Three Questions for a Canadian Defence Policy Review

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There have been considerable geopolitical, strategic, technological and global economic changes since Canada’s last real defence policy statement found in the Martin government’s Canada’s International Policy Statement of 2005. Subsequently, the Harper government was the only Canadian government since the Second World War to not publish an explicit national defence policy. But what about the Harper government’s Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS)? Was that not the government’s expression of national defence policy? In a word: no. The CFDS was inadequate and unaffordable since being published in 2008. It failed to address all components of the overall national defence enterprise, offered no substantive political objectives and ignored any sense of prevailing against adversaries in the post-modern security environment.  The CFDS aspired to be nothing more than “a detailed roadmap for the modernization of the Canadian Forces.”

The time is ripe for a new, full Canadian defence policy review. The essence of defence policy

The essence of a true defence policy lies in its conceptualization of Canadians’ ultimate intention and capability to defend their country from external threats. It should highlight and outline their determination to exploit the integrated and coordinated energy of all elements and instruments of state power, up to and including the use of maximum violent force as a last resort. Such a declaration should not only be aspirational, but should also provide enduring inspiration to all Canadians.

National defence policy must also provide clear and defined references to our national values and national interests, being sure to differentiate between the two. A value represents an enduring and just good that appeals to all Canadians, something that is worth fighting and dying for. Past governments have been relatively consistent in identifying freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights as Canada’s national values and, to be fair, these seem eminently sensible. Interests are more tangible derivative of values. For instance, if Canadians value freedom, one of the derived interests would be the defence of our political independence, further supported by a prosperous economy, another national interest. The promotion and defence of our national values and interests are worth great sacrifice in blood and national treasure.

Three questions

Government should waste no time getting on with a new defence policy review, but rather than initially diving into the same old issues of personnel strengths, new aircraft, promised ships and more arctic exercises, the review should feature up-front deep thinking about the basic nature of the Canadian national defence enterprise. Accordingly, this article identifies three fundamental questions, the answers to which should form the basis of such a review. Will we fight? Why will we fight? How will we fight? Reponses to these three questions represent the essence of a true defence policy.

These are not easy questions to address. They require a measure of honest introspection and moral courage to see one’s country as it really is. Admittedly, the answers that follow will not be as full or as satisfying as those which might emerge from a broad national conversation unencumbered by the intellectual constraints which so often distort discussion of sensitive matters. Moreover, results here are somewhat less than categorical, because each question produces different answers, depending on whether they are examined in a context of defending Canada, defending North America in concert with the United States, or contributing to wider global peace and security.

Will we fight?

Perhaps the most fundamental question to be considered is: Will we fight? History shows we will … sometimes.

It is unlikely, anytime soon, that Canada will face the degree of existential danger endured by Britain, France or Russia during the Second World War, or by Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973. But the question must still be asked. Would Canadians, and their government, be prepared to fight for their existence should it become necessary? Some undoubtedly believe such a question unnecessary, indeed misguided. “Of course we will fight, if we have to,” they might say, “but we don’t need to talk about it!”

However, history does not categorically establish that Canadians will fight in all circumstances. We fought for Britain and the Empire in the First World War; and for Britain, France and the Commonwealth in the Second World War. During the Cold War, we were (somewhat) prepared to fight, but we hoped the US nuclear deterrent would save us from having to do so. In 1970, the first Trudeau government halved the Canadian contingent stationed in West Germany.

In some circumstances we have purposely hesitated before fighting. It took a week before Canada declared war on Germany in 1939. After committing only a token naval force at the outbreak of the Korean War, government, pressured by popular insistence, later agreed to a brigade-sized ground force in 1951. We have also made important contributions which achieved operational successes but went unrecognized by nervous governments who sought to hide the fact – as in Somalia and the Balkans during the 1990s. In many cases, we’ve contributed only token forces, as we did in the First Gulf War of 1991. We’ve also fought and then withdrawn – notably in Afghanistan and soon, it seems, in Iraq and Syria.  Sometimes we have not fought at all. We avoided the Vietnam War during the late 1960s and early 1970s and the Second Gulf War in 2003.

So, will we fight when threatened? Admittedly, and fortunately, such a discussion may be largely hypothetical, at least at present, but it is necessary that it take place for the purpose of laying down a basic conceptual marker.

In thinking about possible cataclysmic circumstances in which Canada might find itself, it is useful to consider an analytical framework produced by Dr. Douglas Bland, Professor Emeritus at Queen’s University, in which he offers two defence imperatives and one strategic choice.

Bland’s first defence imperative – the defence of Canada – leads one to expect all Canadians would fight if the very existence of the country were threatened. But do all Canadian citizens and their government see the ultimate defence of Canada as their individual and collective responsibility? Throughout its history, Canada has seen its share of pacifist movements. Are all, or enough, of our multicultural diasporas sufficiently committed to fight for Canada if needed? Some immigrants become “more Canadian than Canadians,” but are their loyalties broad and deep enough to take up arms for Canada? Can they ignore conflicts in their homeland if there is no Canadian national interest involved? Will diaspora demographics affect a Canadian government’s decision to fight? Will the national media or the corporate sector support a fight? Will all provincial governments support a fight?

Any defence policy review faces a sophisticated challenge in deriving a fundamental principle aimed at motivating all Canadians to fight in their own defence. This might be more difficult than imagined, particularly because as thinking moves away from clearly fighting for oneself at home to fighting for others elsewhere, one’s motivations for applying military violence become more complicated.

Why will we fight?

If one accepts that all Canadians will fight in their own defence, the next large issue to be tackled is defining the conceptual argument for why we might fight for anyone or anything else. Bland’s framework is of some assistance here as well, because the second defence imperative – defending North America in cooperation with the US – suggests we would also fight any threat to the continent.

But here too, we wade in murky waters. Do we really see it as our role to fight equally hard in all continental locales, or do we fight just hard enough, and frequently enough, to retain the confidence, support and protection of the Americans? Do we help defend the Aleutian Islands as robustly as we might defend Vancouver Island? What about the Polynia Islands in Canada’s far north? Do Canadians see it as their obligation to help defeat threats the US might face coming from the Gulf of Mexico or Central America? Mexico is a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partner, one of the “three amigos”, but do Canadians believe they should, if asked, help defend it? And if Canadians see a role for themselves in helping to defend others, do they – should they – expect their North American partners to come and defend Canada?

Beyond North America, Canadians’ enthusiasm to fight seems to wane when considering their one strategic choice – contributing to international peace and security. How might our will to fight in these circumstances be expressed as a motivating principle of action within national defence policy? Consider some recent history, in which rhetoric outpaced action.

During a March 2006 visit to Canadian troops at Kandahar Airfield, Prime Minister Harper was reported as saying, “You can’t lead from the bleachers. I want Canada to be a leader…. There will be some who want to cut and run, but cutting and running is not my way and it’s not the Canadian way.” However, in early 2008, a government-appointed panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan, led by former Liberal Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, concluded that Canada should withdraw its military personnel from Afghanistan if NATO allies would not provide additional troops and more equipment, particularly troop-carrying helicopters. The report also encouraged a general winding down of Canadian combat activity in favour of a reorientation to a training role, which eventually occurred in 2011. Neither the government nor the Manley Panel showed any political will to prevail in the fight against Taliban insurgents, even though government rhetoric persistently focused on the direct national security threat to Canada posed by terrorists in Afghanistan and highlighted the importance of helping to develop a strong and democratic Afghanistan that would never again become a terrorist haven.

The dramatic global financial collapse in 2008 led to massive stimulus spending programs, which sent western governments into deep deficits. Canada’s fiscal surplus was eliminated, the federal deficit ballooned to historic proportions and the Afghanistan mission suddenly became much more expensive, at a time the Canadian economy could not afford it. Canada and its NATO allies would all wind down their Afghanistan missions and most troops were back home by the end of 2014. Concurrently, in Canada defence, diplomatic, and development assistance budgets all faced considerable and continuing cuts. It seems that leading and doing our bit have a price limit.

Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan offers a good example of both why Canada fought and then didn’t fight. The Afghanistan mission pushed government to decide whether it was in our best interest to fight in Afghanistan and to bolster our stock as a reliable ally of the US by participating in their fight to counter global terrorism, or to not fight in order to avoid over-burdening the Canadian economy. In 2005, we decided in favour of the former. In 2008 we decided in favour of the latter. Why? The salience of our interests changed. While there were certainly partisan political machinations in play at the time, in the end our mission in Afghanistan was believed to present more of a threat to the Canadian economy than it did to the Taliban. We had to (we were able to) stop fighting.

Current Canadian air operations in Iraq and Syria are also expensive. In 2015, then Defence Minister Jason Kenney forecast that the cost of Canada’s airstrikes could total nearly $528 million by the end of March 2016. This does not bode well for the Trudeau government’s planned federal deficit, which is already facing fiscal pressure because of accumulating election promises and weak economic growth.

Quite apart from the financial load, it seems the current government has no gumption or grit at all to fight. The Prime Minister’s remarks after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 reveal a worrisome pacifist inclination, simply expressing regret with no hint of outrage or condemnation of the perpetrators. He is inclined to end any fighting role for Canada in Iraq and Syria, while seeking an otherwise “meaningful” contribution to the US-led international coalition. This is particularly troublesome given the fact that the government has articulated no strategic objective for Canada in Iraq and Syria and no clear statement of the Canadian values and interests being pursued. What are we really trying to do and why are we doing it?

Once clear on why we fight, or won’t fight, a defence policy review should move on to exploring how we will fight.

How will we fight?

This question demands a more profound discussion than is normally found in traditional defence debates anywhere in Canadian academia or media. The essence of this question relates to such fundamental concepts as national mobilization; the role of various societal components in the defence of Canada at home and abroad; the composition, organization, location, equipping, training and readiness of the CAF; and the constitutional, legislated and customary relationships between government, the population, and the profession of arms.

Modern missions involve a great deal more than just the use of military power. In settings where ethnic, religious, ideological, and economic factors are all in play, operational doctrine demands the integrated efforts not only of various elements of national and allied military power, but also of a variety of government and civilian instruments, to achieve desired effects. In military circles this is known as a JIMP environment – a joint, interagency, multinational and public environment – involving elements of all military services (maritime, land, air – Joint), other government departments and agencies (Interagency), foreign partners (Multinational), and private sector participants including host nation populations, civil society, business interests, and the media (Public).

At issue for Canadian defence policy is whether the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is adequately prepared and equipped for JIMP operations in the 21st century. One consideration is size. Do the Canadian Armed Forces have enough of the right kind of forces for the tasks government and the population are likely to call on them to perform? Another consideration is organization. Do we have the right mix and division of responsibility between the Regular and Reserve Forces? The National Defence Act also allows for raising a Special Force when required. A defence policy review should address the roles of each component and review the conceptual relationships among all three. Are all three needed in their present form? What changes are needed to produce viable and effective military forces in the post-modern period? What do we need to fight the “Forever War” against radical Islam?

If there is any area that requires a new, modern, frank, sober, and “hard-ass” examination, it has to be the current organization of the CAF. Although “transformed” during the last decade, the CAF remains a prisoner of history, chained by tradition, and trapped in an inefficient structure. The long-standing “regimental system” needs modernization. The Reserve Force organization has long been pathologically anachronistic and grossly inefficient. The most obstinate blockage to true modernization might be a small clique of well-heeled and politically influential honourary appointments who insist on looking through a rear-view mirror at myths of yesteryear. We must also get over our Canadian habit of thinking in small, piddling numbers. Why can’t we have a Canadian defence framework capable of raising a defence enterprise hundreds of thousands strong? It’s time for change and a defence policy review will find much grist for the mill here.

More broadly, it is also time to examine exactly what comprises the national defence enterprise. Contrary to popular (and lazy) opinion, that enterprise includes much more than just Canada’s military forces. Do not all other armed elements within Canadian society ultimately share responsibility for the defence of Canada? RCMP officers have served with the CAF abroad, as have officials from the Canada Border Services Agency, Correctional Service Canada, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) to name just a few. CSEC, in fact, is daily involved in defence operations. A defence policy review should identify and define the roles of all the parties making up the defence enterprise.

Also at issue is whether government is structured and run in a manner that allows for defence contributions from departments other than DND for Canada to act in a “whole-of-government” manner at home and abroad? As it happens, not even the departments one would expect to be most involved in defence operations (e.g. Global Affairs, Public Safety, Transport, Justice) lack any “surge” capability to act in concert with the CAF abroad in a timely manner. It’s not out of the question, in fact, to wonder whether there is even an acceptance on the part of civilian departments that they constitute important elements of the national defence enterprise.

Also for consideration are the historical habits of a “Canadian way of war,” so ably described in Colonel Dr. Bernd Horn’s The Canadian Way of War: Serving the National Interest. Before becoming Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance once described Canada’s approach to fighting as “contribution warfare,” in which “Canada has never taken full responsibility for running (and therefore the outcomes of) an overseas theatre of operation, preferring or being relegated instead to a supporting role in providing Canadian blood and treasure to shared strategic objectives.” Do we now need to do otherwise?

How will we fight in concert with allies in the future? It might be time to ‘come clean’ and clarify our premier intention to remain interoperable with American forces at all costs. Will we act only in concert with US forces and admit to not wanting to deploy CAF elements under incompetent United Nations military command, on missions that do not serve Canadian interests? Recent history shows our clear preference for acting alongside the US and other close allies, such as Australia, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. This inclination becomes even clearer when turning questions around and asking: Would we have deployed to Afghanistan if the US had not? Would we have bombed Gaddafi if the US had not? Would we now be bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria if the US were not? Would we be in NATO if the US were not? An honest appraisal of the impact of our alliances on how we will fight will be critical to the formulation of any future defence policy.


The geostrategic security environment, the international threat spectrum, technology, and the global economic framework have changed significantly since the last defence review was conducted in 2004-05. The CFDS has been inadequate and unaffordable since its inception. Even today, Canada has no real national defence policy. We need one.

The time is ripe to conduct a credible policy review beginning with three fundamental questions. Will we fight? Why will we fight? How will we fight? Using Bland’s framework of two defence imperatives and one strategic choice, it becomes clear that there are considerable complexities involved in resolving a number of significant issues. In pursuing full, frank and honest answers to the three questions, a defence policy review will set a firm foundation for a new national defence policy. However, if these questions are cast aside, future defence policy runs the risk of being nothing more than a sham, built on shallow rhetoric, historic myths, pathological partisanship and, worst of all, ignorance.



BGen (ret) Dr. James S. Cox

Jim is a former Canadian Army Brigadier-General with extensive UN and NATO operational experience. He is a Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. and he also teaches foreign policy and civil-military relations at universities in Ottawa.

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