Roundtable Summary – Defence Policy Review Considerations: Thoughts on Future Conflict and its impact on DND/​CAF

The following is a summary of the CDA Institute Roundtable “Defence Policy Review Considerations: Thoughts on Future Conflict and its impact on DND/​CAF” held on 25 May 2016. These roundtable discussions are held under the Chatham House Rule. This summary reflects Analyst Oksana Drozdova’s perception of the discussion. The CDA Institute thanks our Strategic Partners Lockheed Martin Canada and General Dynamics for their generous sponsorship of the 2016/​17 Roundtable Discussion Series.

The electoral platform of the current Liberal government was filled with promises, one of which was the pledge to exercise informed decision-​making. This particular pledge has recently been put to test with the launch of the Defence Policy Review (DPR). With a few roundtables already concluded, the first being held in Vancouver and subsequent ones already held in Toronto, Yellowknife, and Edmonton, informed observers of Canadian defence policy are still keen to share their ideas on the future of Canada’s defence policy.

A recent roundtable organized by the CDA Institute, titled Defence Policy Review Considerations: Thoughts on Future Conflict and its impact on DND/​CAF, provided a venue in which contributors shared their ideas as to which key aspects of the country’s defence policy should be addressed in the DPR.

With the Liberal government proclaiming “Canada is back,” it is still unclear how exactly the “comeback” is going to happen. On one hand, the Liberals want to bring Canada back as a champion of peacekeeping. On the other, security of sovereign territory and national interests, as well as commitments to the NATO allies require more resources. The theme that should figure most prominently in the crafting the DPR, at least in this early stage, is prioritization. Will we, as a nation, be able to sustain all these roles, and if not, which should be privileged above the others?

Indeed, the financial realities of budgetary considerations (fiscal constraints) will most likely, in one way or another, guide the pen of those creating the final draft of the renewed defence strategy. And when the time comes for making the decision, the question will inevitably arise: Which strategy, broad overhaul or strategic investment, is right for us?

Numerous arguments are in favour of both approaches. Indeed, the image of multi-​purpose combat capabilities has its appeal. A flexible, combat ready army is capable of standing on its own as well as contributing to allied efforts in a meaningful way. Moreover, access to a wide range of capabilities will allow Canada to strengthen its defence posture abroad and ensure its national security at home. Moreover, while ties with the US are strong, Canada cannot forever piggy back on the support of our better equipped ally. As such, the general opinion maintains that a truly secure Canada should be able to at least defend its own territory and interests without relying entirely on the assistance of its neighbour.

However, as was raised in these discussion, in our current economic state, broad based capabilities are not something Canada can afford. And, as tough choices will need to be made, concentrating on areas of expertise in which Canada excels will yield the most benefit. In prioritizing a particular defence niche, we should not conceive of it as a means to repel a specific threat; threats constantly change. On the contrary, we should develop specialized capabilities that would be flexible and widely applicable.

Furthermore, at their essence, broad-​based capabilities are chiefly designed to repel aggression from a state. This concept of warfare is largely outdated as the potential of a true ‘state on state conflict’ is highly unlikely. Indeed, cyber-​attacks, hybrid warfare, non-​state actors, and the consequences of climate change (most notably mass migrations) are the most prominent future sources of instability. Conversely, our current defence structure, which is predicated on the broad-​based capabilities model, is designed to repel an open state aggression and has been adapted to deal with fragile states and non-​state actors. Yet, other than Russia’s sabre-​rattling, there is no significant state threat that would force Canada to engage in ‘state-​on-​state’ warfare. With low chances of a direct state assault, certain areas of broad-​based capabilities, which also happen to weigh the most heavily on the defence budget, become under-​utilized.

With dozens of ongoing conflicts around the world, Canada has any number of choices when it comes to committing its military resources. Identifying the most pressing areas in which Canadian military involvement can make the greatest impact is of the essence. For instance, while Canada can renew its longstanding commitment to UN peacekeeping as promised, it seems unlikely it can at this time return to peacekeeping on the scale that it practiced in Cyprus and Bosnia. Instead, it should strive to offer targeted technical expertise and state-​building knowledge to missions worldwide. Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan provide a good example of how persistence and targeted military intervention can help maintain a fragile and much needed balance in an unstable region.

Western democracies are gradually learning and accepting that intervention has to be comprehensive in scope and long-​term in duration. With the pattern of global instability and threats constantly changing, it will be increasingly difficult to address threats earlier – the difficulty of understanding and responding to them will remain proportionate to their complexity. Instead, Western democracies need to build and promote internal capacities and societal resilience of fragile states. And since peacekeeping, or peacebuilding – as some experts prefer to call it, stating that it is not merely a question of semantics – is what many Canadians view to be a staple of our national identity, Canada’s commitment to those operations will have to be significantly furthered and augmented.

With future military threats becoming increasingly volatile and uncertain, our military strategy will require interaction with an ill-​defined combination of state and non-​state actors who are both declared and undeclared. Multilateral engagement and allied cooperation will thus become the most effective framework to address these complex issues. The reality is as true for the idea of pursuing independent foreign policy as it is for vigorous and interventionist multilateralism, in which the international community has certainly missed the tone and substance of Canada’s well-​honed role. And if we are indeed serious about “being back,” innovatively excelling in our strengths while cooperating with our allies in a meaningful way will allow for fruitful investment with tangible results the Canadian public can see and take pride in.

Oksana Drozdova is an Analyst with the CDAInstitute 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 Bruce Campion-​Smith/​Toronto Star.)

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