Statement on the Defence Policy Update

Conference of Defence Associations & The CDA Institute

The long-awaited Defence Policy Update Our North Strong and Free released on 8 April comes at a critical time and is a welcome communication to all Canadians on how our country’s leaders see the need to adapt in the face of threats to our sovereignty and vital national security interests.  

The policy acknowledges that despite new capability programs and increased Defence budgets over the past several years, our current military forces personnel strength, Defence Team institutional capacity, industrial strength, operational capabilities, force posture and readiness are not at the levels that we need. The measures and related financial commitments outlined in the policy document are positive steps forward by the government but as Minister Blair noted at the recent CDA Ottawa Conference on Defence and Security and has repeatedly said since – ‘absolutely more needs to be done’.

There are several elements of the policy worth highlighting. Perhaps most importantly it reminds Canadians why national security, Defence and our armed forces matter. The threats and the link between security and our national prosperity are clearly made. The case for funding Defence is reinforced as a net positive sum investment in hundreds of thousands of highly skilled and qualified workers in government and industry, in advanced technologies and innovation, in multi-purpose dual-use infrastructure and capabilities that strengthen our communities – all while guaranteeing we have the capability to respond to crisis at home or when needed internationally in times of peace and war.

While Canada has global interests, we cannot afford, nor do we have the capacity to be everywhere at all times and the strategic focus and priority placed by the GoC on increasing our presence and capacity to respond to emerging threats to our Arctic sovereignty is absolutely essential. Given seven of the eight circumpolar countries are now NATO nations, closer defence and security cooperation with the Alliance and partners nations in this strategic region is vital.

The government’s recent establishment of a National Security Council and the policy commitments to a regular four-year cyclical update of Defence policy aligned with a National Security Strategy are long overdue. These mechanisms will help with necessary course corrections as world events and emerging technologies inevitably change the threat environment in short periods of time. Such cyclical updates are of such criticality that we view it as essential that there be clear bipartisan support for such an approach to Defence and National Security policy. Related, it is disappointing to not see any commitment to developing a foreign policy at the same time. For Canada to be most effective on the international stage our Diplomacy, Development and Defence efforts must be fully aligned.

Given how Defence and National Security are a paramount responsibility and purpose of statehood, systematising the review of relevant policies should be used as an opportunity to develop better multi-party consensus on the need for long term, sustained and predictable funding and program support no matter who forms government.

Much has been said about Canada’s levels of Defence investment as a percentage of our economic potential and the NATO minimum commitments of 2% of GDP and general acceptance that this is a floor not a ceiling. While the government deserves credit for the increases that have been made since 2015, it sends the wrong signal to our allies (and to our adversaries) when we do not lay out a plan and make unequivocal commitments to meet the 2% threshold. However, plans also need to be realistic and if the GoC is able to fully deliver on their commitments especially for major capital procurements and achieve 1.76% of GDP by 2029/30 this will have been major progress.

An ongoing challenge is the inordinate length of time it takes to deliver critical capabilities into the hands of the operators of the armed forces and the programmatic delays that cause allocated funds to go unspent in the planned timeframe. While the government notes that the funds are reprofiled for when they are needed, the knock-on effect of procurement delays are significant: the loss of future purchasing power given inflation, the increased funds needed to sustain legacy equipment longer until replacements arrive, and widening capability gaps and resultant increased risk to operational missions. In this policy update, the government has noted ongoing efforts to make things better, but many of these ideas have been in the works since early 2014. An outcomes-based and time-bound review of the Defence procurement system is long overdue, to enable meaningful decisions to be taken to accelerate Defence procurement delivery. And, while it is arguable that sufficient prior studies and reviews have been conducted such that decisions could be quickly taken, it is hoped that the outcome of such an accelerated review will address the lack of overall accountability especially if and when projects fail to deliver, and clearly identify how the processes will be streamlined and how to more effectively partner with Canada’s defence industry.

The government is also sending confusing mixed messages about levels of Defence funding and their commitment to fix readiness problems in our armed forces.  As a part of budget 2023 and government spending reductions, National Defence has been forced to find savings of $850M this year and $900M on a go forward basis. The new funding in the policy update hardly matches the proposed cuts in the short term. Furthermore, as the newly allocated funds are primarily aimed at Vote 5 (Capital equipment) while the cuts are focused on Vote 1 (Operations and Maintenance) funds, the negative effects will likely be on readiness which is already a major problem in the RCN, RCAF and CA. A particular concern is that the funding pressures will impede the attraction, recruiting and training efforts of the new CAF recruits.

There are many elements of the policy that have been identified as requiring further analysis. It is frustrating that an urgent policy update that was called for two years ago should be calling for more study of options. Considering the threats, vulnerabilities and capability gaps that exist in protecting our interests in the Arctic, in Defending North America and ensuring that our deployed forces are protected and have the war winning capabilities they need, time is of the essence.

There are many excellent initiatives and commitments to modernise and bring in new capabilities for the RCN, RCAF, Cyber, and Space components however it is most concerning to see a lack of clear vision for the Canadian Army. Despite making up 60% of the total strength of our armed forces, only a small fraction of new funds allocated and most of the future land forces capability requirements have been pushed downstream for further study. Through several urgent operational requirements, the land forces brigade commitment to NATO in Latvia will be moderately well equipped, but the rest of the regular and reserve field forces are in a very poor state of equipment, sustainment, and personnel. It will be hard to attract and perhaps more importantly retain talent in the Army if our soldiers do not see things getting better in their units in terms of equipment and training. 

While Canada was not the only country to reap a ‘peace dividend’ at the end of the Cold War and none of our Allies are at the levels of readiness that they need to be given the current threat environment, our under-investments in Defence has been deeper and longer than most. 

A new and updated Defence policy will not fix all of the foundational issues in our readiness, but the publication of Our North Strong and Free is a positive step forward. The Conference of Defence Associations and the CDA Institute fully support the MND in his important work and we encourage the PM, Cabinet and the GoC to treat with a sense of great urgency all efforts to strengthen our nation’s defence capabilities and capacity and fully support the incredibly dedicated and professional men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces who stand on guard every day for all of us.

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