Ottawa’s failure to prioritize on defence puts Canadian forces at risk: Richard Shimooka in the Hill Times

Richard Shimooka

Richard ShimookaRichard Shimooka calls the federal government out for its unwillingness to ruthlessly prioritize as part of its Defence Policy Review.

By Richard Shimooka, Aug. 30, 2017

Months after the government released its long-awaited defence-policy review (DPR) statement, questions swirl on a number of key areas—from whether an interim fleet of aircraft will be acquired to challenges facing its frigate replacements. Even the ongoing crisis with North Korea has generated concern about the ballistic missile threat facing Canada.

With this in mind, it is perhaps time to take stock on the DPR’s value and long-term relevance. Despite its glossy cover and sizable length, the review is a weak document, which will almost certainly not live up to the promise accorded to it by the government and some observers. It fails to provide an effective structure for guiding defence policy in the years ahead, and will become increasingly irrelevant over time.

It starts with the DPR’s vague discussion of Canada’s interests, largely declining to identify specific threats facing the country or its allies.

Indeed, it only makes perfunctory statements on Russia’s “willingness to test the international security environment,” with nary a mention of China’s rapidly growing military power. This contrasts with the threat assessment provided in similar documents from our key allies, such as the United States, U.K., France, and Australia.

This oversight robs the military of a powerful tool to identify and prepare for future challenges, which is evident in how the review largely fails to link threats facing Canada to actual responses.

Instead, the DPR’s primary direction to the Canadian Armed Forces on force-planning guidance—which involves key questions on the size and structure of the Armed Forces— are predicated on supporting allies in multinational operations. This leads to a desultory observation—that it is not what Canada actually needs to do the job at hand, but how much is required to satisfy its partners that it’s making a sufficient contribution.

One possible exception to this observation is its focus on cyber-security. With a direct and imminent cyber-threat to Canada, the DPR does provide an immediate forceful, robust response, including a clear mandate and the tools required by the military to act effectively. That should be commended.

Yet, even then, its focus on cyber-security belies a significant weakness in managing technology. Ultimately, the DPR does not fundamentally alter how the CAF goes about modernization, instead only settling for a form of “tactical” adaptation that looks first at identifying and adopting technologies first employed by allies.

The accelerating pace of innovation also means that there is a narrowing window for embracing new technologies—from additive manufacturing to intelligence-gathering automation. The DPR does little to create an environment that can effectively manage or take advantage of this technological shift. Instead the procurement system will continue to prove inadequate to deliver some of these systems in a timely manner—an especially important point given the rapidly accelerating speed of technological change.

One should also rightly question the overall reliability of the government’s post-2020 funding promise. A government can easily override military prerogatives for political necessity, which is presently evident with the CF-18 replacement program. Other factors will also likely undermine the government’s assertion. The first is the funding of overseas operations, which has been a historic difficulty for the Department of National Defence. Successive governments tend not to adequately resource foreign deployments, and this has in the past affected both operational and capital accounts.

Relatedly, foreign operations tend to alter the military’s capital priorities. This was evident during Afghanistan, where the capabilities required to operate in that difficult region were given priority over others, which resulted in the delay in the desperately needed replacement. Instead, funding was directed to new armoured vehicles and CH-47F helicopters for troops on the ground.

By refusing to prioritize, the military must prepare for all scenarios, scattering precious resources over a wide area, and leaving significant gaps. Underfunding of operations and rapidly shifting operational priorities will only serve to diminish the long-term influence of the DPR.

Failure to address these issues will only further relegate the CAF behind rapidly evolving developments, putting service personnel lives in danger and the country’s national interests (whatever they may be) at continuing undue risk.

Richard Shimooka is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.