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A To Do List for the New Minister of National Defence

Steve Saideman has a few suggestions for Rob Nicholson to focus on in his new position.

By: /
16 July, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

With the cabinet shuffle finally announced (via Twitter!), it is time for the new officials to come up with to-do lists and not just lists of potential adversaries. So, what should the new Minister of National Defence, Rob Nicholson, focus on?  Given that the key theme of the next few years will be where to cut the budget more so than where to deploy the Canadian Forces, here is a list of a few key priorities and some suggestions:

  1. The F-35 decision is still up in the air (sorry), with the committee continuing to study the issue and then make recommendations.  This one decision will greatly influence the future of the Canadian Forces, because whatever plane is purchased will define the Canadian air capability for thirty years or so, and because how the F-35 impasse gets resolved will influence the military procurement process going forward. The minister should be preparing for the implications of an F-35 decision that could reflect the impact of opposition within Parliament, demonstrate a serious re-thinking of what Canada needs an air force for (expeditions or defence), herald a change in how Canada procures its weapon systems, or some combination thereof.

  2. The ship procurement process, which involved a competition among shipyards, was viewed as more sensible but it is looking less promising now.  Reports of incredibly expensive designs suggest that the ships will follow the F-35 path of spiraling costs for dubious improvements in capabilities.  While there is greater pressure to view procurement as industrial policy—to spend on Canadian-made weapons systems to buttress Canadian companies—the new Minister might want to look around the world and see what other governments are getting for their money.  The answer, when it comes to ships, is a politically painful one: importing ships costs far, far less than building them at home. A strong Minister of National Defence should fight with the other cabinet officers to make sure we’re getting the most bang for each buck we spend, even if that means not supporting Canadian industry.  It is the Prime Minister’s job to manage that tradeoff; the Defence Minister’s job is to advocate for what is best for Canadian defence (although to be clear—not what the military wants but what is best for the country’s security).

  3. Speaking of ships, it is time to make a real decision on the submarine program.  Each progress report seems to suggest one step forward and two steps back.  Given the budgetary pressures, it is time to, well, cut bait and move on.  Yes, this leaves Canada with a significant gap, but the gap is going to exist anyway, whether large amounts of money are spent on the broken subs or not.  Just as Canada relies heavily on the United States in other defence areas, Canada will need to rely on American sub-surface capabilities.

  4. The new Minister will have to confront a basic reality about the size of the force: if you are going to cut budgets, holding onto a symbolic number is unhelpful.  Cutting the overall size of the force is a smarter way to cut the military’s budget than keeping the number but gutting operations, training and maintenance.  If the army is not going to be sent overseas anytime in the near future, it might make sense to cut the number of fusiliers, bombardiers, sappers, and others somewhat rather than keep the same number of people but limit how much they can exercise. 

The new Minister of National Defence will have to face this reality head on.  With a relatively static defence budget, escalating personnel costs, and weapons programs that are ever more expensive, choices will have to be made.  I’ve suggested a few key areas, but there is more to consider.  Perhaps to guide these decisions, Nicholson should figure out what Canada’s military is for, and what Canada’s national security strategy really is.  Determining the threats to Canada and the capabilities country needs to counter these threats will help the Minister make the hard choices. 

While appointing a new Minister of National Defence is an opportunity to re-think many important questions, all decisions are really in the hands of the Prime Minister and his office.  So, while we might see a different style from the new Minister of National Defence, I actually expect more of the same in terms of policies, because of deeply rooted denial that hard choices need to be made. Neither the Harper government nor the Canadian Forces seem ready to face the tradeoff music.  The ideas of the past—the budget can be managed by focusing on administration and not on the big programs, the force can stay the same size yet have less money, domestic production will not cost too much, and so on—are likely to guide the near-term future of the Canadian Forces, even if there is a new guy at the top of the chain of command.  Again, this is a chance to re-consider and re-focus, but the political forces in play suggest that this will be an opportunity missed.

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