Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tories vulnerable to opposition attacks on defence

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No one who has followed the history of Canadian defence has any doubt that for their first four years in power, the Harper Conservatives were the best government for the Canadian Forces since the 1950s St. Laurent government. Coming into power at the beginning of 2006, the Tories supported the troops in Afghanistan with the equipment -- Leopards, C17s, new C130J Hercules transports, Chinook helicopters, anti-mine vehicles -- and personnel they needed, they extended the mission twice, they increased defence spending massively, and they even produced their Canada First Defence Strategy in 2008.

The war in Afghanistan, however, did not go the way the government had hoped. The Canadian Forces did well in the field, but public support gradually turned against the conflict, deciding it was costly and unwinnable. The Harper government read the tea leaves and pulled out, deciding (under pressure from our allies) to leave only a training cadre to work with the Afghan military and police. Supporting the CF in a war was not necessarily a recipe for votes, or so the prime minister came to understand, at least not so long as Canadian servicemen and women suffered casualties.

If Afghanistan was one blow to the government's defence plans, the Canada First Defence Strategy was another. The CFDS, despite its name, was not a strategy so much as a list of promised equipment purchases. It did not try to lay down much of a rationale for the nation's defence or indicate how the government envisioned the ways in which the Canadian Forces might be employed in the future. Instead it promised guaranteed growth in defence spending, proposed a modest increase in personnel strength, and promised a long list of equipment to be acquired --15 combat vessels , support ships, the F35 fighter, and a fleet of land combat vessels. In all, the government pledged to spend almost a half trillion dollars over the next 20 years or so years.

And maybe it might have done so, the voters permitting. But the sharp recession of 2008 tossed all plans into the garbage bin, and deficit fighting, not defence spending, soon became the Tories driving force. Instead of the promised increases, there are cuts that are already north of ten per cent of the DND budget. The Army has already reduced its training, and there will be more cutbacks everywhere.

Compounding the government's problems are the never-ending procurement delays in virtually every program in the Department of National Defence. The Chrétien government cuts in the 1990s slashed program managers, and DND has never recovered from this. But too many rules and regulations, too much insistence on domestic suppliers, and sometimes an inability to make decisions (or to make the wrong ones) has made a mess of program after program. The F35 is the best known (and most expensive) debacle, but Search and Rescue aircraft and helicopters are right up there -- and the very expensive (but necessary) combat ship program is all but certain to be a costly mess.

Worst of all, it is becoming increasingly clear the government has no defence policy. Nowhere has the government stated it foresees threats or crises that might require Canadian intervention with this or that kind of forces. Granted, in a world in flux, such forecasts are difficult to make in a credible way, but such thinking used to be called strategic planning. Governments and their militaries formed such judgments, and the elected politicians, in consultation with the brass, determined they needed so many battalions, aircraft, ships and the money to pay for them. Moreover, in a democracy, the public was ordinarily consulted in the preparatory stages and informed, via a White Paper, of the broad outlines of the government's policy.

Not here, not now, not from the Harper government. We get no indications there is a policy in the works and nothing so much as the sense that the government wishes it had never made defence such a large part of its party program. Equipment purchases might still be good job creators -- and vote getters -- but the Canadian Forces and defence in Tory eyes now seem to constitute a swamp where no one dares to go.

This is unfortunate, to say the least, but it does leave an opening for the Opposition parties to lay out defence policies of their own. If the NDP and Liberals can rise above prattling about peacekeeping and determine where the challenges of the next decades may lie and what this nation needs to do to protect itself and its friends, they can serve their own -- and Canada's -- interests.

 

Jack L. Granatstein is a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2012 A11

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