Some have pointed to the safety and security offered by Canada’s geo-strategic location in North America as arguing for a homeland-focused defence policy. Thomas Juneau took up that thread last week, suggesting that the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) should learn to “do less with less.”
Others have warned against using Canada’s relative security to justify a more modest military. By accepting such a “twisted logic,” as George Petrolekas calls it, we’d ignore not only the military requirements of non-discretionary missions at home and in North America, but also the hard power assets needed to pursue international peace and security.
Both sides make valid points. They also tend to overstate their positions.
It’s true that Canadians enjoy an island of safety in today’s global security environment, insulated from what’s happening in Ukraine, Syria and the South China Sea. This is partly a function of our geographically isolated position in North America; it’s also because we enjoy such a friendly relationship with our only close neighbour, the United States.
Indeed, observers have long been aware of Canada’s “involuntary security guarantee” from the superpower to the south. This guarantee may not be quite so ironclad today as it once was; ballistic missile defence is a good example of a gap in it. But in broad terms, America’s commitment to our defence does represent an important feature of the continental relationship.
Even during the darkest days of the Cold War, the only direct Soviet threat Canada faced was from strategic nuclear bomber and ballistic missile forces. And aside from some early continental efforts to establish a perimeter air defence network, we largely accepted that point of vulnerability — so long as America’s nuclear retaliatory capabilities remained intact.
Yet few would argue today that Canada should have used its relative security in the Cold War to justify either a reduction in its military capabilities or a sole focus on air defence. Instead, Canada found itself supporting the NATO “shield” with air and ground force deployments. We had two good reasons for doing that.
First, Canada’s approach to defence is often determined by our national interests abroad — from continental relations with the United States to trans-Atlantic ties with Europe. The fact that Canada enjoys safety from threats abroad could provide a foundation for Canadian defence policy, maybe even one that ultimately constrains its available strategic options. But it doesn’t have to.
Second, Canada recognizes that certain security developments abroad — while not having an immediate impact on Canadian and North American defence — might pose a more direct threat in the future. Which is why we’ve long preferred a “forward defence” approach in the pursuit of international peace and security.
These are the considerations that have shaped Canada’s defence policy since the Cold War, preventing a return to the isolationist impulses of the interwar period. Without them, it would have been all too easy for us to settle for a constabulary-type force backed by some air defence specialization.
So simply pointing to the conditions of Canada’s geo-strategic position — an observation that dates back at least to Raoul Dandurand’s 1924 claim that “we live in a fireproof house, far from inflammable material” — doesn’t really explain past Canadian defence policy. And using our isolation to chart our future security course would be strategically short-sighted; defence policy is as much about shaping military capabilities decades into the future as it is about deploying the resources we have now.
But it’s also a bad idea to stretch this argument too far. Basic conditions need to be met in the defence of Canada — and it would be difficult to accept “doing less with less” in such non-discretionary missions.
But no one is really arguing that Canada should settle for a reduced CAF unable to fulfil its domestic defence role. The real question is whether such domestic missions may have different — and less demanding — capability requirements than expeditionary operations. Naval ships that patrol coastal and Arctic waters, or aircraft that intercept foreign intruders, may not require the expensive higher-end capabilities needed for international missions.
And it’s not so easy to determine clearly where the needs of North American defence begin and end. There may be significant consequences to policy issues in which Canada has a serious interest — such as trade — if we’re seen by the Americans as a “freeloader”.
Our problem is that the perception is out there already: Canada has long taken advantage of the United States’ “involuntary security guarantees” to take a free ride on defence spending. We tended to allow the United States to absorb most of the cost of our air defence during the Cold War, we were initially reluctant to deploy forces to Europe (and sought to reduce that commitment in a hurry), and we were quick to embrace the so-called “peace dividend” of the post-Cold War period; in fact, it can be argued we sought that dividend in the early 1970s before partly reversing course.
As scholars like Joel Sokolsky have noted, Canada’s first question in military matters tends to be, “How much is just enough?” And we’ve never really faced serious consequences for our free-riding, making it a very hard habit to break.
So rather than resigning ourselves to doing less with less — or having unrealistic expectations about doing more with more — it would be prudent to instead ask if we might be more efficient with what we have. One area that should be explored is the size of our armed forces, and how much we spend on personnel compared to capital.
In a time of fiscal restraint, a fixation on military size can come at the expense of recapitalization requirements and fleet-replacement plans, to the detriment of the CAF. One need only look at regular force size versus spending levels between our key allies: Canada, with its relatively large force size and small defence budget, is an outlier.
One possible solution, of course, is to increase our defence spending. Given our relatively safe location, however, any arguments for a budget boost are likely to fall on deaf ears. The alternative is to right-size our forces to better ensure that the CAF remain multi-purpose and combat-capable — even if certain elements of the CAF (navy, air force, special forces) might benefit disproportionately from such a recalibration.
In that sense, having a smaller military doesn’t automatically mean global irrelevance. Instead, it could actually help safeguard Canada’s ability to continue taking both discretionary and non-discretionary military missions, at home and abroad. And making our military more efficient by recalibrating the force structure — even if that means a smaller regular force — would make the CAF more sustainable.
If Canada is really “back”, it has to be back with substance — and that includes our ability to meet our security and defence commitments in a credible way.
Author: David McDonough and Tony Battista