The Canadian Forces (CF) face an existential question.
It is not the quality of its individual members; they are thoroughly trained and individually highly professional, well-led soldiers, sailors and aviators.
It is not the quality of its equipment, despite substantial concerns over “rusted out” naval vessels, questionable submarines, and delays into the never/never decisions for next-generation aircraft.
Rather, the question is the mission the CF will pursue into the out years of the first half of the 21st century.
And mission equals money; money equals mission.
The CF mission statement is threefold: defend Canada; contribute to the defense of North America; and contribute to international security.
So the question is one for domestic politics. How much are Canadians willing to spend (and what casualties are they willing to accept) in pursuit of these objectives?
Unfortunately, Canadian political parties remain deeply divided regarding national security objectives. In contrast to the United States, where all parties are committed to maintaining the world’s strongest and finest military forces, many Canadians would prefer to have no military forces. Or at least none that could go in harm’s way, let alone do harm to anyone. If severely pressed, some such individuals would accept contributing to “light peacekeeping” (after peace-making has been made) but only if UN sanctioned.
It is not unfair to observe that Liberals, NDP, and Greens have not supported significant CF over the past 50 years. Defense expenditures are not “first among equals” when budgets are being constructed. The most obvious illustration was the “decade of darkness” during the Chretien-Martin administration (1993-2006). Defense was sacrificed to budget cuts; when the CF joined the UN-endorsed/NATO-directed Afghan campaign, it was more than occasionally embarrassed by inadequate equipment, despite well-qualified troops.
Building on better-late-than-never expanded Liberal defense budgets, starting in 2006, the Tories projected significant national security budget expansion. There would be upgrades and replacements for all services: armor for the Army; new destroyers, frigates, supply vessels and icebreakers for the Navy; and new heavy-lift cargo aircraft, search-and-rescue helicopters, with next generation-fighter aircraft for the Air Force. With emphasis on the Arctic.
But then came the end of the CF Afghan combat commitment and the Great Recession. Both prompted projected cuts in the defense budget. At this point, an impressionistic assessment offers:
Army. The CF have created some of the best light infantry battalions in the world. Well trained, reasonably equipped, combat tempered, and closely aligned with U.S./NATO military doctrine. However, they cannot be shrink-wrapped and freeze-dried for some out-years challenge. They must continually train, complemented by good recruiting to replace retiring (and burned out) cadre. But does the Army really need tanks?
Navy. Anticipating that it was “their turn” for modernization with the Army out of Afghanistan, the Navy has a long list of end-of-lifetime surface vessels, notably destroyers and frigates, needing replacement. Ostensibly, decisions have been made, but … The distance between concept and combatants in the water is likely to recede — perhaps into the never-never.
Air Force. Responding to embarrassment over having to rent or borrow heavy-lift equipment to move forces outside Canada’s borders, Ottawa purchased U.S. C-17s. But other aircraft are more problematic. Replacement for Sea King helicopters, now older than their pilots, continues to fibrillate.
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But the key decision is the next-generation combat aircraft. The 2010 commitment to purchase the F-35 was based on price and delivery terms that have proved illusory. The government trapped itself in debate over lifetime costs for the F-35 that begged for criticism of their wretchedly-excessive expense and duplicity in manipulating the figures. But everything is too expensive for some. Indeed, if those planning to purchase a home were forced to calculate the 40-year total costs (mortgage, interest, insurance, maintenance), many would probably continue to rent.
More importantly, the F-35 is a talisman for CF future. It is first-world, state-of-the-art technology that will be the baseline aircraft for U.S./NATO/Western forces through 2050. If Canada wants to play in this league, it needs F-35s; if not, not. Is the F-35 the perfect aircraft for all challenges from the Arctic to “wars of necessity” overseas? Are there better alternatives — or only cheaper, less capable ones? The questions answer themselves.
Canada can, of course, return to punch-below-its-weight status. Outsource North American defense completely to Washington. Assume that nobody is going to seize the Arctic. Let “Sam,” “Jacques,” and “Elizabeth” do any “wet” heavy lifting overseas. And charge the provinces by the hour for CF forces shoveling snow in the next Toronto storm.
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.