3 Problems with the Upcoming Defence Policy Review

Our first line of defence and the object of all our policy must be to work with other nations to prevent war … The first aim of our defence policy is defence against aggression … The measures to be taken for the defence of our country are matters of individual interest as well as national responsibility.

(The Hon. Brooke Claxton, Minister of National Defence, Canadian Parliament, 9 July 1947)

There is good news and bad news.

The good news is that the new Canadian government has committed to releasing its defence policy in early 2017.  On 6 April 2016, the Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan announced there would be wide public consultation to “inform the development of a modern defence policy that will support the CAF (Canadian Armed Forces) to effectively respond to a full spectrum of challenges”.  On the same day, the Department of National Defence (DND) released a public consultation paper raising ten questions for discussion centered on three areas of inquiry: the main challenges to Canada’s security, the role of the CAF in addressing current threats and challenges, and the resource and capability requirements to carry out the CAF mandate.

The bad news is that there are worrisome indications the review will not be all that it could be, or should be. First, the precise objective of the review seems unclear. Minister Sajjan’s description of the exercise appears to be inconsistent with the intentions expressed in previous prime ministerial and governmental statements.  Second, the defence policy review itself may not be as broad or as deep as it ought to be. DND says the review will be focussed on the roles, resources and capabilities of the CAF, though defence policy necessarily involves much more than the disposition of military forces. Third, these difficulties may well be the result of confusion surrounding the terms policy and strategy.  A clear understanding of each, both conceptually and practically, is a necessary condition for crafting a credible defence policy and its derived strategies.

Let us examine each of these problems in reverse order.

Policy, strategy and programs

In most government pronouncements and media reports, the terms policy and strategy are used almost interchangeably, as though they are synonyms. They are not. Furthermore, no one seems sure exactly what a program is.

Policy comes first. Policy is implemented by strategy, or a number of strategies, which are derived from policy. Strategies, in turn, are actioned by programs.

It is instructive to read past Canadian government statements on defence policy, the definitive source of which is Dr. Douglas L. Bland’s Canada’s National Defence, Vol. 1, 1997.  In 1947, the Minister of National Defence at that time, Brooke Claxton, provided Canadians with a concise, meaningful and workable statement of defence policy while presenting departmental estimates to the House of Commons. In print, the statement covers only 13 book-size pages, makes no mention of numbers of ships or aircraft, and reveals no organizational details.  It mentions money only briefly, and then only to recap the previous year’s spending and note the upcoming fiscal year’s expenditures. Instead, much of the statement is devoted to reviewing Canada’s substantial record in the Second World War, the manner in which government viewed the contemporary problem of defence, and how it intended, in overall terms, to deal with it. Canada’s defence needs were simply stated: “to defend Canada against aggression, to assist the civil power in maintaining law and order within the country, and to carry out any undertaking which by our own voluntary act, we may assume in cooperation with friendly nations or under any effective plan of collective action under the United Nations”.

With government defence policy thus stated, Claxton left it to DND and other government departments to get on with developing the necessary strategies to implement that policy. Once strategies were approved in Cabinet, government programs then undertook a variety of actions designed to achieve the various objectives the government had determined on. In brief, policy came first.

Since it is government which makes policy, policy is innately political in nature. It is the big, somewhat abstract, but visionary and future-oriented idea that establishes high-level political objectives – the what and why of the government’s intent. Policy also outlines the broad principles of action to be taken, usually based on and consistent with Canadian values, and it aims to protect and promote the national interests of the country. Hence, policy should be both aspirational and inspirational.

Strategy links policy ends with national means by outlining the broad approach of how government intends to pursue policy objectives, identifying priorities and the consequent general allocation of resources in the protection and promotion of national interests. Programs execute the strategies, through the control, coordination, and synchronization of the actions required to achieve stipulated objectives. In military doctrine, the equivalent concept is campaign design to achieve certain effects. So programs, like campaigns, are all about results.


Figure 1: The policy-strategies-program continuum

Defence policy

So what should one expect to find in a true defence policy?

Ideally, when a government comes to power, it has a vision of what it wishes to accomplish in the three broad fields of security, prosperity, and social development, and it proceeds to lay out what we might call “omnibus policies” in each field. But policy-makers quickly realize, if they didn’t before, that the three omnibus policies are complementary with each playing a role in implementing the other. National security requires some measure of national prosperity to resource it, and neither can be assured without some measure of national social harmony.


Figure 2: Omnibus national policies

In national security, its most fundamental responsibility, a new government should be able to articulate at least broad objectives based on some grand idea like Claxton’s “prevention of war” or Hugh Segal’s “freedom from fear”, one of the themes of Segal’s new book Two Freedoms: Canada’s Global Future.  But this is only the beginning of policy-making in this field for there are several dimensions to national security each of which requires policy: the global affairs context, the domestic security context, and the physical defence of the nation and its interests.  And none of the three is superior, subordinate, or “nested” in another. They are partner policies serving a higher-order national security policy.


Figure 3: Omnibus national policies and derived policies

Each of the omnibus national policies can and should generate a “grand strategy” to implement it, articulating pan-governmental or whole-of-government approaches which marshal all the instruments of national power required to achieve specific strategic objectives. In the field of national security, this grand strategy would inform and direct foreign relations, international trading, development assistance, immigration and refugee policy, treaty-making, arms control negotiations, participation in international peace operations, capacity building in failed states, and a host of other security-related activities. And it would inform and direct the defence “piece”, i.e. the specific defence strategies which would derive from national security strategy and the commensurate defence “tool kit” which would be necessary.


Figure 4: National security policy framework

So now we can situate defence policy in its rightful place in the policy firmament. It is integral to achieving the highest goals of government – the security, prosperity and social well-being of the nation. It is one of the three components of national security policy.  And it generates strategies specific to the objectives it has been assigned and develops the instruments required to achieve these. But defence policy is all part of a larger government policy framework. It cannot simply materialize on its own, in isolation from whatever else may be happening in government. It must be informed by and account for all other relevant government policies, strategies, and programs that play a role in defending Canada. It should broadly state its view of the principal defence problems facing the country and deal with how government intends to motivate and mobilize the entire country to defend itself. Defence policy must therefore address a range of issues beyond military activity and equipment.

The defence of Canada

The term defence implies a mindset of “Canada first”. Defence policy is first and foremost predicated on the idea of defending all Canada and Canadians living here. Whatever defence capabilities the state may possess, they must be designed and deployed primarily in defending the country, either directly or indirectly. This is the ultimate “no-fail” mission. That military capabilities can be used in non-military roles at home or in the aid of others abroad is of secondary importance.

In past defence policy statements, Canadian governments expressed the belief that the defence of Canada inherently included the defence of North America in cooperation with the United States, making both activities part of one overall defence problem. Still today, it is difficult to imagine any scenario in which we would have to defend Canada without the United States having an interest or participating.

Beyond continental defence, governments have believed they can pick and choose how and where Canadian defence capabilities might or might not be used. Historically, Canada has extended its defence efforts abroad, following the principle that it is better to address threats far away before they reach Canadian waters, airspace or land. In this way, our contribution to the allied effort in Europe during the Second World War can be seen as a ‘defence of Canada’ mission. Doing so clearly supported a vital Canadian interest: to remain a free, democratic and politically independent country. Today, the purpose of our expeditionary missions abroad is not so clearly defined as purely serving the defence of Canada. They may be doing so directly or indirectly, but it is just as likely that they may be serving the stability, security, or social justice interests of others.

During the Cold War, Canada’s defence policies focussed on the central objective of preventing a general or nuclear war. No less in the 21st century, defence policy today should articulate a central and meaningful purpose. It should express the government’s view of the national security and national defence situations confronting Canada (the problematique), describe in broad terms the conditions (geopolitical, economic, social) that drive defence considerations, and outline the government’s defence objectives. In the final analysis, defence policy should reflect the interests and concerns of the entire country, of all citizens, all regions and all departments of government, not just those of DND or the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

Above all, defence policy should be frank and honest with the people about the extent to which the government is actually willing to defend the country. To be specific: Will the government do so at all costs? Are they prepared to exploit all elements of national power to preserve Canada’s existence as a free and independent political entity? Will we fight? When will we fight? Why will we fight? How will we fight? Where will we fight? Who will fight?  Too often, defence policy assumes that the only ones tasked with fighting are the military forces of the country and addresses only the role of the military, their character and relationships with militaries elsewhere. Defence policy can require any number of strategies to implement it, not all of which are strategies for the employment of military force.  Ultimately, it may not be the military alone who do the fighting. One can imagine different strategies for the surveillance and control of Canada’s North, of Canada’s territorial seas in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and of Canada’s continental airspace; and strategies for defence procurement, defence production, and defence research.

Once strategies have been crafted, it is time to develop programs and campaigns to implement them and to consider organizational structure, budget allocations, equipment, and infrastructure. So true defence policy is no mere question of military capabilities. It has breadth and depth of quite formidable proportions. At issue is whether the new government’s defence policy review will be up to the challenge.

The current so-called defence policy review

The first tip-off that it will not be all it can be came at the swearing-in of the new ministry. The Prime Minister’s mandate letter directed the Minister of National Defence among other things to renew Canada’s commitment to UN peace operations, maintain Canada’s commitment to NORAD and NATO, and focus on surveillance and control of Canadian territory particularly the Arctic. But it also stipulated that the Minister “ensure that the Canadian Armed Forces have the equipment they need” and “conduct an open and transparent review process to create a new defence strategy for Canada, replacing the now-outdated Canada First Defence Strategy”. Hence the Prime Minister signalled that a number of higher policy issues had already been decided and that what was to be reviewed was not defence policy but, at best, defence strategy; not the what and the why, just the how. Consequentially, this review might not meet the grand expectations of true defence policy, but rather it may only produce another detailed equipping roadmap – notwithstanding the PM’s bland injunction to his minister that “It will be important that you ensure a close link between defence policy, foreign policy, and national security”.

Other indicators followed. In the Speech from the Throne on 4 December 2015, the government declared that it would undertake “an open and transparent process to review existing defence capabilities, and will invest in building a leaner, more agile, better-equipped military.” This passage could have been taken from the previous government’s Canada First Defence Strategy intended to provide “a detailed road map for the modernization of the Canadian Forces”.  There is not much policy mojo in either statement.

Slightly more detailed but not any more comforting was how the “policy” review was described in the federal budget. In Chapter 6 we find this passage:

Government will conduct an open and transparent process to create a new defence strategy that will deliver a modern, more agile and better-equipped military. A new defence strategy will include improved processes to ensure more accurate costing for major defence procurements and to provide Canadians with regular updates on project costs and timelines. Over the course of 2016, the Government will seek the input of Canadians, experts, allies and partners, and Parliament on the strategic environment for the Canadian Armed Forces, the roles for the Canadian Armed Forces, and the Canadian Armed Forces size, structure and capabilities.

When the government finally announced the details of the public consultation to inform the review, it was described as intended to be broad and comprehensive. But there is reason at least one reason to question this. The announcement betrays confusion at the highest level as to whether the review will result in a new defence policy, just another defence strategy, or just another wish-list of major equipment acquisitions such as the Canada First Defence Strategy — or perhaps none of the above.

The DND website notice described the public consultation as follows: “From now until July 31, 2016, we will be engaging all Canadians and many key stakeholders to discuss three fundamental areas: (1) The main challenges to Canada’s security, (2) The role of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in addressing current threats and challenges, and (3) The resources and capabilities needed to carry out the CAF mandate … This review will provide the clarity needed to balance priorities, respond to emerging challenges, and invest appropriately in Canada’s military.

While these words seem to talk ‘policy,’ they are more indicative of strategies and programs focussed on ships, aircraft and combat vehicles. The notice also places defence policy strictly within the purview of the military.

Moreover, in a March 8 appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence, Minister Sajjan himself focused mostly on military capabilities. While noting the review would be “comprehensive”, produce “a Canadian vision for defence that responds to a wide array of emerging challenges”, “articulate priorities in the current security environment and provide meaningful guidance for our investments”, he also indicated there would be limits:

Of course, the core pillars of a Canadian defence policy will remain the same: defend Canada, defend North America, and contribute to international peace and security. This review will allow us to look at how we deliver on these responsibilities and invest in our military, so it can continue to be flexible in responding to an uncertain and evolving security environment, and provide support to United Nations peace operations … Second, as a government, we recognize the importance of a well-equipped military with a range of capabilities. The new defence policy will help define the future requirements of the Canadian Armed Forces over the long-term.

There is no indication here of any government view of the overall defence problem facing Canada or of the grand political objectives the government seeks to achieve in addressing the problem. What are the fundamental national values on which defence policy is to be crafted? What national interests will drive defence policy? Evidence of a vacuum exists in other areas too. The government has not announced any complementary policy reviews in the fields of global affairs, domestic security, commerce, or industry, so how do we know defence policy and strategies are situated credibly within all other pan-governmental considerations? Moreover, how and why do we even know if we need military forces? Without a higher omnibus national security policy, or national security grand strategy, we know nothing of the government’s political and strategic objectives that must necessarily inform defence policy and its derived strategies. Why does Canada have to engage militarily with the United Nations at all, or NATO or NORAD? Why do Canada’s military forces have to be prepared for use in non-military roles like disaster response? What other elements of Canadian society have a legitimate role in defending our country?

If the review of defence policy is to be at all credible or effective, government owes Canadians much more in the way of precursor visions, a national security policy and a national security grand strategy.


 The overall lack of conceptual clarity between policy and strategy, the absence of complementary policy developments in related fields, and the sub-strategic focus on materiel all conspire to reduce Minister Sajjan’s admirable intent to conduct a broad review of defence policy. They dilute any hope that the review process will eventually lead to a solid, credible, actionable and effective defence policy with subordinate achievable defence strategies. If higher order considerations are not addressed, the ultimate product will be just another political document without impact. Such a result would be disappointing.



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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