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Comment: Canada faces tough choices in defence review

Any chance for Canadians to come together and publicly discuss our national interests, foreign policy objectives and resulting defence requirements is always important.

Any chance for Canadians to come together and publicly discuss our national interests, foreign policy objectives and resulting defence requirements is always important. Canada is an ambitious country and most Canadians are keenly aware of our historical role in contributing to international peace and security while projecting Canadian values abroad.

If we need any confirmation of our ambition, just ask any of the 300,000 new permanent residents joining us in 2016.

Back in 2005, then-prime minister Paul Martin issued his own extensive, but short-lived, International Policy Statement, A Role of Pride and Influence in the World, with defence minister Bill Graham’s accompanying defence section. The Conservatives followed with their Canada First Defence Strategy in 2008. In both cases, comprehensive visions were put forward for Canada, including significant defence reinvestment, much of it focused on capital programs.

From a vision perspective, the 2016 defence-policy review likely won’t result in any great shift away from its two immediate predecessors.

The fact is that the roles assigned to the military have remained much the same for decades: Defend Canada, defend North America in partnership with the United States, and contribute to international peace and security through organizations such as NATO and the UN.

Each generation, of course, tends to believe it lives in special times, but that’s seldom the case. In the 1964 Defence White Paper, nuclear proliferation, limited wars, political upheaval, terrorist activities and “revolutionary developments in military technology” were all on the daily agenda in Ottawa, much as they are today.

In difficult financial times, however, a defence review is enough to send shivers up and down military spines. The assumption is that it’s really a cost-cutting exercise and that’s often been the case.

Of course, a defence review is not all about money. An opportunity also exists to start and stop particular activities, shift resources to higher priorities, eliminate redundancies and ideally strengthen the organization.

Currently, we devote about $20 billion or one per cent of our GDP, to defence, and many Canadians would probably be surprised to know that we are among the top 15 to 20 defence spenders in the world. Twenty billion dollars is a significant amount, and it’s hard to imagine ever spending two per cent of our GDP on defence, as pledged during the 2014 NATO summit. Especially when there are so many other pressing demands.

Still, some of our military capabilities are on the path to obsolescence.

Canadian military historian C.P. Stacey said in 1938 that the national trend was to leave our defences often utterly neglected until a crisis was upon us. Some might say that little has changed; plans hatched to replace many of our aging capabilities, in some cases a decade ago, have seemingly hit dead ends for now.

Aging capabilities aside, for the longest period, the principal focus of the military has been to maintain a combat-capable, multi-role force that can quickly adapt to unpredictability and not to overly specialize in niche capabilities. That’s to avoid the potential issue of having invested in completely the wrong ones.

Instead, a multi-role force is like having a “comprehensive” insurance policy, covering most risks with military forces that can also fight and win. Definitely, there are less expensive “limited coverage” defence options, and in the short term, the lower payments can look attractive. But in the long term, premiums are almost always higher, often in the number of lives lost.

Nonetheless, the defence policy review public-consultation process is upon us and set to conclude by the end of July.

Canadians are being asked a lot of hard questions, including whether the size, structure and composition of the military should change from what it is today.

Given the current fiscal climate, Canadians conversant with military affairs can be forgiven for thinking the worst. More than likely, they’re right.

Chris Kilford is a fellow at the Queen’s University Centre for International and Defence Policy in Kingston, Ont. He is also the former Canadian defence attaché to Turkey.