5 December 2023
Canada is not ready for the world ahead. The military is underfunded and understaffed; the government does not have a foreign policy direction. Moreover, Canadian political discourse is deeply divided along party lines. The Trudeau government has had a series of foreign policy/military missteps and I am not confident that the next Canadian government will do any better.
Canadian defence procurement has always been an issue. It has been one full of delays, mismanagement, cost overruns and countless repairs and jerry-rigging of older equipment to keep our forces combat-ready. I say combat ready but even that use is questionable when it comes to the state of 50-year-old Sea King Helicopters (which have been replaced), 50-year-old submarines which have seen more dry dock time than sea time and a plethora of other equipment limping toward serviceability. Canada’s CF-18 fleet is aged and spends most of the time on the ground for maintenance. The Trudeau government’s plan was to buy second-hand Australian F-18s and not speed up the procurement process.
It is not an issue that has been unique to the Trudeau government. It has been an issue that even can go back to the First World War. Canadian soldiers, for a time, were issued boots with cardboard instead of leather in World War I. There have been a plethora of procurement issues and if one wants to go back to my previous work at the CCPA and Rideau Institute outline some of our woeful procurement projects – see here. Chris Murray and I later wrote for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute about the Defence Acquisition Guide and how lofty the procurement goals were…well it turns out that we should have been more pessimistic. In a recent recruitment ad, the Canadian Surface Combatant (which will replace the Halifax-class frigates built during the 1990s) will not arrive until 2040… which probably means not until 2045. Other countries have had a more streamlined process – the US chose the FREMM design in 2018 and already constructing ships.
Regarding current defence procurement, it is clear that there has been a lack of oversight, especially for the Navy. RCN sailors were issued bottles of water due to lead in water pipes on the new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS). The Conservative Harper government approved the construction and procurement deals. But I remember meeting with a former engineer who had some involvement with the initial concept of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (now National Shipbuilding Strategy). He had outlined that the construction of the Joint Support Ships (never built) would be the kindergarten procurement project, so the shipyards, but also government oversight could adapt and become more efficient. The AOPS would be the high school project and the Canadian Surface Combatant would be the master’s class.
Canadian Armed Forces
Canada is experiencing a dire recruitment shortage. It is not hard to understand why we are here. Twenty years in Afghanistan dimmed the allure of the CAF. CAF personnel also have been a victim of a dismal pay scale, Canada’s housing crisis with soaring prices, online short-term vacation rentals and rising interest rates. It has now been reported that some active-duty CAF members are living out of their cars. And then again – government bumbling. Canadian troops stationed in Poland to assist with the training of Ukrainian soldiers were not reimbursed for meals as no catering was provided and had to wage a pitched battle for reimbursement. There have been incidents where Canadian troops have been buying raingear and modern ballistic helmets in Latvia to supplement the gear they are issued in Canada.
The recruitment process is also long, and tedious and many move on to other ventures – take it from me as I applied in 2014 and by the time a few offers showed up I had to turn them down due to contractual restraints and I was not being offered the trade I preferred. Similar issues persist with the reserves.
Justin Trudeau showed some foreign policy promise in 2016. He hinted at expanding Canada’s traditional role of being a peacekeeping nation during the electoral campaign and after his party won held an International Peacekeeping conference with multiple pledges…that only one or two have come to fruition. Canada’s foreign policy has not shown any definitive, middle power direction. The Trudeau government campaigned within the UN for a temporary seat on the Security Council and failed…but what have we done to improve global security? We have been part of coalitions and made unfulfilled promises…it makes sense that coveted seats went to Norway and Ireland.
The Liberal caucus being divided during the Israel-Hamas War is an example. I can only imagine Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby or The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker when it came to light that the Liberal caucus is divided. The air of confidence is gone when it is public knowledge that the government does not agree on one direction or one policy. Of course, government caucuses can be divided – but it should never be public knowledge.
The world is getting scarier and more complex. Strategic competitors such as Russia and China are gaining power, and influence and using whatever tools they have in their toolbox. Climate change is affecting the developing world and insurgencies, terrorist activities and military coups are increasing. Canadians will soon wake up to a world that we are not prepared for.
What is needed is a revolution in Canadian politics and the mentality of the average Canadian. Canadians have not shown interest in military or foreign policy since the mid-1990s. A turbulent time for the CAF with difficult peacekeeping missions in Yugoslavia and Rwanda and a slew of disastrous controversies including the torture of a Somali teenager. There was a boost in interest in the aftermath of 9/11, but no Canadian government has attempted to take the lead since.
There is more to discuss but left out only due to brevity, such as Canada’s plan for the Arctic, the status of Canada’s defence-related academia and a multitude of procurement ambitions.
Featured Photo: “NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau visit the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut”, Flickr, 2022