Expert Series: Defence Policy Update

In this discussion, LGen Guy Thibault (ret’d), former VCDS and current Chairman of the CDA Institute leads a reflection on the update of Canada’s Defence Policy featuring CDA Institute board members VAdm Darren Hawco (ret’d), Former Canadian Military Representative to NATO and Chief of Force Development, CAF, and Gordon Venner, Former Associate Deputy Minister of National Defence, who was the architect and lead writer for Canada’s Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE) National Defence Policy. Now 5 years into its 20-year lifespan we take a moment to reflect on how the policy came about, what it has achieved and what should come next. Thematic questions in the discussion include:

  • What is the story of SSE? What was the policymaking process?
  • How was the Canadian Armed Force’s input provided to the discussions of SSE?
  • How can you make defence policy in the absence of a national security strategy?
  • What did SSE do correctly that should be repeated? 
  • What will the update need to focus on?

Key Observations from the Discussion:

Foreign Policy and Geopolitical Environment

A defence policy update must reflect the changes in our geopolitical environment that have occurred in the past five years. For instance, in SSE, Canada committed to not buying submarines for the next twenty years, but given the new geopolitical context, this may no longer be tenable. The two greatest drivers in the budget are the geostrategic environment and the domestic use of the forces, both of which have the potential to change dramatically and fast. We have seen a true globalization of conflicts and the interrelationship between them. Problems on opposite ends of the globe have direct impacts on each other. What happens in Ukraine will impact China’s calculus over Taiwan. Real foreign policy issues must be addressed. An important question to ponder is the adequacy of multilateral fora—NATO has no mandate for Asia, and Russia and China’s veto power has rendered the UN unable to deal with Taiwan or Ukraine. From what body or apparatus will we derive the legal ability to intervene in the geostrategic environment in the future? We need to focus on the geostrategic drivers that could impact the budget in the next 10-15 years. The CDS needs an understanding grounded in a future security environment.

Domestic Challenges and Size of Forces

An update of SSE must take into consideration, the expectations of the Canadian Forces, capability gaps, missions, as well as how well we are adapted to emerging challenges. Provinces should be able to mitigate or address natural disasters and other challenges with provincial resources, rather than resorting to federal support. Our force structure must have the ability to respond to domestic challenges in a way that doesn’t prejudice our ability to meet Canada’s international defence needs. We should consider how we have done rolling out the improvements in medical capacity that were promised in SSE. How can we go beyond what was promised last time and deal with problems related to deployment in an era of pandemics?

Our forces need to be larger than 71 500 as it cannot presently account for everything that the Canadian military needs, particularly considering the potential for conflict in Europe and in the Asia Pacific. Our performance to date on the size of the forces has not been good. We have failed to address an issue that has been clearly defined and which cabinet provided authority and resources to resolve.


The needle needs to move on procurement. The issue cannot be solved by giving DND full responsibility over procurement. How do we allow for checks and balances, while guaranteeing a more efficient flow of funds? We need to ensure we are taking a portfolio approach, reinforced with solid costing underpinnings, and framed in a decision support way, which allows leaders to make honest decisions. A public facing investment plan is needed as well. If it isn’t refreshed, industry will not be able to be supportive and responsive. Additionally, the impact of military capabilities on the environment must increasingly be considered. How can we minimize our impact, what do we buy, and from whom?

Culture & Misconduct

An SSE update must substantially address the issue of sexual misconduct and culture inside the military, which has come to light in recent years. Furthermore, the CDS will have to focus on the professionalization of junior forces culture. If the CAF wants more resources, it needs to demonstrate progress on issues like sexual misconduct and extremism.

Interdepartmental Communication & Collaboration

Better understanding the relationship between national defence and national security, as well as determining the role of Public Safety in national security, are complicated problems. We need to reflect on the adequacy of current processes to come to agreed interdepartmental positions on national security. It will be important to reflect upon the link between national security issues and issues that other government departments are working on, and how they will impact policies that continue to roll out. Climate change, for instance, will have a big impact on how the CAF is deployed domestically. Public safety and the CAF will need to collaborate to mitigate future natural disasters.


Institutionally, the Canadian Forces is in a fragile state as it tries to sustain operations, grow the forces, recapitalize, and address culture issues. We need to find new partners to help us deliver, particularly in areas of procurement and R&D. Working with industry is the only way we can confront many of the challenges we face in the way we want to. Furthermore, the Forces is influenced by government policies emanating from different departments. The collective ‘we’ is sometimes thrusted on the Canadian Forces and DND, but success in achieving the desired policy outcomes requires a whole of government approach.


Full transcript available below.

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