Can current resources accommodate both Afghanistan operations and a “Canada First” Defence Policy?

My initial reaction to the question raised by Eugene Lang, former chief of staff to Liberal Defence Ministers John McCallum and Bill Graham, who raised a question in their article in The Globe and Mail, entitled “Canada’s Military is Broke … Again,” about whether Canada has one to many defence policies was “Yes!” However, in thinking about the history of Canadian defence policy since the advent of the Cold War in 1948-49, I believe it has been the norm to have two policies in this country.

With the formation of NATO in 1949, Canada adopted an expeditionary defence policy that supported forward deployment to Europe. It took time to implement but by the mid 1950s we had twelve fighter squadrons providing air defence to the Western European allies and a robust army brigade on front line duties. The navy was then re-equipping to become an anti-submarine force to protect shipping along the sea lines of communication to Europe. UN duties for all three services were an adjunct to this policy.

There was also the traditional defence of Canada and North America policy shrouded in the various bi-lateral arrangements with the United States. The prime participant was the air force with contributions to air surveillance and defence operations intended primarily to protect the US nuclear bomber deterrent forces and, secondly, Canadian sovereignty and security. The army provided forces for aid to the civil power in natural disasters and nuclear attack. Thankfully, the latter plan was never put to the test. The navy had some coastal defence and Arctic patrol capability, which was quickly sacrificed for the expeditionary defence policy.

The existence of two defence policies today is, therefore, not a new issue or challenge. The expeditionary policy is still rooted in NATO and UN mandated missions, almost entirely focused upon Afghanistan at present. The defence of Canada and North America policy is linked to American border insecurity, Canadian maritime and airspace awareness, resource protection and Arctic sovereignty. While there may be new emphases, the subjects are not really new.

The challenge for the departments charged with foreign affairs and national security is how to implement both government policies with limited resources. The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces (CF) share this challenge. From the CF perspective, there is a need for flexible response using general-purpose combat capable forces that can swing from one role to the other on reasonably short notice. This is not as simple as it may first appear, however, we have done these types of operations for nearly sixty years. The problem is to have enough baseline capability for implementation of each policy simultaneously and enough active and reserve capacity to add weight to whichever policy requires greater effort at any point in time. This becomes a matter of managing risk.

In conclusion, the thinkers in Canada need to assess the risks of the day and the planners need to create realistic plans to mitigate the risks. The current government, like many of its predecessors, have failed to explain the need for two policies to the public and have failed to direct production of a coherent plan to address the risks.  Canadians should hold the current government accountable for this failure.