The Canada First Defence Strategy?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the long awaited "Canada First Defence Strategy" (CFDS) yesterday. Or, as a cynic might put it, he repackaged several old announcements and planning document details, and attempted to pass it off as something new.

The much awaited details?

  1. The Tories are serious about the North (announced previously here, here, here, and here)
  2. The Tories are buying the following kit (announced previously here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here)
  3. The Tories will improve on their previous budget increase such that by the 22nd year of Stephen Harper's government, Canada will be spending $30B annually on defence (announced previously here and here)
  4. Finally, the Tories will increase CF readiness, improve infrastructure, modernize equipment and expand the forces.
    • On the last point, this is a formal announcement that the Tories are walking back their planned expansion to 75k regular and 35k reserve forces by 2011, to 70k and 30k over the course of the 20 year plan. (The reduced expansion was previously announced here)

Beyond the four Backgrounders released May 12, further clarity is available the morning after:

  • The strategy, such as it is, consists of the backgrounders, and the accompanying speeches by Harper and MacKay (not available online). No actual white paper or defence capabilities plan will be forthcoming.
  • The (brief) speech by MacKay, does, however, offer something new: plans for further equipment replacement, specifically: 15 new surface combat ships, 17 search-and- rescue planes, 10 to 12 new maritime patrol aircraft, 17 new fixed wing search and rescue aircraft, 65 next generation fighter aircraft and a new family of land combat vehicles and systems. (Most details available via the Globe and Mail)

This means the navy will receive a 1 for 1 replacement of its major surface ships, (with the phrasing suggesting the Single Class Surface Combatant concept may be revived) while the air force will lose 15 fighters.

Some points to ponder:

  1. The Long Term Budget Framework: The annual 2% increase will provide predictable, long term funding - assuming future governments stick to the plan and annual inflation doesn't exceed 2% (which is iffy). (It should be noted, however, that the Tories have actually pledged an increase of 0.5% a year, as the annual increase was originally 1.5%). In essence, the Tories just informed DND that the recently increased defence budget - now roughly $20B a year - will be the defence funding envelope for the foreseeable future. No cash infusions are coming, so defence planners should get on with it - $20B a year, more or less adjusted for inflation - make it work.
  2. The Standing Contingency Force (SCF) concept is moot for the foreseeable future, as there was no mention of a 'Big Honking Ship'.
  3. Nor was there any discussion of some of the more novel aspects of the previously leaked versions of the CFDS (Arctic initiatives aside) including territorial defence battalions, a new airborne regiment or marine commando unit.
  4. The "Canada First" part of this strategy seems to revolve around increasing our ability to operate in the Arctic. Aside from that, there is no mention of how the new strategy will concretely add to the defence of Canada or North America, other than a promise to replace the CF18s, Aurora's and Fixed Wing SAR. None of these replacements demonstrates anything more than a continuation of current policy. The scrapping of the SCF, however, removes a projected increase in the CF's expeditionary capability. Perhaps this is an example of addition (of Canada First concept) by subtraction (SCF).
  5. The "vision" in this plan seems to be stable, long term, predictable planning focusing on critical, yet uninspiring components like improved readiness, modernized equipment, affordable force expansion, and much needed, but definitely un-sexy, infrastructure improvements.

This last point seems to be the real crux of the strategy. The Tories were elected to a minority government, amidst fears of a dreaded conservative "hidden agenda" - retrenchment of social policies and minority rights, militarization, etc. (recall Liberal fear-mongering over Canadian streets). Instead, the Tories have arguably put forth a largely moderate agenda which appears more focused on pragmatism and re-election than advancing any major Conservative agenda (hidden or otherwise).

With defence too, the Conservatives haven't stuck their necks out, May 2006 extension of the Afghan mission aside. The March 2008 extension of the mission in Afghanistan was based on the recommendation of a blue ribbon panel chaired by a prominent Liberal and the motion extending the mission included, almost verbatim, the revised wording proposed by the Liberals. With defence spending too, the Conservatives (despite the hopes of ardent supporters) pledged an initial increase of $5.3B, with only insignificant funding increases since then. While the Tories have stuck to their spending plans, they have gone out of their way to downplay the increased defence spending (see comments here and here)

The defence strategy is therefore competent, long term planning, devoid of any exciting new promises that might attract criticism for outlandish spending plans and un-needed equipment. Perhaps most importantly, the commitment to recapitalize the navy and retain the air force's fighters will presumably keep those services happy. And with General Rick Hillier moving on, concerns about the "Army Centric" nature of CF Transformation, may be alleviated as Canada seems poised to retain a balanced, tri-service military, rather than one focused on an expeditionary Army. For its part, the Army has seen much of its equipment already replaced, with promises to replace the remainder in due course, and its prestige restored by Afghanistan.

When the Conservatives were initially elected, who would have predicted that the Toronto Star's criticism of their revamped defence policy would be that "Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Canada First Defence Strategy turns out to be more of a motor pool maintenance schedule than a bold new vision for the military in the 21st century."

What better endorsement for a minority Conservative government seeking re-election than criticism from the Star that its new defence policy is too boring.