For more than two years, those interested in Canadian military matters have been waiting for the Conservative government to release its “Canada First” defence strategy. First referenced in the 2006 FEDERAL ELECTION CONSERVATIVE PARTY PLATFORM on national defence, the most comprehensive platform presented by any federal political party of consequence, the strategy would focus Canada’s military on securing the home-front ahead of any international commitments. Yet, the taxing demands of the Afghanistan mission has meant that many of the most fundamental commitments in that election campaign have not been met to date, and no written “Canada First” defence strategy has been produced by the government.
The original “Canada First” proposal presented to Canadians by the Conservatives in the 2006 election campaign made many promises: expansion of the military to 80,000 regular force personnel, new and expanded military bases, and new territorial defence battalions, among others. A significant commitment was for new equipment, such as strategic airlift, tactical airlift, and new Joint Support Ships. There was also a comprehensive commitment to strengthening the Arctic operational capabilities of the Canadian Forces. While there has been no formal plan written and released to the public, the Conservatives have come through on key equipment commitments originally noted in their election platform, even if the ‘personnel-related’ commitments have largely gone unfulfilled.
Yet, there were indications this week that the Conservatives are still intent on realising their “Canada First” defence strategy. On May 12, at Halifax, Prime Minister Harper and Defence Minister Mackay stood up to announce the details of the “Canada First” defence strategy after two years of meandering development. Now, the plan has become meandering reality – a twenty-year commitment on behalf of the Conservative government that, oddly, has not been publicly released aside from five press statements by the Department of National Defence. The lack of a detailed plan being available for scrutiny has been a major sticking point with most of the mainstream media in Canada, as well as scores of military experts. Indeed, by merely reading the vaguely worded press releases, one might surmise that this week’s announcement is a knee-jerk reaction to impatient calls for the strategy’s release after two years of planning.
What is known is that the strategy is being formulated on “four pillars” – increasing military readiness, improving military infrastructure, modernising equipment, and expanding the Canadian Forces. To maintain long-term development in each pillar, the Government is establishing “predictable, long-term funding” to the military to the tune of an annual military budget of $30 billion at the end of the twenty-year planning period. Mind you, that dollar figure is pure conjecture by most accounts, as no fiscal plan accompanying the strategy has been made public to date. Indeed, some media reports have pegged the true cost of the plan as high as $96 billion over the period (according to the Prime Minister in QUESTION PERIOD ON MAY 15, there will be $45 billion to $50 billion worth of capital investments over twenty-years, concurrent to the increasing annual defence budget). The annual budget will begin to see regular increases in FY2011 under the strategy.
In the 2006 election, the Conservatives were committed to expanding the Regular Force to 80,000 personnel. The realities of the Canadian Forces recruiting system have dictated that the Government reduce its goal to 70,000 personnel (approximately an increase of 5,000 on current Regular Force strength) in the defence strategy. The strategy also intends to hire another 6,000 reservists, to bring the Reserve Force up to 30,000 strong. One might ask why such a modest increase over a twenty-year period; the (very simplistic) answer being that given the backlog and lack of manpower in the training system, the Canadian Forces is experiencing a significant backlog in bringing new personnel into the military due to an overstretched/undermanned training system. This is likely to be a factor in replacing personnel lost through attrition for many years to come. Add to that the aging Canadian population, which may soon result in a significant turnover of employees in this country, and you have two important factors constraining the estimates of how many personnel the military will be able to maintain on strength in the next twenty-years. It is certainly possible, and optimistically most likely, that the Canadian Forces will meet these two goals well before the twenty-year period ends. All that remains to be seen is whether the governing factors of the future will permit the Forces to maintain those strength levels.
Aiming to increase the overall readiness of the military (i.e. the Forces’ flexibility and responsiveness to government direction), the Government intends to allocate more resources towards the acquisition of spare parts and equipment maintenance. The lack of readily available spare parts was recently mentioned in the Auditor General’s report as a point of concern for the Afghanistan mission. Ideally, “Canada First” should reduce the occurrence of “stock-outs” and allow for more efficient and effective use of equipment. The recent acquisition of a dedicated fleet of strategic-lift aircraft (the 4 CC-177 Globemaster IIIs), as well as a commitment to replace the aging CC-130 Hercules fleet, bodes well for quicker response by the Canadian Forces to operational requirements. Yet, for all the airlift in the world no difference will be made if the equipment needed by the troops on the ground is not ready for deployment. If the strategy, when it is released as a full detailed plan, can provide the proper resources to ensuring an acceptable level of overall readiness for the military, then the Government will have justified (beyond any reasonable doubt – and there does exist some) its purchase of the CC-177 fleet.
A major ailment for the military is its aging infrastructure. This is not merely a military problem, but a condition that is afflicting every government department at every level of government in this country. The renewal of infrastructure is a priority for every government; but one must consider the special circumstances and needs of the military as untypical even for government. Such a consideration is glaringly obvious given the nature of the work the military does (modern, well-maintained facilities are critical to its operational efficiency, and the immediate defence of the nation). Approximately fifty-percent of the Department of National Defence’s infrastructure is over fifty-years old. To put that in perspective, the Department has over 21,000 buildings and more than 12,000 roads and utilities on over 800 properties. One only needs to drive to the local base to witness the decrepit condition of many of the Department’s buildings. “Canada First” will aim to replace or refurbish upwards of twenty-five percent of Departmental infrastructure within the next ten years, with approximately fifty-percent having been replaced or refurbished by the end of the twenty-year period.
With respect to equipment modernisation, the “Canada First” defence strategy aims to replace six core equipment fleets: destroyer, frigates, maritime patrol aircraft, fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft, fighter aircraft, and land combat vehicles and systems. Several programmes are already underway to replace these core fleets, most notably the JOINT SUPPORT SHIP programme. Near the end of the Martin government in 2005, rumours of the purchase of NEW FIXED-WING SEARCH AND RESCUE AIRCRAFT were in full tilt, with that government eventually committing to a plan to replace the current CC-115 Buffalo fleet. When the Conservatives entered office and began a massive procurement of new equipment, this programme was pushed to the back burner as not being a priority, and the funds put towards other procurements. Its inclusion as one of the “core fleets” is reassuring, to say the least.
Despite the lack of detail, or a formal document, the “Canada First” defence strategy is largely a well-meaning commitment on the part of the Conservative government to create a more effective Canadian Forces. However, until a formal plan is released and a funding schedule approved by Parliament, well-meaning is all the strategy is.