in which we are laggard and parsimonious participants. The U.S pays a vastly disproportionate share of those costs while Canada has largely enjoyed an almost free ride, allowing us to invest in and boast about the generous social programs that an increasingly self-absorbed Canadian political elite has come to take as their prime objective.

Internationally, we had a great reputation, and we really earned our spurs in NATO—particularly following World War II during the heyday of UN peacekeeping, and on a variety of other missions, such as Afghanistan. In recent years, our credibility and stock has fallen dramatically. Our international reputation amongst our friends and allies in terms of international peace and security contributions may be at its lowest ebb since Confederation, which is fine unless you really need friends and allies to help with keeping a lid on things that can hurt us all.

Let’s not forget that Russia is not that far away, and it’s not only the threat they pose to the existing world order, but the idea of respect, or lack thereof, for the rules-based international order that is so dangerous. That order needs to be upheld and defended. That’s where our enforcement comes in. It’s part of that coalition of the willing, which is supposed to act as a deterrent force. To your question—we can’t afford not to do both. The Arctic is undefended. That is not necessarily under military jurisdiction, but it’s deterrence. We have nothing up there permanently, to act as a credible deterrent to the Russia or others. We must be able to fight in the pursuit of international objectives in conjunction with friends and allies.

Canada currently has around fifty peacekeepers deployed internationally. Back in 2003 we had several thousand members of the CAF in Yugoslavia, about 3,000 deployed to Afghanistan or nearby, and another thousand in smaller UN, NATO or naval interdiction missions around the world. At that time our Armed Forces were smaller and less equipped. What has happened to us? Where did that passion for doing more than just talking about the rule of law, talking about international peace and security, and talking about problem-solving with our allies go? Instead of doing, Canada now has a reputation for lots of talk and not a lot of action.

People think they know about international relations and fancy themselves good at it. Fact is, very few are. I suspect we’ve had—particularly under this prime minister’s office—borderline-disastrous international relations misadventures. They just don’t understand the utility and the contributions that an armed force can make to international peace, security, and national credibility. Again, we have been very self-absorbed, mostly because this cabinet believed that the Americans will just protect us. We have to do more than that. We have to contribute internationally—the U.S is growing frustrated. We spend a relatively low percentage of GDP on defence, we’re many years late on tackling a variety of programs, yet we assure the Americans we will not be late on NORAD renewal, defending the Arctic, upgrading our naval capabilities, or our fighter aircraft—the list goes on. Right now, Canada’s reputation is, “who?”

Trudeau recently announced that Canada will be sending heavy artillery to Ukraine. How would these capabilities benefit Ukraine and how else might we contribute? Can you assess the effectiveness of what we’ve committed so far?

Since 2015 and up until a week before Russia invaded in February of this year, Canada has not approved attempts by Canadian organizations to frantic requests from Ukraine officials to send weapons to Ukraine. Denial has been a strong talking point of the appeasers “don’t worry—the Russians won’t attack, they said.’ Shortly after the invasion, we sent a couple of boxes of rifles and unguided anti-tank systems that were first designed over 60 years ago. That doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid.

I’m delighted to see the government talking to the United States and deciding to send 4 of our 37 M777s—along with our Leopard 2 tanks and Light Armoured vehicles amongst the most modern Army capabilities we have. They will join the 90 guns that the Americans are sending, which would provide a commonality of fleet types. This is a game-changer, because it means that someone probably growled at the Prime Minister and said—why aren’t you doing more? The point is that the Canadian political logjam has now been broken—we’re actually sending an important capability, though in small numbers. We can and should do more. The same people who said, ‘don’t worry, it’s only a training exercise—Putin won’t attack Ukraine again’ were wrong. Then they said, ‘well, it’s only going to be the Donbass, he’s just going to go in and—you know, re-establish a land bridge with Crimea.’ They were wrong. ‘He doesn’t want to smash cities and cause Ukraine people to flee.’ They were wrong. ‘He’s going to stop with Ukraine’ is the current cry—’don’t worry, as soon as he wins, we can all get back to normal.’ They are wrong. Even if the best-case scenario comes to fruition, we should prepare for the worst case. We’re not doing that. NATO has sprung into action, but they certainly aren’t seeing the same sort of response from Canada.

You were Chief of the Transformation, what do you see as the most urgent or critical aspects necessary for improving readiness and retention?

Leadership and money. Nothing is going to move until you have the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister agreeing to spend money on defense and break down the barriers that cause procurement delays. Quite frankly, they’re responsible for sorting this out, because after seven years, the Liberal government has to own this issue. Its common to put the blame on previous governments, but you can only get away with that for so long. During Chretien’s final months in office, he sent a bunch of us to Afghanistan—I was there. He spent a significant amount of money on re-equipping the troops that were going and his finance minister at the time was monumentally forward thinking and supportive. He was succeeded, of course, by Prime Minister Martin who made quite a lot of cuts on defense over the preceding decade. However, he and his finance minister, Ralph Goodale, did a really good job of getting money moving very quickly on new radars, light artillery guns, and weapons for the soldiers. They, in turn, were replaced by Prime Minister Harper and Jim Flaherty at Finance, who did very good work—buying new heavy lift helicopters, new tanks, the M777 guns, new heavy and medium cargo aircraft, and the list goes on. The way to solve this equipment acquisition process blockage is for leadership at the Prime ministerial level. It has become common place to blame the generals and bureaucrats, but that is not fair or accurate. History has shown that only two people really matter—the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance.

Having suffered from what could uncharitably be called benign neglect for the last decade, Canada must get more serious as to what is going on overseas, and how we can help mitigate the looming threats. The Prime Minister should give strict and firm guidance to the Minister of Finance to reduce barriers to getting money flowing so that the CAF can buy what Canada needs. For example, the CAF needs more trained people to do that which we will ask of them over the next short while, in an increasingly dangerous and fragile world. The CAF is currently about 8,000 personnel short of where it should be, which is about a billion dollars a year. They need more training and more spare parts to increase readiness and availability, which is at least another billion per year. For example we have many hundreds of military vehicles that are parked while awaiting parts or repairs, our artillery units are running our of fuzes and ammunition, our warships are past their expected lifespans and stressed, and our jet fighters are older than the vast majority of the pilots. The CAF also needs a host of small and medium sized equipment projects to move quickly though to delivery, much like what happened during the 2003 to 2010 period, which could easily be another two billion per year.

Final thoughts:

Our armed forces are much akin to firefighters in the sense that you want to make sure you have the right mix of people, talents, and equipment to do the job when Canadians need it most. Firefighters are distributed across the country in small groups, and they have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. The problems they deal with are life and death. The resources they ask for can sometimes appear to be expensive, but its worth it because not having a firefighter around means people die and buildings burn. There have been a lot of governments which have not adequately resourced the CAF; nor have they made the changes to allow for the effective delivery of much needed equipment. In the past they can and did get away with it because we were always sure the U.S. would defend us, and others could carry the majority of the proportional burden of collective defence and security. Just as was true of Covid and the subsequent social security programs into which the current government has poured many hundreds of billions in the last 30 months, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the subsequent effects, and emerging alliances have changed the value and utility of military deterrence; and the need to make immediate and significant investments in defence. Budget 2022 does not meet this need.



Lt. General (Ret’d) the Honourable Andrew Leslie


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