Mark Collins – “A letter to the New [Canadian] Minister of National Defence on the Defence Policy Review”


by George Petrolekas, Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute and
David Perry, Senior Analyst, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

During the campaign your party pledged a number of significant changes to National Defence.

The most important of these was to lead an “open and transparent process to review existing defence capabilities.”  This review will be critical to producing the “leaner, more agile, better-equipped military” that your government committed to in the Speech from the Throne.

There has not been a fulsome, cohesive and transparent defence review in Canada since the 1994 Defence White Paper over 20 years ago [text here].  Defence initiatives since then were conducted by the government in solitude during periods of budgetary surplus and economic growth.  Current economic conditions are significantly different given the falling dollar, lagging growth and pressures on the government’s balance sheet.  These factors warrant an effort to build consensus around future defence policy…

As your review starts, you will be constrained by the legacies of previous governments.

Many procurements are already in contract, like the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship [see “Work Actually Starts on RCN’s First Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship“], or soon will be, like the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft [see “RCAF Fixed-Wing SAR Bids In: No LockMart But Embraer“, much more here at Defense Industry Daily].   Marginal changes are possible, but as you discovered with the interim naval oiler project, whole scale adjustments in the short term are difficult unless you are willing to accept considerable delays [see also: “Why not more Canadian Coast Guard Icebreakers Instead of RCN JSS?“].

You also inherited a military funded for 68,000 regular troops and 27,000 reservists.  Shrinking the military to liberate funds for capital spending should be investigated, so long as key personnel skills are retained and any capability reductions carefully considered [see “Former CDS Gen. (ret’d) Hillier Suggests Slashing CF Strength Almost a Quarter“].  In doing so, there is scope and opportunity to rebalance the services, components and capabilities.  Beyond this, the appropriate numbers and employment concepts for the regular and reserve forces, civil servants and contractors should be examined holistically, rather than as the separately structured, funded and employed human resources they have been in the past.  The nation’s fiscal condition requires that administrative overhead be addressed and infrastructure reviewed and reduced [close bases? good luck]…  

Proposed investments dictated by the existing strategy, crafted in 2008, outstrip the supply of available funding by tens of billions of dollars [see “Another Decade of Darkness for the Canadian Forces? Part 2“].  As you update the strategy to account for new priorities and potential threats, the funding pressures are likely to intensify.

However you address this problem, the strategy must be in alignment with the budget.  The previous government’s Canada First Defence Strategy [text here] had many initiatives to commend it, but its aspirations could never be financed or realized.  Avoid that trap.  As a government you will be criticized for being unable to deliver your promises, and your armed forces will feel as if they have been misled.

For any palpable capability improvements to be realized, a sclerotic procurement process will have to be improved. Concurrent with the defence review, you should work with your Cabinet colleagues to bring coherence to defence procurement [see ‘CGAI “2015 Status Report on Major Defence Equipment Procurements”‘]…

The most significant, complex and pressing example you face is with shipbuilding – which is not simply a defence procurement but also a matter of industrial policy, employment and regional benefits.

Critical decisions must be made in the next year on projects which will recapitalize the navy’s combat fleets.  You must specify how many and what type of ships will be built, who will design them and integrate their combat systems [see “The Great Canadian Shipbuilding Never Never Land: Wild-Ass Guesses=FUBAR“; “RCN Ship Procurement, or, the Curse of Irving“].

Your government may put those decisions on hold to make sure they fit within your vision of the armed forces (adding time and costs), allowing the projects to proceed as planned with marginal adjustments (meaning your naval priorities won’t significantly change) or to recalibrate shipbuilding projects entirely to fit a new naval vision (incurring political costs) [see “Royal Canadian Navy: 15 Canadian Surface Combatants? Maybe Some Offshore Patrol Vessels Instead“].

Second in complexity but not in urgency is the replacement of the CF-18.  This acquisition is complex as the new fighter is heavily affected by both future warfare trends over the next 50 years, and also American and Canadian bi-national issues. Take the time to examine the options carefully, and get this decision right [see “F-35 and Canadian Election: Liberals Loose With Fighter Costs“; “F-35 Allowed to Compete for New RCAF Fighter After All?“]…

Here’s an excerpt on defence policy from a post in February 2013:

…The government has said it will announce a redo of the CFDS [never happened] some time after the budget…But if each service tries to go on being as all-singing and all-dancing as possible each is likely to end up not performing all that well. The government needs to make some some very difficult choices to focus the services, and abandon some capabilities so as to be able to afford and maintain others. That means the government must decide what types of missions/roles each service must be able to perform (as opposed to “nice to have”) and how much it is willing to pay for the personnel and equipment so that those missions/roles can be carried out effectively and efficiently. But I doubt this government is capable of–or our services willing to–engage in such a serious review…

Very relevant:

What Is the RCN For?

F-35 and Canada: Good for “Discretionary” Missions, But…

Conservatives and Canadian Forces: Budget, Procurement, Deployment

The Incredible Shrinking RCN Canadian Surface Combatant Fleet, or…

The Extravagant Lunacy of Building RCN and Canadian Coast Guard Vessels in Canada

Justin Trudeau Government: ‘Will the New Defence Review be “Open and Transparent”?’

Canadian Defence Review (note F-35)

One can hope the new government will do better than the previous one; but one has one’s–serious–doubts.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


9 thoughts on “Mark Collins – “A letter to the New [Canadian] Minister of National Defence on the Defence Policy Review””

  1. Much worth the look:

    ‘Small fish in a big pond: Future of navy lies in balance of defence review

    Officials [no–ministers] must decide whether the Royal Canadian Navy will retain its ability to have even ‘relative prominence’ overseas…

    For the Royal Canadian Navy, which is arguably facing the biggest capability gap in the Canadian Armed Forces, current and former officials agree this could result in a major culture shift.

    The question boils down to this: will the navy maintain a significant international presence in the future, or will it turn most of its focus inwards, to maintaining sovereignty in Canadian waters?

    …to give Canada a place of “relative prominence” within a naval coalition, the navy needs to be able to form “task groups” of three or four ships, with anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities. These groups give Canada international clout, said a defence official speaking on background.

    But readiness has dropped, the official said. Destroyers and supply vessels have been retired. While Canada’s fleet of Halifax-class frigates are expected to last until the 2030s, possibly into the 2040s, with refit programs, after which new Canadian Surface Combatants are expected to take over, long expensive defence procurements like these have a habit of slipping. The fear is that replacements might not arrive, or not enough would be built.

    From a political perspective, the government might be satisfied to let go of the naval task group capability, meaning that it would retain a more modest ability to participate overseas.

    “If we showed up with only one modern ship, that might satisfy the politicos, as they can argue that we’re doing our bit,” the official added. Domestic capabilities, in that case, could be prioritized. “The self-image of the force would shift from a combat-capable organization with global reach to a regionally-focused force that can provide a very modest presence in a single crisis area.”..’

    Indeed. I don’t think, what with build-in-Canada, the government can any longer afford a serious task group capability based on CSCs (whenever they show up and in what numbers?).

    Mark Collins

  2. The Liberals’ Treasury Board may not bode well for defence/security spending:

    ‘… the composition of the TB, which is a committee of the cabinet whose members are appointed by the PM, is usually a good indication of where the PM of the day’s priorities lie.

    PM JT has assigned to the Board Scott Brisson as Chair (ok, good choice) but saddled him with the Ministers for (1) Immigration, refugee and Citizenship, (2) Finance [compulsory appointment], (3) Health, (4) Families, childhood and social development and (5) Environment and climate change.

    Even the “alternates” come from (1) Agriculture, (2) House Leader, (3) Natural resources, (4) Infrastructure and (5) Democratic institutions.

    Overall, absolutely no one from the departments that have some form of responsibility for the safety or security of the citizens of the country (DND, Public Safety, Justice, Attorney-General, Transport) are on the Board, and only in the alternates are there any ministers that might be considered, but even then only indirectly, interested in the economy (Agriculture, Natural resources and infrastructure).

    Guess how high defence procurement and DND are going to be on the TB list of people to care for.’,82898.msg1415281.html#msg1415281

    The ministers are listed here (without noting their portfolios):

    Mark Collins

  3. Stinging and probably accurate post at on future of the Canadian Forces:

    “Besides cutting personnel, they need to decide which obsolete capabilities need to be axed, which relevant and useful capabilities need to be scaled back, and which parts of our foreign policy that currently rest on defence posture, will change in nature. Do not look for anything that signals any degree of serious intention of improving overall capability or efficiency.

    Mr. Harper epically failed in rebuilding and revitalizing the CAF. Although Trudeau could do worse, even if he does nothing at all the green machine will implode, if it hasn’t already. IMO Trudeau will take the opportunity to purposely, and with a very clear policy intent, substantially and permanently deliberately disarm and disengage the military from long established practices and relationships. When doing so, I hope that he will not take the path that all previous governments engaged at with various degrees of stealth. The man is some sort of ideological pacifist, it would be refreshing if he would just say so and move on. At least people would know where he really stands, and I think the majority of Canadians might support him, if he moves quickly.”,82898.msg1415784.html#msg1415784

    Mark Collins

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