Hudson on the Hill
Treasure Chest or Pandora’s Box?
The federal government’s new Defence Policy – grandly titled Strong, Secure, Engaged – is both a promising treasure chest and a potential Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences that would leave the Canadian Armed Forces struggling with more than one “capability gap.”
Clear commitments to a range of new aircraft, ships and land vehicles, coupled with increases in personnel, are generally welcome, even though most funds for these overdue initiatives don’t begin flowing for another two years.
The new policy broadly echoes recommendations in the April 2017 report by the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, which called for “the necessary defence investments to ensure that the Canadian Armed Forces are fully equipped and trained to effectively carry out Canada’s key defence priorities.”
Yet ‘Strong, Secure, Engaged’ falls woefully short in several key areas. One is the proposed purchase of 88 new fighters for the Royal Canadian Air Force through an open competition. Yes, that compares favourably with the pared-down 65 number from the last government. The overall acquisition cost could be as much $19 billion – $216 million each, and is more fiscally realistic than previous estimates, but will 88 fighters be enough to meet simultaneous NATO, NORAD and domestic requirements?
The Senate committee recommended 120 replacements for the remaining 77 “legacy” Boeing CF-188 Hornets – out of an original fleet of 135. That would include cancellation of a proposed purchase of 18 FA/18 Super Hornets as a stopgap until a whole new fleet can be operational.
Given that a significant percentage of RCAF aircraft of all types can be unavailable to the operational squadrons at any given time due to training or maintenance schedules, 120 is clearly more realistic than 88.
The Senate committee also recommended that the new aircraft be selected by mid-2018, which is now less than a year away. That underscores the need for a competition now if they are to be in service by the time the legacy aircraft are retired.
The new Policy acknowledges that the Royal Canadian Navy’s four 1970s-design submarines are “likely to remain the dominant naval platform for the foreseeable future. That’s due solely to the fact that other planned Navy ship programs are generally well behind schedule and falling short of expectations.
Having already sunk billions into keeping our submarines operational since buying them as mothballed “new” boats from Britain in 1998, the RCN is lucky to have more than one deployed at any given time. Now the government proposes to throw good money after bad to “operate and modernize” them.
The Senate committee recommended the acquisition of 12 submarines with air-independent propulsion (AIP), which would be capable of under-ice operations. While AIP, such as closed-cycle diesel or fuel cells would limit those operations, under-ice capability is an absolute must if our Northern sovereignty claims are to mean anything – even if climate change does mean longer ice-free seasons!
The Policy states that “Canada remains committed to exercising the full extent of its sovereignty” but that is not matched by the necessary actual physical presence.
The AIP concept – studied and developed in depth by several of Canada’s allies (the Royal Navy even mooted an upgrade to the Upholder-class subs, which we have rebranded as the Victoria-class) – has been kicked around within DND as far back as the late 1980s. It’s a technology which has matured in the intervening decades, and should not be dismissed summarily.
The Committee also urged increased cooperation within NORAD, including improved protection against ballistic missiles and cyber attacks, and renewal of the North Warning System. The Policy commitments on all of the foregoing are generally vague, full of promises of increased collaboration with the United States and other allies.
Coupled with that, is DND’s ongoing search for ways to prevent any satellites we put into space from being disabled or brought down. While committing to “the peaceful use of space” – in compliance with the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty which is the basis of international space law – the new policy acknowledges the tactical reality that orbital platforms are “potential targets.”
U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said, not long ago, that China and Russia had stepped up their testing of anti-satellite weapons. It’s worth recalling that China used an anti-satellite missile test to destroy one of its own Fengyun weather satellites in polar orbit – in January 2007! The long march of technology hasn’t stopped, so current capabilities can only be guessed at.
Hence DND’s acknowledgement (in an e-mail to CBC News) that the peaceful use of space notwithstanding, Canada will be examining “a requirement for ‘defensive countermeasures’ on future satellites”, is just plain common sense.
When then rookie MP and CAF veteran Harjit Sajjan was appointed Minister of National Defence two years ago, the briefing book he was given acknowledged that there was “currently no policy consensus regarding whether, and what types of non-kinetic counter space measures, such as lasing or jamming, would be considered unacceptable.” It also noted that “the application of fundamental legal principles (e.g. self defence) can also be challenging from a practical perspective given the rapid development and unique characteristics of the technologies involved because the idea of the use of force in space remains underdeveloped.”
The list goes on, but underpinning everything, of course, is funding. The new policy commits to nearly doubling the annual defence budget over the next decade, to $32.7 billion by 2026-2027 from $17.1 billion in the fiscal year just ended.
Minister Sajjan has said that the more than $70 billion in cumulative new funding would reverse “a pattern of decline” and enable the Forces to “leverage new technologies to maintain […] interoperability with allies and an operational advantage over potential adversaries.”
And that is the possible Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences.
With no significant new spending taking place for two more years, implementation of the Policy will be in the hands of the next administration. That means more uncertainty and possibly even more delays in the Forces’ ability to meet all of the government’s demands.
Successive governments had stressed the need to give Canada’s military the necessary tools it needs to do the jobs those governments assigned. Both Strong, Secure, Engaged and the Senate committee echoed that call, but is the government really listening to itself?
– Hudson on the Hill
(the role of Hudson is being filled by contributing editor Ken Pole)