The 2016 Defence Policy Review: The Perspective of History


On 11 May 2016, the Conference of Defence Associations Institute arranged a meeting in Ottawa with Gen. Raymond R. Henault and Margaret Purdy, two of the members of the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Canada’s Defence Policy Review appointed by the Hon. Harjit Sajjan, minister of national defence, to advise him on Canada’s future defence policy. The CDA Institute invited me to to provide some very brief and general comments to frame the discussion. These remarks were subsequently published in Sitrep: Journal of the Royal Canadian Military Institute 76, 5 (September-October 2016): 3, 15.

I want to offer four observations that we might keep in mind today, and that the members of the Ministerial Advisory Panel might reflect on in the months ahead.

First, we need to put the 2016 review into broader context. Unlike many of our allies, Canada rarely reviews its defence policy: in the last half century, there were only six defence reviews between 1964 and 2008; the one initiated by the minister of national defence, Harjit Sajjan, this year is the seventh. By contrast, the United States reviews defence every four years with its Quadrennial Defense Review, and many other allies review their defence policies more frequently than in Canada.

However, the rarity of the process we are engaged in today should not blind us to the reality that the process of reviewing defence policy in Canada is actually very regular — indeed, it is as regular as clockwork. It is just that Canadian defence-review “clocks” do not measure time in a normal way, by hours or years.

Rather, in Canada, there is another regularity at work — and the years in which our defence reviews were published gives away the nature of that regularity: 1964, 1971, 1987, 1992, 1994, 2005, 2008, and now 2016.

In other words, when Canadians get a new prime minister, it is time for a new defence review. The reviews initiated by the Liberal government of Lester Pearson and his Liberal successor Pierre Elliott Trudeau; by the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney (initiated in 1984, but not delivered until 1987); by the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, and his Liberal successor Paul Martin; and the CPC government of Stephen Harper were all driven by the desire of a new prime minister to distance himself from the defence policies of his predecessors, and to leave his own mark on Canada’s defence policy. And Justin Trudeau’s defence review is very much in this mode.

However, equally important is what generally did not follow these reviews: even though Trudeau, Mulroney, Chrétien and Harper were all in office for close to a decade or more, in only one instance did a government that initiated a defence review think it necessary to revisit that review during the remainder of its term in office: in April 1992, Mulroney’s minister of national defence, Marcel Masse, issued a defence policy statement that sought to take into account the end of the Cold War. 

What would be useful is if this particular regularity might be broken. In other words, rather than publishing a fancy review of defence policy that will adorn the desks of defence folks for a while before it gets put up on a shelf and forgotten about, it would be useful if the government committed to coming back to this review on a regular basis — in four or five years.

Given the government’s majority, we know that we will not be going to the polls until 21 October 2019, and so it would be useful if in the 2016 review the government would commit to a process of reviewing the review in 2020-21.

If the Liberals were re-elected in October 2019, a review published in 2021 would provide an opportunity to rethink defence for their second term. And if a new government were to come to office, they would have the opportunity to do the traditional review and put their own stamp on defence policy.

But what we need to do, it seems to me, is to make reviewing defence policy a regular part of the policy process in this country, as it is in many other countries.

Second, and in a related way, we need to ensure that there is a longer-term perspective with regard to the procurement of military systems required by defence policy. Defence procurement is one of the most difficult tasks facing democratic governments, partly because it takes so long that procurement projects extend well beyond the life of a single Parliament. Committing to an on-going process of defence policy review will encourage the creation of longer-term consistency in procurement.

Third, defence reviews in Canada have invariably been stove-pipe affairs: this review is conducted directly by the minister of national defence. The purpose of the review is to craft a defence policy that, in the words of the government itself, seeks “to ensure that DND and the CAF have what they need to confront new threats and challenges in the years ahead.”

This is, on the face of it, a rational way to proceed, given the way that government is organized and the way that the Canadian Armed Forces are funded.

Yet there are at least two fundamental problems with a stove-pipe approach.

One is that there is a tendency for the various tribes of the Canadian Armed Forces to see the review process as the opportunity to press for their particular tribe to be privileged in the review outcome — rather than for the review to determine what military capabilities need to be embraced.

Another consequence of the stove-pipe is that defence policy cannot really be made without a broader assessment of what those threats and challenges are, and what Canada’s foreign policy and its national security policy will be.

So while the defence review is in essence a vertical activity, it would be useful if there was some “horizontality” in the mix — in other words, involving other government departments in a whole-of-government approach.

My fourth and final observation is that defence reviews often tend to be written without the broader polity in mind. Those who craft the review can too quickly lose sight of one unchanging political reality that we have seen since Confederation in 1867: Canadians are happy to spend as little on defence during times of systemic peace as they can possibly get away with. As my colleague Joel Sokolsky likes to remind us, Canadians are not so much free riders in defence as they are “easy riders.” It was true in the latter half of the 19th century; it was true in the years between the world wars; it was true during the post-Cold War era; and it remains true today.

This enduring verity has crucial implications for the defence policy review. Defence policies that are written without the “easy riding” nature of Canadians in mind will be quickly abandoned. Consider the 1987 defence white paper, or the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy, both of which were testaments to what happens when the desires of the defence establishment comes up against the persistent cheapness of Canadians, a cheapness that is always well represented in Cabinet.

In short, the defence policy embraced in the 2016 review has to “fit” the country that it is designed for. It is for that reason that whatever defence policy comes out of the stove-pipe, it must get owned by the Cabinet as a whole. If it is just introduced by Minister Sajjan and passed distractedly on the nod by other ministers, it will suffer the same fate as the 1987 and 2008 reviews — useful fodder for the chatterati but not much else.

For only if Cabinet as a whole buys into a defence policy will it provide the consistent funding that is so necessary for the delivery of a coherent and rational defence policy for Canada.

Revised to include the April 1992 defence update issued by the Mulroney government.

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