Following the recently published 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 Andrea Charron, Director of the Centre for Security, Intelligence and Defence Studies (CSIDS) at NPSIA, Carleton University.
iAffairs: What are your views on the new defence policy?
Andrea Charron: There is a feeling of optimism. It is certainly not the defence policy that I thought was going to come from a Liberal government. First of all, it is less about the away game; there is less about UN and other operations abroad than the election platform suggested. Instead, there is a focus on the defence of Canada and North America. That, and the amount of money that is being promised to achieve these goals, is not normally what you think of when you think of a Liberal government. For example, Jean Chrétien’s 1994 Defence White Paper solved the government’s financial crisis by slashing the defence budget.
iAffairs: In this regard, do you see any surprises that came from the policy release?
Andrea Charron: The surprises are less so now when one reflects on the core mandate of the Canadian Armed Forces. For example, there has been media attention to the fact that the policy indicates engagement in offensive cyber operations. While this is not exactly new for the CAF (there is a fine line between defensive and offensive actions in the cyber world), that the government is putting it on paper is new. The policy mentions that “drones” may be armed and this is new. And yet, successive white papers have, for example, said that the government will increase the number of combat ready personnel and civilian DND personnel, as well as the numbers within the Reserves. However, no government seems to be able to get to those magic new numbers.
Generally, for me, the defence policy was a surprise for how ambitious it is, especially in terms of flexibility of work terms and programs for personnel, generally. The CAF and DND have had years of transformation – an euphemism for deep cuts to the number of personnel – especially civilian specialists (e.g. procurement specialists). Recruiting the right people with the right skills, who also reflect the diverse makeup of society, will be DND’s biggest challenge. Keep in mind as well that as operational temp picks up, training tends to suffer which means those recruit can be in a ‘wait and hold’ pattern that doesn’t help the recruitment image. These are not obstacles unique to this government, but to militaries around the world.
iAffairs: What do you think is the solution, how do you address these kind of issues?
Andrea Charron: That is the million dollar question. It is something that the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces are thinking about but maybe they have to think how they recruit. They certainly have to streamline the process. It can take years to get somebody into the Reserves. It needs to be a matter of months especially if transferring from the regular to reserve forces. Maybe recruitment offices shouldn’t run 9am – 5pm but be open on the weekends and evenings. Location is another important change to make. I note that the American armed forces has a recruiting office right in some of the big tourist landmarks, like Times Square, because that is where young people are who the military are trying to attract. The recruitment offices need to be where their key demographics are.
The Cadet program has no trouble engaging a diverse (youthful – obviously as it is only for ages 12-18) population. While Cadets has never been nor should it be a slippery-slope recruitment tool of the CAF, nor are Cadets members of the CAF, somehow Canada needs to capture that enthusiasm, talent and diversity later in the lives of Canadians when they are thinking of future career prospects. I notice that there is much more presence of DND and the Canadian Armed Forces on Twitter/Facebook etc. That is another way to let Canadians know the breadth of job opportunities available to them. I think the cyber security jobs that they are contemplating for the future is going to be a big draw, but how they are filled by whom – will it be civilians or military – these are all questions that DND is still working through.
Another interesting development with the Defence Policy is they are going to reengage the academic community in a way they haven’t for several years. That is very exciting and it means that when academics and students write about defence policy they are writing from first-hand knowledge as opposed to assumptions. I think this will be a tremendous benefit for both the academics and the military and engaged, informed criticism and reflection of the role of DND and the CAF is key to healthy civil-military relations.
iAffairs: What does Canada consider to be major threats, according to the document?
Andrea Charron: To find our key threats, you really need to look at Minister of Foreign Affairs Freeland’s foreign policy statement, the newly released security statement, and the defence policy. In some ways, the threats haven’t really changed for Canada. Directly to Canada, the threats that we see every day are things like cyber-attacks and cyber denial of service. That is going to continue, and certainly the defence policy talks about needing to be more robust about protecting defence infrastructure against these attacks and maybe even using offensive measures. By-in-large, these are not defence threats and are assessed, mitigated and neutralized by civilian agencies and police.
In terms of “defence” threats (i.e. a threat from an outside aggressor be it state-based or non-state actor based), the military ambitions of China is something to track, although China is never mentioned in the policy directly (indeed all states, especially rogues like North Korea are particularly concerning). Russia is mentioned specifically but this is not a new threat and stems from ongoing aggression in Ukraine and Syria. Generally, Canada has very little influence to change the course of geopolitical events happening in the world. Rather, Canada’s role has focused on support to and of allies – especially the United States. And one of the best ways of doing that is to make sure that Canada is putting priority on defending Canada and defending North America, which certainly this defence policy does through the modernization of the North Warning System; through the evolution of NORAD and its command and control systems; also the amount of potential “hardware”) are in the pipeline: the fighter jets; 15 new vessels for the Navy; snowmobiles; space based assets; and cyber-based assets are all examples. There is potentially a lot of things that, if we can get and actually buy, hire and train people to use effectively, then we may look back on this policy as a potentially paradigmatic change for Canada.
iAffairs: Do you see anything related to the election of Donald Trump in this Defence Policy?
Andrea Charron: That is a very good question that defence scientists in Canada have debated. Would this defence policy be fundamentally different if Trump was not in office? I think where Trump has made a difference is that we are actually seeing significant dollars earmarked for the defence of Canada and North America. Before defence policies always said that the defence of Canada and North America were of primary importance but then spend much of the rest of the policy on operations abroad. That being said, I note, especially on the defence of Canada and North America, that almost all of the initiatives, with a few exceptions, had been talked about, budgeted, exercised, or pre-bought in several cases, before this plan came out and before Trump was elected as President. So, how much is Trump actually influencing this plan? I think the framework hasn’t changed that much. We’ve always said defend Canada, North America and then go out and defend the rest of the world. This time, however, I think there has been a concerted and considered pause as to how the first two “theaters” are defended and that is attributable to Trump.
iAffairs: What are your thoughts with regard to the Arctic?
Andrea Charron: For me the focus is, and should be, on all about domain awareness. It is about understanding and having the capabilities to know what is happening in the Arctic and not just for the CAF but for the twenty plus federal, provincial, territorial and municipal agencies that operate in the Arctic (from Environment Canada to local waste management). Canada’s Arctic (defined as territory north of 600) is 40 percent of our landmass and 75 percent of our coastline. That’s a lot real estate to try and get a handle on what’s happening. We’re doing things like upgrading the North Warning System, moving our air defence identification zones outward to actually match our physical territory, which I think most Canadians would have thought was the case, but it wasn’t – all to get a better sense of what is happening up there. That doesn’t mean that we think there’s going to be attacks on the Arctic. Certainly from the Department of Defence’s point of view, there are no military threats imminent for the Arctic, specifically to attack the Arctic. But because the Arctic is often a trajectory to get to the United States, it is something we always have to be aware of. It is part of our promise, part of the Kingston dispensation, that while the U.S pledged to protect us, we will protect the Arctic (and the rest of Canada) to protect the U.S.
iAffairs: As a whole, what are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of the defence plan?
Andrea Charron: I think that the biggest strength is that the first chapter is dedicated to the people; to personnel; to families; and to veterans. While all defence policies say people are important, they fall apart when plans don’t support the personnel, veterans and their families. On the flipside, it is an ambitious plan and we’ve had a high operational tempo for quite some time; Canadians often forget the important role the CAF plays to support civil authorities and this is only likely to increase over time with climate change. The Department of Defence has been in an austerity mode for a long time and now we’re seeing a lot of spending. It is like trying to drink from a fire hose. It is a lot of water very quickly. That is where I’m a little bit nervous. Can we actually absorb the funds that we hope are going to be in place for the next 20 years? Do you have the right people in the positions to procure equipment, to train etc.? There’s a lot of “if-s” to get this plan to fruition. And if any of those “if-s” fail then we could be like past policies where we have great promises and vision but either there’s not the political will or the right equipment or the trained personnel at the right time. There’s a lot of “just in time” factors that need to be in place.
Yet, I have to say that this has to be one of the more detailed policies we’ve ever had. But at the same time there are still lots of parts that lack details even broad strokes. The fact that DND is going to an accrual-based system of accounting is very new and I think some people are optimistic about how this will improve procurement. Others suggest this is just another way to move “coconuts” around. . We will see if that helps actually stabilize funding measures in the future. I am surprised at how frank the government is being in many cases. They’re not hedging around decisions like ballistic missile defence. They’re saying it is off the table right now, whereas past governance would waffle and then at the last minute make a decision in a very public setting – which hasn’t gone well. So the fact that it’s in writing is refreshing and very different. I remain cautiously optimistic.
Image courtesy of the Department of National Defence