Let’s have a defence policy debate

About a week ago the Toronto Sun opined, in an editorial, that “These past four years have seen a significant number of headlines that involve our defence priorities and the Canadian Armed Forces, yet politicians shy away from drawing any further attention to the issues … [but] … That ought to change. We need to have more of a national conversation about where we want to head on this important file and, also, the budgetary realities about how to do it.” It will not surprise any regular readers to know that I agree.

The Sun gives the Liberals some very modest praise (too much, in my opinion) for moving the yardsticks, slightly, on some files. New rifles for the Canadian Rangers? Increased emphasis cyber-security? Sorry, Sun editorial board, but my late great-aunt’s overweight, somnolent house-cat could have seen the need for those and probably done as good a job as has Harjit Sajjan and his officials and too numerous admirals and generals in implementing them, too.

There are rumours ~ I need to emphasize that’s all they are ~ floating about in a few Ottawa pubs that, just in case the election produces a change in either political priorities or in the government, itself, a “tiger team” of very high ranking military officers has been formed to figure out how to spend an extra ¼% or even ¾% of GDP. But that is exactly the wrong way to approach the issue, but, so is the Sun‘s focus on specific projects or programmes like building ice-breakers or the recently completed (and useless) UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.

What is needed is for Canadian political leaders ~ and this is 100% a political issue, driven by a will to serve Canada’s best interests at home and in the world ~ to focus on what capabilities Canada, ~ not just the Canadian Armed Forces, not just the Department of National Defence ~ needs. The absolute farthest thing from their minds ought to be what the admirals and generals want.

I suggested, way back in December of 2015, that Canada needs what I called Triple A+ armed forces: “We are not in the military “big leagues,”” I said, “but we should be playing in the Triple-A Plus (AAA+) league … [and, I asked, rhetorically] … What’s AAA+? I answered myself as follows:

  • The first A is: Appropriate … for a G7 nation with a large territory and global interests;
  • The second A is: Adaptable … the global strategic situation is both ever-changing and quite unpredictable. The only “constant” is a difference: a difference from what was planned, a difference from what was imagined, and another difference from that for which one is prepared; and
  • The third A is Available … the days of time to mobilize, as in 1914 and 1939, are gone. We are in the age of the “come as you are” war. We will have to meet whatever threats and contingencies we imagine might be likely with the forces we have in being: regular and reserve.

Then I asked: What about the “Plus?” and I suggested that ~

  • The AAA+ is for AffordableNo matter what experts and politicians, admirals and generals might predict or demand the Government of Canada is limited by what the people of Canada say they can afford.

But, at the same link, I also suggested that our leaders needed to focus on capabilities. My reasonably well-educated guesstimate is that Canada needs (and Australia, Britain, Columbia, Denmark, Ethiopia and Fiji and so on all need, too) something like:

  • A structure to collect and collate information, from all sources and from all over the world and provide useful strategic intelligence to the cabinet and operational intelligence to departments and agencies;
  • A super-structure to make strategic plans and to control and manage our military forces;
  • Surveillance and warning systems to cover our landmass and, especially, the maritime approaches to it and the airspace over both;
  • Military forces to intercept, identify and, appropriately, deal with intruders;
  • Military forces to contribute to the continental defence, especially to the protection of the US strategic deterrent;
  • Military forces to patrol our territory, the maritime approaches to it and the airspace over both;
  • Military forces to give “aid to civil power” when provincial attorneys general cannot manage with police resources;
  • Military forces to provide “civil assistance” when disaster occurs and the civil authorities in provinces and cities cannot cope;
  • Military forces to conduct expeditionary, combat operations around the world ~
    • Unilaterally for relatively small scale low and even mid-intensity operations,
    • As part of “coalitions of the willing” for some low and mid-intensity operations, and
    • With our traditional allies for the full range of operations, including prolonged general war;
  • Supporting operational and logistical services ~ telecommunications, engineering, intelligence, medical and dental, supply and transport, materiel maintenance, administration and policing ~ to support all other military forces; and
  • An efficient and effective defence procurement system.

That little list, 11 capabilities for me ~ your list might have only eight and still be complete and someone else’s might have 15 capabilities and not be complete ~ still seems sensible to me and, over the past few years, no one has identified either a missing or a redundant capability. It’s a bit of a judgment call, after all, but I think it is pretty comprehensive. Not all of those capabilities are military. The first and the last, for example, are nearly wholly bureaucratic. The second and the second last are partially bureaucratic, and some elements of some others can be done for the military by private contractors.

But capabilities are what we should ask demand that our political would-be leaders debate during this election. When they define their list of required capabilities then their officials can tell them ~ and us ~ how much it will cost and we, again, as taxpayers can decide how much is enough. Back in January of 2016, I said that “1% of GDP is not enough” Maybe 2% of GDP, the NATO goal to which Canada still “aspires,” on paper, is not right, perhaps 1.75% is sufficient, or perhaps 2.5% is needed. I don’t know, nor I suspect do any of my readers, nor, I am nearly certain, do Andrew Schwer, Justin Trudeau or even General Jonathan Vance. It will take a platoon of bean-counters to come up with a sensible number and then real political leaders will have to explain “sell” it to us.

But the start point is to debate it. There will not be a formal defence policy debate in 2019 so the best we can hope for is that informed journalists will ask hard questions on the campaign trail.

How can we make that happen? I have sent a link to his article to two journalists that I trust to ask fair and hard questions, David Akin and Mercedes Stephensen, both at Global News. Maybe you can do something similar, please.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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