CDA Institute Analysts Geoff Tasker and Oksana Drozdova explore what was discussed at the Defence Policy Review (DPR) Roundtable in Vancouver and its relation to the larger debate on Canadian defence policy. 

The new Trudeau government’s promise to exercise informed policy-making was put into action recently as a diverse range of stakeholders and defence specialists met in Vancouver for the first of six roundtable discussions to assist in the Defence Policy Review (DPR).

Contributors, ranging from academics to retired military, raised issues of concern about Canada’s security and defence policy, in hopes of generating informed debate on the future role of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Naturally, the post-election declaration that “Canada is back” was raised by more than one presenter. As one might expect, however, ideas as to how Canada should go about “being back” were varied to say the least.

Nearly all participants seemed to agree that the changing global political landscape presented new challenges for Canadian defence policy. Along with the expected issues of global terrorism and continued military operations in the Middle East, issues such as cyber-terrorism, China’s behavior in the South China Sea, and the protection of Arctic sovereignty were raised by participants as concerns Canada needs to either act on or prepare for.

A common concern raised was that the government’s lackluster defence spending (and perhaps its inability to spend budgeted funds in a timely manner) has not only weakened the image of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) here at home, but has also resulted in a loss of the country’s voice and influence abroad. Many participants hoped that increased spending on the CAF along with a more assertive foreign and security policy could rectify this situation. With limited funds and a largely skeptical public, however, a major challenge for the DPR team is to highlight the areas in which this spending will be best served, thus determining what form this revised Canadian image is to take.

It is here where the roundtable participants do not exactly see eye to eye.

The issue of Canadian autonomy has long been a concern for Canadian policy-makers. Following recent budget cuts reducing defence spending to roughly 1 percent of GDP, the image of Canada free-riding on the shoulders of its major allies appears to be more salient than ever. Contributors agree Canada should be able to stand on its own, defend its own sovereignty, and project her interests worldwide. At the same time, however, Canada’s ability to support allies in niche areas where it possesses unique expertise – including mission logistics, disaster relief, maritime surveillance and interdiction, Special Forces operations, according to Brian Job – has always been an important role for the CAF. Even with an increase in defence spending, this is a difficult balancing act to maintain. Taking into account the current and projected economic situation, Canada cannot have the best of both worlds in these scenarios; tough choices will need to be made.

Many participants were quick to point out that a truly secure Canada should be able to at least defend and protect its own territory and interests without relying disproportionately on the assistance of its contiguous neighbour. It is comforting to think any threat which falls outside our capabilities will be augmented by the United States. But the US will ultimately prioritize its own security over ours. For the sake of both countries, the defence of Canada should be achieved primarily through Canadian defence capabilities.

Alexander Moens, Simon Fraser University, also raised the issue that the defence relationship with our southern neighbour is not a one-way street, and will not necessarily require Canada’s specialized niche capabilities. As he noted in his opening brief, if we expect the US to augment our defence, we should also be able to assist in all tasks the US may require of us as well. Doing otherwise would not necessarily jeopardize our reliability on American support, but it certainly makes the playing field much less balanced and diminishes our voice in North American defence. If we want to be a respected partner, we cannot simply rely on what is easy and hope it is enough. Retired Vice-Admiral A. Bruce Donaldson, another contributor to the panel, agrees with Moens. He asserts that any attempt to “overspecialize” erodes our capacity to act effectively both independently or in support of our allies.

Moens and Donaldson are not alone in this opinion. Of the sixteen participants who submitted briefs to the panel, almost half supported broad-based military investment while the other half were more favorably disposed toward expanding our specialized niche capabilities. This divide reflects a major debate of how Canada should approach defence policy, which the DPR will have to overcome. Should we limit ourselves to playing a niche role in multilateral missions, whether the United Nations, NATO, or a coalition-of-the-willing, or should we have broad-based capabilities to be a more credible partner with our allies and like-minded countries?

At the end of the day, a choice is going to have to be made. Should Canada overhaul widely or invest strategically?

The answer to this question is not black and white and the opinions provided for the panel are largely based on how the contributor views Canada’s place and priorities in global security. At the same time, however, the major factor in this debate is going to come down to cost. While formulating the ideal policy for Canadian defence based on necessity and national interest rather than fiscal constraint certainly has merits, it is impossible to decide whether a broad based military overhaul is indeed the best course of action until the extent and cost of this overhaul can be determined. Moen’s vision of a “maximum range of modest capabilities” may indeed make us more flexible in which areas of assistance we can provide to our US and NATO allies. However, with insufficient funding, the CAF may no longer retain its multi-purpose, combat capabilities, forcing us to specialize in particular roles or rendering us less than combat capable. Our contribution to the allied efforts could again be by show only.

The same holds true for our defence capabilities at home. While investing broadly in the aerial and naval patrol of our own territory and coastal waters would allow us to project an image of independence and sovereignty, the reality is that the military funding needed to truly stand on our own – especially if one takes into account possible trade-offs in terms of our international commitments – is far more than we would be willing to countenance in our defence budget, now or in the near future. As a result, broad based investment would be the more expensive route Canada could take, while still requiring augmentation and support from the United States to act in an effective and credible manner.

Financing multi-purpose military capabilities certainly sounds like the logical step in putting Canada back in the game. However, without a sustainable resource commitment to back it up, we will likely find ourselves in a difficult situation to do what we say we can do – still free-riding on the support of our stronger allies, whether in North American or abroad. As such, specializing in the areas at which we already excel will at least allow us to support in substance rather than show.

Canada carrying its responsibilities as an equal security and defence partner with our allies is certainly an ideal outcome. Just like the “Canada is back” slogan itself, however, some things are easier envisioned than executed. Economic and strategic limitations can be pushed aside in the deliberation process but they cannot be ignored forever. If Canada has to pick and choose where her financial, human and material resources can be best applied, innovatively excelling in our strengths through niche capability investments could result in tangible results the Canadian public can see and take pride in. However, this approach too contains major pitfalls that should be avoided. Indeed, choosing the right niche to invest in is a risky, major task, as picking a wrong area of specialization might see Canada being trapped in inflexible, less than useful roles for decades to come.

This clash of opinion is unlikely to resolve itself as the DPR continues. By the end, a choice will need to be made. While the arguments for both sides have their merit and are invaluable for this process, the deciding factor will most likely be how much Canada is truly willing to invest to actuate her defence policy. The answer to this question lies at the heart of yet another identity crisis for our new government, one that is unlikely to resolve itself easily or quickly.

Geoff Tasker is an Analyst with the CDA Institute currently working towards a Master’s degree at UOttawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). His research interests focus on international security and defence policy as well as conflict mediation and humanitarian intervention. Oksana Drozdova is an Analyst with the CDA Institute currently working towards a Master’s degree at UOttawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). Her research interests focus on International security, Eastern European studies and issues of statehood in political theory. (Image courtesy of iPolitics)

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