OTTAWA – The Trudeau government began swimming against the tide of recent history Wednesday as it embarked on a long-awaited review on the future of the Canadian Armed Forces
An ambitious public consultation was announced, something the defence minister hopes will make the process “credible and relevant.”
The Liberals hope to have the entire review completed by early 2017, in time for the next federal budget cycle, the point where previous exercises in defence policy-making have hit the rocks.
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Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says he’s beginning with a blank slate and, to kick-start the review, National Defence has produced a 35-page primer asking the public a series of broad questions.
“We need to do a defence review to actually determine not only the capabilities that we need, but also help us with how they’re going to be employed,” Sajjan told a news conference.
Consultations between now and the end of July will look at the future size of the military, the kinds of missions it will undertake and the type of equipment it will have.
Sajjan also created a ministerial advisory council, which will give input as the Liberals sift through the responses, which will include feedback from MPs and senator, as well as six roundtables across the country.
The council consists of retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour, former defence minister Bill Graham, former chief of defence staff Ray Henault and Margaret Purdy, a former federal cabinet secretary.
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The roundtables will be held in Toronto, Vancouver, Yellowknife, Edmonton, Montreal and Halifax.
During the last election, the Liberals hinted clearly where they believe the military fits within the foreign policy framework, having promised to end the bombing campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in favour of a new training-focused mission and renew the traditional focus on United Nations peacekeeping.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said the Liberals have have telegraphed what they want to do to the military.
“We know where their head is at in terms of defence policy and even foreign policy,” said Bezan, who plans to hold his own set of public consultations to mirror the government’s efforts. “If they truly believed in the Canadian Armed Forces they would have left the CF-18s in the fight against ISIS.”
Sajjan said the government will keep an open mind, but made clear that all aspects of defence policy are on the table, including the size of the Forces.
“We have force structure that works right now,” he said referring to the roughly 68,000 full-time and 21,000 part-time members of the military.
“We have to be mindful of not making too many adjustments too rapidly. Let’s allow the evidence-based process to take its course.”
That said, Canada has had a checkered history when it comes to laying out and following through on its defence priorities.
Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, told a conference last week that the last defence strategy – cobbled together under the Harper Conservatives in 2008 – was more of an “in-house product” that reflected desires and opinions within the government.
That so-called Canada First defence strategy laid out an ambitious wish list of equipment, most of which ended up becoming either unaffordable within a year of the plan being announced or stuck in a moribund procurement system.
Prior to that, the last attempt to fashion a defence strategy came in 1994, when the Chretien government wrote a full-fledged white paper, most of it aimed at slashing spending and reducing the ranks.
Two decades later, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have promised a “leaner, more agile” military and to follow through on reductions at DND.
The 1994 white paper also promised to replace the air force’s Sea King helicopters and the navy’s aging supply ships – purchases that still haven’t been completed.
Before that, the Mulroney government in 1987 produced a white paper that called for, among other things, acquiring nuclear submarines to patrol under Arctic ice. The end of the Cold War two years later and massive defence cuts that were part of the so-called “peace dividend” left many of those plans in tatters.
Therein lies the lesson, say defence analysts.
Retired colonel George Petrolekas of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute said the Trudeau government has not defined what it considers to be affordable.
Until it does, the public and the defence community will be spinning their wheels on a whole series of good ideas that could potentially go nowhere, he warned.
“I just think we’re throwing darts against the wall to see what sticks,” Petrolekas said. “If it is not wrapped within a fiscal framework and fiscal wherewithal, it means nothing.”
Sajjan countered by saying the Liberals have committed to carry on with budget increases originally announced by the Harper government.
“We will have predictable funding,” he said.