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What is the Canadian Military For?

We can’t afford to do everything. Trade-offs need to be made.

By: /
15 February, 2012
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

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

Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay is stubbornly sticking to the decision to purchase F-35s despite changing realities. The price Canada expected to pay – $75 million per plane – has increased significantly. In addition to the fact that the initial expectations were (wildly?) unrealistic, the changes in the plans of the U.S. and the rest of the coalition of purchasers also have implications for Canada.

The fiscal crises facing most advanced democracies have meant countries are having second and third thoughts. The U.S. is changing the pace of deliveries and probably the size of its order.  Australia has already faced the music, deciding to buy planes that will be available sooner, and opting to purchase fewer F-35s down the road. Italy and Turkey have cut their buys, the U.K. is dithering, and the Dutch are pondering. Because the price per plane depends on how many are purchased, the decisions of these other countries impact the Canadian purchase. Yet MacKay (actually Prime Minister Stephen Harper) has refused to reconsider the decision.


It is almost as if thinking is weakness. This purchase is incredibly expensive and will ultimately crowd out spending on other defence systems since Canada has a limited taste for such spending.  There are trade-offs that Canadian leaders seem to be ignoring. I have often challenged my students with the following question: If you can only afford two modern branches of the military – land, sea, or air – which ones do you choose? It is a tough question, but we must confront it at some point. 

While there is much criticism in the U.S. for the choices the Obama administration is making in the face of spending restrictions, the U.S. government is at least giving some consideration to the threats that face the country, and the requirements to meet those threats. As a result, the U.S. is keeping most of its navy intact but cutting its army and the Marines since the country will be focusing on deterring wars with China and not so much on long, gruelling counter-insurgency campaigns.

The question for Canada today, tomorrow, and down the road is this: What are the Canadian Forces for? Militaries have two basic purposes for advanced democracies: security and influence.  One buys armed forces to defend the country and/or to exert influence in the world. The difficult thing for Canada is that what is best for one purpose may not be best for the other. That is, as a country with a lot of coastline and only distant threats, modernizing the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy makes a great deal of sense. If that is the priority, then Canada should significantly reduce its army. Funding a modern army at the same time it is funding the rest of the Forces is simply too expensive for Canada given current fiscal patterns. 

On the other hand, whatever Canada buys to protect its seas and airspace is probably going to be insufficient to thwart the biggest threats – the U.S. or Russia. Obviously, the alliance with the U.S. will continue, so Canada could, and almost certainly will, rely upon the much larger U.S. capabilities to defend North America. Instead of focusing on threats, Canada could design an armed force to maximize its influence, by  providing added value in multilateral military efforts (since Canada will not have enough of everything to operate on its own, except perhaps in the Caribbean).

What kind of Canadian Forces would provide the most influence in alliance or coalition efforts? The Libyan and Kosovo efforts suggest that having advanced, interoperable aircraft would give Canada an important role in allied efforts. Afghanistan demonstrated that the key capability for “punching above one’s weight” is a flexible, adaptable army. Canada’s willingness to serve and fight in the hardest parts of Afghanistan gave it influence not just over operations in Afghanistan, but also at NATO headquarters. Indeed, the Afghan effort almost certainly led to Canada having a leading role in the Libyan operation with Lt. General Bouchard as the operational commander. 

Back to the trade-off: In the future, Canada can pay for either a major role in its own security via investing in the RCAF and RCN or it can exert influence when it provides a significant contribution to alliance efforts. But trying to do both will probably mean being inadequate at both, which is what happened in 2006 when Canada sent its land staff into Kandahar without any helicopters while its submarines remained in dry dock.

Canada is not locked into buying the F-35 despite its leadership’s assertions and behaviour. It is not too late to consider the trade-offs – that making this decision will mean that there will be less money for the land staff. That is OK as long as politicians realize this means Canada will be less able, or perhaps unable, to contribute to efforts where there must be boots on the ground. The choices of today will constrain the decision-makers of tomorrow. 

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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