Hudson on the Hill

Partisan Politics vs.Strategic Thought
HUDSON ON THE HILL  |  Sep 15, 2010

Canadians should be thankful for their Generals and journalists, because few in Parliament seem to be thinking big thoughts about the future of Canadian defence needs. National interests continue to take a back seat to partisan politics.
Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, one of the best military minds in Canada, is the Canadian Forces Chief of Transformation. He leads a small, but elite staff that is examining the future structure of the Canadian Forces. Inherent in that exercise is the study of likely Canadian Forces operational engagements in the future, at home and abroad. It will also examine the capabilities to be developed and managed, as well as operational linkages with allies and other like-minded states.
Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, the Commander of Canada’s Army, is the most operationally experienced General in the Canadian Forces. In a recent Ottawa Citizen article, Matthew Fisher of Postmedia News interviewed the Army Commander during a visit to the troops in Afghanistan. General Devlin briefly discussed his ideas for a post-Afghanistan army. “The Army doesn’t need a pause,” he said. “… the next conflict will be different. Our training plan will adjust for ‘a war,’ rather than ‘the war,’ and that will involve uncertainty.”
Accordingly, the post-Afghanistan army plan will see troops training under different climatic conditions and in various geographic locations. Northern and jungle training, air mobility operations and littoral amphibious assaults will test army ingenuity and flexibility. A high priority will be the modernization of tactics, techniques and procedures required for joint operations in Canada’s Arctic.
Major-General David Fraser, who successfully led 10,000 Canadian and coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2006, during the early days of heavy fighting in Kandahar province, is now the Commander of 1 Canadian Division Headquarters in Kingston, Ontario. He is planning for future Canadian Forces contingency operations abroad.
Although not as often as some might like, Canada’s print media sometimes do good work in helping Canadians understand the higher issues involved in strategic defence planning. A good example is a recent Globe and Mail piece by Campbell Clark, “After Afghanistan, the world will need Canada’s military more than ever” (23 October 2010). Given all that has happened in Afghanistan and despite a degree of reluctance at home, Canada, Clark notes, “will need to confront threats in the world again, with realism, and will need to shape the military to do it.”
Two parliamentary committees deal with defence issues, but they seem not to be interested in studying the more important, truly strategic defence issues of the future.
Senator Pamela Wallin (Conservative – Saskatchewan) chairs the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence (SCONSAD). Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire is the Deputy-Chair, and while the relationship between the Chair and the Deputy-Chair has remained cordial, it is not close. Both have styles, egos and partisan tendencies that may yet disrupt what is an otherwise active agenda.
Activity, however, does not always indicate relevance. A June 2010 SCONSAD interim report entitled “Where We Go From Here: Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan” offered one uninspiring recommendation that said, “… Canada’s important and highly-valued contribution to the development of the leadership, training and mentoring of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police must continue beyond 2011, and that Parliament should, at its earliest opportunity, give careful consideration to the question of the role of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan after 2011.” Like a meal of Chinese food, this report seems to satisfy while being read, but half an hour later, with a bit of reflection, one is hungry again. There really wasn’t much meat in that report.
SCONSAD is currently studying the state and future of the Canadian Forces Reserves, as well as parallel consideration of a motion to once again add “Royal” to the title of the Canadian Navy. These are nice, but not strategic issues. Much more can be done here.
The Hon. Maxime Bernier (Conservative – Beauce), who always looks like he wants to be somewhere else doing something more interesting, Chairs the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence (SCOND). The Hon. Bryon Wilfert (Liberal – Richmond Hill) and Defence Critic Claude Bachand (BQ – Saint Jean) serve as Vice-Chairs. Both exhibit sincere and dedicated attention to defence issues, but where Mr. Wilfert can be counted on to provide balanced, relevant and often pointed commentary. Mr. Bachand, however is too constrained by party ideology. This is unfortunate because Mr. Bachand is truly interested, informed and engaged in defence issues, but would be more effective if he avoided patent partisan arguments.
Other Committee members currently include The Hon. Laurie Hawn, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence (Conservative – Edmonton Centre); and The Hon. Dominic Leblanc, Liberal Defence Critic (Liberal – New Brunswick). These two gentlemen are the ones who really control the committee agenda, which will never include anything they both don’t want to talk about.
A quick review of the SCOND agenda for this parliamentary session reveals the following activity: Search and Rescue Response Times (one meeting); Role of Canadian Soldiers in International Peace Operations After 2011 (two meetings); Recruitment and Retention in the Canadian Forces (one meeting); Next Generation of Fighter Aircraft (three meetings); and Arctic Sovereignty (one meeting).
The one meeting on Arctic Sovereignty (26 October 2010) reviewed the Government’s response to the SCOND study on Arctic Sovereignty that had been presented in the House of Commons in June 2010. One might hope that this study could produce a number of valuable strategic recommendations relevant to strategic defence planning for Canada’s Arctic. Alas, of the 17 recommendations presented in June, not one is directly relevant to national defence. In fact, the last recommendation calls on government to, “vigorously use its influence in relevant multi-lateral and bi-lateral fora in order to prevent the militarization of the Arctic.”
The partisan atmosphere inherent in the context of a minority government effectively constrains effective national defence strategic planning. For all the talk to the contrary, political parties are unable to but the long-term needs of the country before their own partisan requirements. Neither side is inclined to devote much-needed attention to things that really matter.
Therefore, Canadians should be thankful that Generals and selected journalists are engaged in mature and realistic studies of Canada’s future national defence needs. Will parliament listen?
Hudson on The Hill
© FrontLine Defence 2010