Another week, another defense procurement blunder by the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC). This time it is the much-maligned jet procurement file. After unwisely canning the F-35 acquisition plans as per their election promise, the government found itself in a bind. Trudeau’s puzzling electoral announcement came back to bite them in the hind parts. While a free and fair competition would be held, the F-35 would not be included in such competition (for whatever reason). This commitment was nothing more than blatant electioneering, an attempt by the then third party to capitalize on the generally negative public perception of the F-35 file helped along by a healthy dose of disinformation by our state media. Excluding the contradictory aspect of this statement (how can a competition arbitrarily exclude one product and still be called fair and transparent), it created a rather complex problem for Harjit Sajjan’s DND. While the F-35 is likely the only reasonable option if we wish to operate a fifth-generation fighter and keep Canada current in the air power department, the boss just eliminated that option for the sake of differentiating himself from the opposition.
What could be done? Our current airframes, the F-18, are ancient. Despite heroic efforts by the RCAF’s maintenance teams, their life cycle is quickly coming to an end. Buying 4th generation European fighters would have been an unwise move and invited the wrath of the American military-industrial complex that has the ear of Washington and waiting until after the next election would have us run the risk of having a grounded fighter fleet and the massive skill gap that it would entail. A rather odd solution was found. The very same Jet fighter is now to be bough, second hand, from the Australians!
How buying the very same aged airframe we are trying to replace from an allied nation who is replacing them with the very same F-35 that has become politically toxic to the Liberals is an enigma not even the likes of Gerald Butts or Katie Telford could shed light upon. At this point, the Liberal strategy is clear. Since too much outrage has been generated by the LPC about the F-35, to turn around and admit they were completely wrong during the reign of Trudeau II would be too bad for optics. Therefore, a stopgap solution was devised which would allow the Liberals to hold off until the after the next round of elections when the public’s notoriously fickle attention span will be focused on other issues thus allowing the Liberals to award the contract to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 without losing too much face.
It is public wisdom that the LPC is notoriously anti-military and while the party and its luminaries can be said to have no love for our armed forces, the Tories can similarly not be said to have been particularly been good patrons for the CAF. An excellent example is with the case of our oncoming armed icebreakers which are neither capable of breaking heavy winter ice nor particularly well armed (The Mk. 38 25mm deck mounted gun is a pea shooter by naval standards.) By the way, this mess can squarely be blamed on the previous Conservative government, as the project was left mostly untouched by the present government. One could also cite Diefenbaker’s cancellation of the Avro Arrow (though some may argue it was indeed the right decision when faced with the ICBM induced obsolescence of the nuclear bombers the Arrow was supposed to intercept) or how the previous CPC government under Stephen Harper quickly reneged on its scheduled increases for defence spending even while it had attained unconstrained majority status by 2011 due to its policy goals of zero-deficit at any cost.
Military mismanagement is not a specifically Liberal problem. I will posit to you, my dear readers, that it is a historical problem in our fair country and a partial result of the toxic dichotomy of tandem rule by the Tories and the Grits (the other dominant factor being geography.) Take, for example, the establishment of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) on the 4th of May 1910. As the British empire was beginning another arm’s race, this time with Germany, the colonies were expected to pony up and contribute. While the Tories wanted Canada to send money to Britain for her to build Dreadnoughts (footing our share of the bill for imperial defence), the Liberals, who were in power at the time, wanted us to have our own fleet (partially to appease the nascent Franco-nationalist movement which wanted nothing to do with the Empire). The compromise solution was that Canada would have its own navy but that she would be turned over to the Empire if a war was to break out.
Plans were made for five cruisers and six destroyers and while this may have seemed respectable, even by today’s standards, the plan was soon to be in jeopardy. The Conservatives under Borden were elected (in parts due to Laurier losing support in Quebec) and their own plan of sending money instead was enacted. Problem is, we already had a navy and two ships: HMS Niobe and HMS Rainbow who had been gracefully donated by HM’s Royal Navy. The ships stayed, as did the navy, but the funds dried up as the Tories had other priorities. The Canadian fleet rotted at harbor until WW1, when necessities of total war led to the expansion of our army and navy to match wartime demands. Canada showed itself more than capable of generating and sustaining a large field force as the Canadian Corps distinguished itself during the war during battles such as Ypres and Passchendaele. In total, 420,000 men served in the expeditionary corps and almost 60,000 perished. A respectable contribution for a nation that had, only a few years before, not aspired to more than a semi-permanent militia force.
The interwar years came and with them a peace dividend of sorts. The government increased the authorized size of the permanent force to 10,000, though numbers remained much lower so much so that by the Great Depression, only 2000 men were available for muster. A pitiful number, even by second-rate power standard. Canada had no modern equipment, not much of a navy or air force, and fewer men than one could fit in a medium sized hockey arena. The reality was that war exhaustion had taken its toll on Canadian society. While Britain and France had to contend with a resurgent Germany and had their increasingly unruly colonial empires to police, Canada enjoyed geographic isolation and the protection of the United States which would tolerate no foreign influence intrusion in North America.
All the while, Canada was not particularly contributing to imperial defense (or to the coffers of the American treasury, for that matter). In other words, we freeloaded at a time were our fellow imperial citizens on the home islands endured the harsh economic conditions of the depression while still having to foot the bill for imperial defense, notably in Asia. The fact was clear at the time as t is today that Canadians did not believe in defense because its necessity had never been made manifest to them through hard lessons. As such, any expansion of the armed forces where society had begun clamoring for ever-increasing government intervention in daily life would be politically damaging. Pragmatism, geography, the somewhat naïve mindset of Canadians proved itself to be the greater factor rather than a purely ideological dislike for the military by Liberal politicians.
WWII came along and with it a rapid expansion of the RCAF, the RCN and the Canadian Army which was again borne out of necessity. In total, the military establishment counted some 700,000 personnel. Once more an impressive achievement for a nation of 11 million. By war’s end, Canada boasted the third largest navy in the world and even operated its own aircraft carriers. The Cold war era is too large and too complex to go over exhaustively. What is noteworthy is that the period saw the Canadian Armed Forces progressively go down in size, usually coinciding some sort of perceived de-escalation between the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Notable was the decommissioning of HMCS Bonaventure, our last carrier, without replacement leading to the loss of most of our naval aviation.
A landmark decision, and to this day a controversial one, was unification. In 1968, the Trudeau government undertook a reorganization of the Canadian armed services. The stated goal was a rationalization of the command structure. Before, all three services (army, air force and navy) had been entirely separate with separate HQs, separate command structures, separate ranks, and uniforms. The process was to unify command and organizational structures to form a sleeker and more streamlined command structure. For some reason, Paul Hellyer, the defense minister went one step further and did away with the services altogether. This might sound innocuous to those non-military types, but it was a seismic change. Gone were the ranks of Admiral or Air Commodore, gone was the British style regalia, the Sam Browne belts, the pips and crowns and all of the most excellent pomp ad circumstances handed down to us by the British. All services, now wore a simple green US cut uniform, used army ranks (even Ship Captains were now Colonels, much to the confusion of our allies and the chagrin of our sailors), and worked in joint HQs often run by civilians.
Civilianization was rampant and caused such frustrations that hundreds of senior officers quit. Hellyer and Trudeau had gone much further than necessary, and one can suspect part of the reason was to strike back one of the last remaining holdouts of Imperial British culture. This move proved to be unpopular and led to the sacking of the chief of the Navy, the resignation of many senior officers and a general drop in morale. To this day, Hellyer’s legacy is marred by the event. The confiscation of the services’ identity was tantamount to an attack on military spirit itself. While the ensuing decades saw the restoration of many aspects of the old military such as separate uniforms and ranks and the restoration of traditional identities, something was gone for good. It was as if the lineage of the Empire had been broken. The image of British smartness was gone, replaced by massed squares of tri-colored overweight HQ servants parading in Ottawa, often led by Canadian civil servants. The incident differentiated the Grits and the Tories for good when it came to the military. While the Tories would neglect it, the Liberals were and remain, disdainful of and sometimes openly hostile to the military, and the dark year of 1968 was proof of this.
The Cold War ended with a whimper and with it came the vaunted peace dividend. The Liberals, under Chretien, drastically cut the forces to levels comparable to today’s. Salaries were low and so was morale and capabilities were degrading fast. This was partially a result of the Trudeau spendthrift years which led to austerity measures. The military not being dear to New Canada’s heart (never mind its foundational role in our national identity) was gutted.
The Shidane Arone incident in Somalia severely damaged public trust in the institution and demonstrated that under the thin veneer of support lay a bedrock of pathological hostility to the military. The modern expression goes that Canada’s support for its military is ‘a mile wide but an inch deep’. While Canadians love to make a show of their support for the military and of their patriotism in general, this support is clearly lacking as it fails to translate into lasting political support for a stronger military. Once again, this harkens back to Canada’s inexperience as a nation and its somewhat naïve outlook. Since no credible threat can be fathomed by Canadians and since we are essentially protected by the US, our polity is unwilling to foot the cost of defense, seeing is as a useless expense at a time when social programs are constantly expanding.
The period of famine lasted into the 2000’s when the Paul Martin takeover led to the beginning of a decade-long overhaul that was continued under Harper. When our troops became an object of international curiosity for wearing green camouflage in a desert environment, it had become clear even to the Liberals that years of neglect had taken their toll. Emergency procurement was undertaken by both Liberals and Conservatives. A fleet of 100 state-of-the-art tanks was procured as well as modern howitzers, MRAPs, strategic airlift, tactical airlift and so on and so forth. For a time, it looked like the Conservatives under Harper were doing right by the military. The budget was increasing, and new equipment was being bought. Then came the recession and the obsession with balanced budgets. Budget increases were canned and funding stagnated. The earlier mentioned Harry DeWolf class had its designs downgraded and acquisition schedules were pushed to the right. The Conservatives had proven themselves to be unreliable.
Today, the Liberal government is showing barely concealed contempt for the military. The F-35 debacle is but a symptom of the fact that the military is a purely political consideration for or ruling elite. Absent any credible threat and the old-fashioned (some would say archaic) notion that a strong military is a point of pride and a necessity for a sovereign state, our armed forces are thus treated as they always have. As a somewhat annoying but necessary tool that Canada is mandated to have due mostly to external pressures such as NATO and the UN. There was a time were the peacekeeping myth was going strong but even this fanciful notion has abated as the LPC’s attempts at peddling this fantasy of old has mostly amounted to nothing.
One thing can be surmised for certain and that is that our armed forces are not worth much politically to our political establishment and that this fact is directly predicated upon the absence of tangible support for the military in our population. Such absence of support is historical as can be seen throughout the 20th century as there exists no evidence to suggest that any government was ever punished by the electorate for drastically cutting, mistreating and otherwise mishandling the armed forces. Thus we must understand and act upon the assumption that as long as Canada remains a democratic state, any long term improvement in the lot of our army, navy and air force will only be achieved through a paradigm shift in how our population sees our armed forces.
What of today? What do our Canadian Armed Forces amount to? Are they ready for the increasing complexity of a multipolar world? What of the future? More in part II.