CDA Institute Analyst Geoff Tasker explores what was discussed at the government’s Defence Policy Review roundtable in Montréal.
As the Defence Policy Review’s (DPR) public consultations near their conclusion, experts from a wide range of backgrounds met in Montréal 27 June 2016 to give their perspectives on how Canadian defence should structure itself in coming years. At this point, it might be expected these consultative roundtables would be encountering some repetition or substantial points of agreement. Be it good or bad, however, this roundtable still managed to produce some novel considerations which had yet to be taken into account.
With only some exceptions (e.g., Yellowknife), the DPR roundtables have heavily focused on the Canadian Armed Forces operating as an expeditionary force and protecting Canada’s interests worldwide. However, as panelists such as Major Marc Dauphin (Ret’d) and Major Brian Hay (Ret’d) pointed out in Montréal, attention also needs to be given to our domestic defence capabilities as well. Extensive debate has already taken place on the fighter aircraft and ships needed to guard our sovereign borders, but our national defence hinges on another component which has been largely overlooked in previous roundtables – our Reserve forces.
The Reserves have suffered heavily under the budget cuts of recent years which, as Major Dauphin asserts, has resulted in equipment and training which leaves the force ill prepared to deal with emergencies which can arise on the Homefront. As the recent Alberta wildfire has shown, both natural and man-made disasters can occur at any time and can escalate to the point where military intervention is required. When this occurs, it is crucial the Reserve forces are properly trained and have a wide range of capabilities in order to be of greatest help to civilian authorities on the ground. Being provided up-to-date equipment certainly helps in achieving these requirements, but appropriate training programs are also necessary in order to lend substance to the contribution of the Reserves.
It is equally important the DPR look to the future to determine the Reserve’s capability requirements. Unfortunately, one possibility Canada may need to address is a biological threat; either through nature or some form of attack. If such an event were to occur, it is important to guarantee the domestic base is able to both physically and psychologically deal with the situation – resilience here is key. A prolonged domestic emergency also carries with it a specific toll on first responders who are closely tied to the situation at hand. Major Hay maintains in his statement that greater training and preparation is the only strategy which can override personal inclinations and maintain discipline in the ranks. This preparation should include continuous on-site training in military-run field hospitals across the country, as well as more flexible preparatory tactics which can be shared openly with our allies.
Reserve capabilities were not the only area in which Montréal panelists advised a forward-looking approach. With the replacement of our CF-18 fleet still a controversial topic, multiple panelists addressed the issue of procurement for the CAF and how it could be improved to prevent similar headaches from occurring in the future. Frederic Merand singled out Canada’s flawed procurement system as the major factor leading to a build-up of costs for our defence budget, recommending a re-examination of the process in hopes of putting a more effective policy in place.
What this new procurement strategy will look like is undefined, as no panelist who touched on procurement seemed to have a solid reform structure in mind. There were, however, a few suggestions on how to take steps to make the situation slightly less muddled than it is now.
The most logical recommendation for procurement improvement came from Merand who, on an unrelated point, called for the government to reignite programs such as the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies (CIPSS). Such initiatives can help bridge the gap between academics and practitioners on security and defence issues, which when accessible to government can result in better informed policy decisions. Satyamoorthy Kabilan also submitted a statement in support of a more inclusive procurement strategy. He argued that encouraging innovative ideas from companies and businesses outside the military can help the armed forces adapt quickly to new challenges at a much lower cost. With technology advancing at an ever faster rate, proactive innovation is not only useful, but necessary.
While any improvement to procurement strategy would certainly be welcomed, procurement itself is not the only aspect of defence which is causing costs to build up. On the contrary, Steve Saideman asserts that the government and public’s preoccupation with procurement costs are serving as a distraction from the areas which are truly in need of adjustment, namely operation costs and personnel.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has publicly stated there will be no personnel reductions or base closures in the near future. Yet, as Saideman outlines, half of the current budget is being spent on maintaining personnel, begging the question of how big a force Canada really needs to achieve the goals laid out for it. This question obviously cannot be answered in great detail until the new government outlines a clear defence policy objective, but NATO commitments and UNpeacekeeping will undoubtedly occupy major areas of concern. To this end, both Saideman and Merand suggest consultation with these outside bodies as part of the review process to determine what exactly they need/expect from Canada to ensure our investments are not going to waste.
It is also important to remember we are not bound to act on every request NATO makes of us. Thomas Juneau stressed that Canada should exercise caution before pledging full support to NATO/US led interventions, particularly in the Middle East. Many proposed NATO interventions and operations in this part of the world are open ended commitments, where chances of success are low and costs can easily grow. Participation might showcase Canada as a reliable defence partner, but the attendant benefits (and consequences of not participating) should not be overstated.
A similar degree of reflection should be exercised on UN humanitarian operations. Jonathon Jennings – representing Medecins sans Frontieres – used his submission to advise caution before sending troops into a humanitarian crisis. While peacekeeping and humanitarian aid missions are generally regarded favorably both domestically and on the world stage, Jennings stressed that putting troops in the middle of humanitarian emergencies can often do more harm than good. Even when under a peacekeeping mandate, Canadian troops still enter these situations with security as their primary focus, complicating the jobs of humanitarian groups already on the ground. Susan Johnson, speaking on behalf of the Red Cross, echoed these concerns.
As the defence community continues to debate whether Canada should invest broadly or strategically in its armed forces, the Montréal roundtable seemed to agree the CAF is already a specialized force. The challenge now is to isolate which specializations we are best at and which should be discontinued. The CAF is exclusively designed to operate as part of a multilateral force. As such, it needs to remain effective in the areas of greatest utility to our allies; if tough choices need to be made due to a small budget, it is critical these specializations do not fall by the wayside. If any key investment theme is to be taken from Montréal, it is that bigger is not always better.
Arriving near the end of the DPR public consultations, it would be fair to expect the discussions at the Montréal roundtable would become repetitive of what has already been said. On the contrary, the opinions brought forth at this late stage have been some of the most useful. While still notably varied and occasionally parochial, there was a coherent theme throughout these roundtable statements – one that focuses on what is truly needed by the CAF and how best to reach that objective. In a review process which has been plagued by loose assertions and polarized perspectives, this degree of focus is certainly welcome and has the potential to create sound policy. How much the government takes from these politically problematic suggestions, however, remains to be seen.
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. (Image courtesy of Department of National Defence)