Stephen Saideman: Canada’s New Defence Policy is Better than Expected but Iffy

Following the recently published Canada’s defence policy Strong, Secure, Engaged that outlines the Government of Canada’s defence priorities over the next 20 years, iAffairs asked experts from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) what they see as the main strengths and weaknesses of the document.

The excerpt that follows is from an interview by Katarina Koleva with Professor Stephen Saideman, the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University.

Strengths: Better Than Expected

The document is better than expected. I know last year there was a suspicion that it was essentially already written and that last summer’s process was a show. It is clear from reading it though that it wasn’t – the Government took seriously the feedback they received. The document is more comprehensive than expected and it covers a broad range of issues. It deals seriously with personnel and mental health issues, as well as gender issues.

We will not be able to really evaluate it until five or ten years from now to see actually all the promises are kept because there’s a lot of money to be spent and a lot of money is likely to be spent five or ten years from now. So, it depends whether the Liberals get re-elected. If the Conservatives come in, they will do different stuff.

I also think the document is really honest about what are the basic challenges facing Canada today. There was a lot of pressure on Canada to spend 2% of its GDP on defence to meet the NATO standard. However, there is no pretense that the Government is going to get there: we see the figure 1.4% in 2024 and not 2% like what NATO was promised to try to get to by 2024. In this regard, the document is actually very honest, it is not deceptive about it. I think that’s a good thing.

Major Threats

The document does a good job of seeing how many threats are out there. I push back on this because I think Canada is in a good position – it does not border any conflicts. It borders the United States. The Trump problem though is not a military problem, it’s a political problem. So there’s not really anything in the document for how to restructure the military defence off the United States. That’s just not something that can be done.

Canada can’t really influence the new balance of power between the United States, Russia, and China. It’s too smallish, not able to make much of a difference. But the document does talk about deterrence which I don’t think was a thing we were talking about the last time around. Canada is involved in a deterrence mission in Latvia, which is very much about deterring the Russians from attacking the Baltics. So, Canada is playing a role in deterrence and that kind of threat makes sense.

A lot of it all is very standard stuff, because as in every defence document, we have to say Canada has to participate in NORAD, and NATO, or be involved in the UN. There’s no room for really dramatically rethinking of Canada’s role in the world. This document doesn’t do that. It doesn’t really change what we see as Canada’s role in the world, its military role in the world.

With regards to the election of Donald Trump as US president, the document really doesn’t look any different than it would have had if someone else was president. There’s no discussion of the fact that the US is no longer reliable, there is no discussion of that, and there is no discussion of the US no longer being a supporter of the international order. I’m not surprised. But it’s something to be observed anyway.

Weaknesses: Disconnection from the New Challenges

I would say one weakness of the document is that it doesn’t really deal with China at all. It talks about global threats and changing balance of power, but other than that China disappears from the document. There’s a lot of talking about non-state actors and new kinds of threats. There’s not a lot though about how to change the military to be able to handle those things. The big 15 ships they are buying are not going to be very good at counter-insurgency.

There is a disconnection, in some ways, between the major allocations of funding and this imagined new world because what the new money is going to do is take the military that we have in taking out all the broken parts and putting new parts to replace them. If you take a look at what is in the document it almost seems as if each of the major services had a shopping list and each got everything that they wanted. I think that’s a problem. And that’s not making the armed forces really different. It just makes the military more modern, less broken. That is important. But that’s not reshaping the military to face new threats. So there’s a bit of a disjuncture between the notion of all of these threats out there and the justification of the additional spending.

One of the striking things about the document is that the Trudeau Government came into power with a reputation for being pacifist, but the cyber portion in the document refers to offensive operations. The paragraphs on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) include those that have weapons. So, the Government is actually willing to support relatively offensive weaponry, which is somewhat counter to what I think some people might have expected. That is really striking – the idea about Trudeau as a pacifist did not really play out in the document.

The document is also very iffy with regard to the idea of buying 18 Super Hornet fighter jets as a temporary solution while in search of a replacement for the CF-18s. That was a commitment the Government made a while ago but it has now become very soft. It’s referred to the potential purchase as opposed to a real plan. The document reveals the Government is pulling back from that. So, we’ll see if they continue to pull back. That will be really interesting to see. That is an important part of the document.

The New Money: Priority or Failure?

What’s interesting about this document is that a lot of the money is new money but committed towards doing the same things as before. For example, there’s more money for the ships than there was before but it’s still the same shipbuilding program. Same thing with the planes. One of the “new money” things is over $1.6 billion over 20 years, which is providing money to academic institutions and to private actors to try to innovate. That is not a lot of money but it is to try to get them to develop new ideas, more on the technical and the scientific end. So we’ll see how that spends. There may be money for graduate students to be trained, Master students or PhD students, so that we can produce the next generation of defence scholars and policy officers. There were a lot of questions about that during the defence review last summer, so that’s important from our self-interested standpoint as academics.

There is new money for cyber, there is new money for special operations. So there is some new money, new hires, and new personnel for these kinds of priorities. And then that gets back to the thing I mentioned before about what’s missing here is a word on hard choices being made. It is not like money is being taken from the Air Force and given to cyber or taking from the Navy and going into cyber. It’s new money that reflects both a priority but also a failure – a failure to make decisions that would cut some parts of traditional activities to fund new activities. They had to find new money because they couldn’t get old money moved. That’s a political thing but important one to consider.

Peacekeeping and Procurement

It’s not a major priority of the document. It’s mentioned and there’s certainly room for peacekeeping in terms of how they decided to allocate money. There’s a discussion about how many different units they are going to play at one point in time. So, it’s possible to do peacekeeping while doing training but it’s not a major focus. The document basically says here are the things we need to do but doesn’t tell how to get there. The same thing with procurement. The document does reveal that more money will be allocated to hire more civilians, to do procurement because one of the challenges Canada is facing is that there’s always been a desire to cut the civilians at DND because they’re not seen as warriors. They’re seen as bureaucrats. But it’s precisely people who work with bureaucracy who are needed to get the big bunches of money to become contracts, to become weapons systems, to become the things that we need. So there was recognition that there is a need of more hiring and more training in that area. But that’s one of those classic things: you want to fix procurement but there’s no plan how to do it.

 

Image courtesy of the Department of National Defence

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