A couple of days ago I said I was perplexed by all the excitement (and hope) surrounding Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. I pointed out that he’s not, by far, the first military man to be appointed minister of national defence and he is far, far from the most distinguished. In fact, compared to say, Andrew McNaughton (Liberal whip Andrew Leslie’s grandfather) and George Pearkes, Minister Sajjan hardly resisters on the “military glory” scale. I explained that I didn’t really understand what criteria Prime Minister Justin Trudeau applied to the complex craft ~ it’s a bit of an art, actually ~ of Canadian political cabinet making. One thing the prime minister did tell us was that he wanted his cabinet to be representative of the country ~ thus 50% female, etc. I still don’t know why the prime minister picked Harjit Sajjan for this job ~ MND ~ or even for his cabinet, but Minister Sajjan has the job, which I suspect is going to be a thankless task, and I think we need to help him make the best of it.
Yesterday I saw this report in the Toronto Star headlined: “Canada ‘tens of billions’ short of necessary defence spending, Senate told.” The headline writer goes on to say that “The discrepancy is one of the biggest problems facing the new Liberal government as it seeks to overhaul the country’s defence policy.” It struck me that Minister Sajjan will be on a political hot-seat, especially with that constituency in the media that expects miracles from our new, “badass” defence minister, and he needs all the help he can get.
If I go back and look at the Liberal campaign platform I see:
- We will renew Canada’s commitment to peacekeeping operations (page 69)
- We will maintain current National Defence spending levels, including current planned increases (page 69)
- We will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber (page 70)
- We will make investing in the Royal Canadian Navy a top priority (page 70)
- We will immediately begin an open and transparent review process of existing defence capabilities, with the goal of delivering a more effective, better-equipped military (page 70)
- We will implement the recommendations made in the Canadian Forces’ Report on Transformation (page 71)
- We will end Canada’s combat mission in Iraq (page 71)
- We will remain fully committed to Canada’s existing military contributions in Central and Eastern Europe (page 71)
If, next, I look at the mandate letter ~ and kudos, by the way, to the prime minister for making them public ~ I see, in the letter to Minister Sajjan:
- We will direct our resources to those initiatives that are having the greatest, positive impact on the lives of Canadians, and that will allow us to meet our commitments to them.
- Our platform guides our government. Over the course of our four-year mandate, I expect us to deliver on all of our commitments.
- Work with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to end Canada’s combat mission in Iraq and Syria, refocusing Canada’s efforts in the region on the training of local forces and humanitarian support.
- (Work) with the Minister of Finance to maintain current National Defence spending levels, including current planned increases.
- (Work) with the Minister of Public Services and Procurement to launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft, focusing on options that match Canada’s defence needs.
- (Work) with the Minister of Public Services and Procurement to invest in strengthening the Navy, while meeting the commitments that were made as part of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy.
- (Work with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to make Canada’s specialized capabilities – from mobile medical teams, to engineering support, to aircraft that can carry supplies and personnel – available on a case-by-case basis.
- Maintain Canada’s strong commitments to the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) and to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
- Conduct an open and transparent review process to create a new defence strategy for Canada, replacing the now-outdated Canada First Defence Strategy.
- Renew Canada’s focus on surveillance and control of Canadian territory and approaches, particularly our Arctic regions, and increase the size of the Canadian Rangers.
It’s a fair old laundry list; a veritable hockey sock full of promises and tasks.
With regard to funding, I notice, in the platform, that the Liberals said:
- “The Canada First Defence Strategy, launched by Stephen Harper in 2008, is underfunded and out of date. We will review current programs and capabilities, and lay out a realistic plan to strengthen Canada’s Armed Forces.” and
- “We will develop the Canadian Armed Forces into an agile, responsive, and well-equipped military force that can effectively defend Canada and North America; provide support during natural disasters, humanitarian support missions, and peace operations; and offer international deterrence and combat capability.”
That came after a promise to keep that same inadequate funding level for the Canadian Forces, the one that the Toronto Star reports is tens of billions of dollars short of reality.
Now, I ask myself again: why Harjit Sajjan as Minister of National Defence? What special skills and abilities does he bring to the cabinet table? He’s a former police detective (guns and gangs unit) and he, reportedly, brought some of that skill and knowledge to conducting civil support and intelligence-gathering operations in Afghanistan. He was the commanding officer of a reserve regiment in British Columbia, too. But how is he at managing shortages, how good is he at making cuts … the right cuts, the least damaging cuts?
If implementing the (Leslie) “Report of Transformation” is really important to “strengthening” the Canadian Armed Forces then, I wondered, why didn’t Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appoint the author, Andrew Leslie? Was it because LGen (ret’d) Leslie has many friends and contacts in the senior levels of the party (his family have been Liberals ~ important Liberals ~ for many generations) and the government? Perhaps it was thought that he might want to actually push an agenda in the spirit of the very first Liberal campaign promise in the Security and Defence section of the platform: to “restore Canadian leadership in the world?” That, I believe, is something that would appeal to Andrew Leslie ~ and while I know him only very slightly, I am familiar with some of the things he has done, said and written in the past. They all lead me to assume he is a man of principle and ambition. Given the high rank he achieved in the Canadian Forces I also suspect he has some strong views on defence policy … maybe too strong for this prime minister and this campaign team/PMO.
I seriously doubt that any government can undo the “decades of darkness” that have seen Canada reduced from being an acknowledged “leader of the middle powers” in the 1950s and into the 1960s, to being, as Liberal heavyweight John Manley described us, a country that usually tried “to leave the dinner table when the bill arrived,” as we were until about 2005, without fully embracing Louis St Laurent’s vision … and Louis St Laurent’s defence budget, too, which consumed fully 7% of Canada’s GDP circa 1956, not the 1% we spend now, in 2016.
So, I assume that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau actually believes in the promises made in the nearly 90 pages of the platform document (only three of which dealt with defence) and I also assume, therefore, that he intends to have his minister of national defence preside over a shrinking military force, a force which will of necessity, be hollowed out, reduced to meet the budget available, the budget which is tens of billions of dollars short of reality. That’s why, I guess, Harjit Sajjan, medals and all, is in the portfolio: he’s a newcomer to politics, he has no real “power base” in the party; he’s pleased and grateful to be at the cabinet table ~ even if, in the official pecking order, he is quite a way “below the salt;” and he has an attractive résumé, so people will assume ~ probably correctly ~ that he wants a strong, effective military, even as he orders cut after cut after cut so that money will be available to fund Prime Minister Trudeau’s social spending priorities.
So, what can Minister Sajjan do to minimize the damage that he will be ordered to inflict on DND and the Canadian Armed Forces?
First: set priorities, and Prime Minister Trudeau has helped him, a bit.
Priority One should be to save the service or capability that is easiest to damage and the hardest to restore. That is the Navy. Fortunately, the platform says, specifically, to “invest in” and “strengthen” the Navy … without as much money as the Conservative planned, of course. The government needs to go ahead with most of the shipbuilding strategy … but:
The much-needed replenishment ships can be deferred and deferred and deferred because the government can take advantage of the Davie offer to refit a commercial ship. In fact, that programme should be doubled (one for each coast) and the military replenishment ships should ‘slip’ farther and farther into the (more affordable) future.
The major surface combatant, replacements for the Tribal and Halifax class destroyers and frigates are very much needed but every report I have seen says that they are unaffordable in the quantities the Navy says it needs.
The solution might be to buy some (perhaps six, or eight not 12 to 15) of the new major combatants and some more (say 10 or 12) of a smaller (say, less than 2,500 tons), much cheaper (to build and operate), albeit less capable warship (a replacement, in fact, for the Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (Kingston class) which have become workhorses for the fleet) called, maybe corvettes. (The vessel in the photo, a German design, is 1,750 tons.) But neither the major combatants (destroyers) nor the corvettes (could they be built by Seaspan as an alternative to the large replenishment ships?) should be built in one single buy. Rather the two classes should be subdivided into ‘batches’ and should be purchased over fifteen or so years. That will, almost certainly, mean ‘life-extending’ some of the frigates yet again, but the goal is to rebuild and sustain the Canadian shipbuilding industry … not just the Navy. Plus the government should keep building the Harry DeWolfe class Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessels, which have good capabilities beyond our Arctic waters, even though, given the money available we are more likely to get four than six.
I have one more suggestion for Minister Sajjan … build one of these:
… it’s a great way to do soft power projection (something that will enhance our status in the world). Organizations like Mercy Ships do a wonderful job and there’s no reason why governments shouldn’t help out, too. It doesn’t need to be a military ship; it, like the replenishment ships could be part of a “fleet auxiliary” force that works for the Navy but is crewed by civilians.
The second priority must be to continue to do our share to defend North America. The key to this is to buy a new fighter aircraft … as few as we can manage because money is tight, but enough so that the Americans will not feel obliged to violate our sovereignty in order to protect their strategic nuclear deterrent. The platform says it’s not to be the F-35. I have no idea about which fighter is suitable or affordable or available, etc … but there are experts who do. We need enough to do a credible job of doing our share of continental air defence … it’s non-negotiable, the Americans will defend themselves, and us, using our airspace whenever and however they please, our sovereignty be damned, if we will not or cannot do it ourselves. The clock is ticking on this one, decisions cannot be deferred or even delayed for too long.
Priority three must be the army, but when resources are as scarce as I believe they will be then there will not be much left for service in which I spent my military career. I expect that Minister Sajjan will cry “sauve qui peut” and the part which, I think, must be ‘sacrificed’ is the expeditionary force which implies that what we must be able to do well is the Defence of Canada. If there are going to have to be significant cuts anywhere, they might be better taken by the army, in the combat units, rather than in the Navy or in air transport and logistics support services. But if the Liberals cut the regular army then lots of additional support ~ equipment, extra full-time staff and money for training ~ will be required to make the reserve forces better and stronger. This is an area where Minister Sajjan has unique insights and expertise.
Oh, and peacekeeping? I think we had best try to move that to the back burner. the Army is not, according to a recent report, ready for it. (In fairness, the report is written by another of the Laurentian Consensus, “fighting is wrong but peacekeeping is right” crowd.) There was a small industry, here in Canada, devoted to peacekeeping training ~ it’s funny, we managed the biggest peacekeeping missions in 1956 (Israel/Egypt) and 1957 (Congo) and 1964 (Cyprus) with “ordinary” combat forces, but now, with smaller missions, we need special training. Of, maybe, it’s just that some politically well connected retired military folks and academics, like the author of the article in the Globe and Mail, enjoy easy jobs and government contracts. In any event, my hospital ship is likely to be a relatively cheaper, more useful and more welcome alternative to traditional baby-blue beret style UN peacekeeping. But, then again, baby-blue beret peacekeeping have devolved into third world soldiers trading candy to children for sex, so maybe we want to steer clear of that. The lesson that needs to be taken is that a tough, disciplined, well-trained army, trained and prepared for war, can keep any peace, anywhere; an army trained only to keep the peace is just a police force.
The element which will, I fear, take the biggest hit is the one that can afford it least: support services. The military’s bins are, I’m told, already empty … there are not even boots, which are desperately needed because all the trucks are grounded for lack of spare parts.
What it all means, as far as I can read the tea leaves, is that we will not seek, as Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin wanted, a Role of Pride and Influence in the World, rather we are going to return to the Pierre Trudeau era vision of a a little, isolationist Canada, which turns its back on the world’s problems and hides behind Uncle Sam’s skirts and looks out, fearfully, at a dangerous world, hoping that others will solve all the problems. Canada deserves better, and, each time Minister Sajjan delivers less than what is needed (not just what is in some retired generals’ or admirals’ wish lists), Conservatives should offer Triple A+ alternatives.
It’s not much in the way of advice, I’m afraid, but then I doubt Minister Sajjan really needs much. We, all of us, Conservatives and Liberals alike should wish him well in a thankless task.