Harrison Ruess: Canada's military policy is a 'Kobayashi Maru' in the making
We need to decide if we are in or out, and stop pretending to be in while acting, and budgeting, like we are out.
By: Harrison Ruess
In the opening scenes of the 1994 blockbuster Star Trek: Generations — blockbuster being used perhaps a little generously — the brand-new U.S.S. Enterprise-B is leaving the shipyard. The ship is under the command of Captain John Harriman, played by Alan Ruck. It’s a shakedown cruise with media and dignitaries — including original Enterprise crewmembers of Kirk, Chekov, and Scotty — along for the flight, to symbolically pass the torch to the next generation.
During the cruise, however (spoiler alert, if that counts with a movie from 1994), the Enterprise-B receives a distress call and responds to an emergency. When they arrive on scene, they find a couple of other ships trapped in an energy ribbon whizzing through space. The situation could, seemingly, be solved fairly easily by the Enterprise crew with either a tractor beam (to pull the distressed ships out of danger) or by detonating a few photon torpedos (to disrupt the energy ribbon, thereby allowing the ships to escape).
When both these ideas are suggested and discussed by the crew, the answer both times is that the equipment, the tractor beam and the torpedoes, “doesn’t arrive until Tuesday.” Nor does the medical staff needed to treat the survivors of the trapped ships. This is because, as it turns out, the ship left the shipyard without actually being ready to accomplish whatever unexpected trouble it may encounter. Starfleet Command was in a rush to get the photo op, so the newest flagship of the Federation set out without her nurses, tractor beam or torpedoes.
Watch above to learn why leaving a shipyard unprepared is a bad idea, even in the late 23rd century.
Suffice to say, the ship’s inability to properly address the situation results in some heavy consequences, especially for one notable character. I won’t give away that spoiler, though.
As an insight into how my brain works (you’re welcome?), the above scene is what popped in my head when I read this little exchange from Paul Wells’ recent interview with Vice Admiral Angus Topshee, the commander of the Royal Canadian Navy:
Paul Wells: You say in the video that in order to make sure that the Canadian Surface Combatant ships are ready when needed, you’ve had to make “tough decisions to prioritize schedule over initial capability.” So on their first tour they’re not going to have all the bells and whistles that you would have hoped.
V.Adm. Topshee: That’s exactly it. What we’ll be delivering in ship 15 is going to be better than what’s delivered in ship one because the priority is to make sure that we get ship one delivered as quickly as possible. Because no matter what it has, it’s going to be better than the Halifax-class. This is a pretty incredibly capable ship. So in a perfect world, the Canadian Surface Combatant has 24 vertical launch cells for missiles. I would like to see that number doubled, or at least at 36. But if I were to try and insist upon that, I would delay that ship by a couple of years. It’s just not worth it. We will manage with 24. And then maybe [in ships that get built later], we’ll probably look to increase the number of missiles that it can carry.
The TL;DR here reads pretty clearly to me as our chronically dysfunctional military procurement system is going to force our navy to launch ships that aren’t fully ready, sending them into unpredictable situations in a dangerous world, because the alternative is either sending very old and obsolete ships or having no ships to send at all. I appreciate V.Adm. Topshee is caught between a rock and a hard place. A Star Trek fan may even call this a Kobayashi Maru — which is Starfleet shorthand for a “no-win scenario,” for you unindoctrinated, named for the crippled ship adrift in hostile space that Starfleet cadets must try and rescue in a training simulation that is designed to be literally impossible to win.
For Starfleet, the no-win scenario is a test of how a would-be officer faces the prospect of certain failure and potentially death. Is this really the sort of thing our navy should be trying to bring into the real world?
This interview with Wells follows a video that V.Adm. Topshee posted on YouTube as a message to navy personnel on the state of the institution, and what should be expected in the years to come. Since it’s posted on YouTube, the real intended audience is clearly somewhat larger than the “colleagues and shipmates” the admiral addresses. That people are now talking about it, I’m certain, is the point. And I think that’s a good thing, but I want to take the conversation beyond whether the navy has what it needs to do the jobs it’s asked to do. Our problems are bigger than that.
Canada is, and has been for some time, caught between two irreconciliable positions. We don’t want to spend any money on the military but also continue to prioritize how important and influential we want to be in the world (“Canada is back,” etc).
Friends, either of these things is possible. We just can’t do both at the same time.
So let’s have an honest conversation and decide which road we want to go down, commit to it, and then do the best we can in whichever adventure we choose. Talking, domestically and internationally, about how determined Canada is to make a positive impact in the world, while not investing in the systems to give our words weight, sets both Canadians and our allies up for disappointment. The old adage that it’s best not to over-promise and under-deliver should be remembered. We seem to aspire to the reverse.
If Canadians really don’t want to invest in our military, then we need to be honest about the consequences of those decisions. It means a more inwardly focused Canada, less able to support our allies, with fewer seats at big tables, less able to respond to emergencies or disasters, and likely less able to help our own. Given our unstable world, I would not personally advocate for this road, but there is a case to be made for it. So if you are someone who thinks this is the right path, then make your case honestly. Explain why you think it’s swell that our navy will need to launch under-equipped vessels, or not launch them at all. Defend your ground. But stop trying to sell Canadians a fable that we can have a shell of an armed forces while at the same time having increased global influence and impact.
On the other hand, if we do think Canada has a positive role to play — and even a responsibility — in trying to bring some order to the world, help those who need it, and ultimately protect our own interests, then we need a military, and a military budget, strong enough to meet the demands of the task. This includes procurement budgets, maintenance budgets, budgets to offer competitive wages, and budgets to sustain missions, both training and the real deal.
Proponents of this position need to do a much better job of explaining why this is the best path to both improving the lives of Canadians and stabilizing our destabilized world. Then our governments must pursue and defend this road, even when defence isn’t top of the polling priority list — which it never is.
The current status-quo doesn’t work. It’s dishonest. And most importantly, it hurts Canadians and our awareness of what our country is — or isn’t — capable of doing. Kudos to V.Adm. Topshee for, in not so many words, trying to explain the impact of this reality on the navy.
Having a capable, equipped military costs money — starting with perhaps the NATO-agreed upon two per cent of GDP. That’s the cost of doing business as a serious, mature, supposedly globally oriented country. Are we that? Do we even want to be?
In an unstable world, it’s time to make some real decisions about Canada’s capabilities. Honesty needs to be the best policy to animate the debate.
Let’s make it so. And not wait for next Tuesday.
Harrison Ruess is senior account director at spark*advocacy. He’s also a former senior political staffer in Ottawa. And he has extremely clearly figured out what kind of article to pitch Line editor Matt Gurney.
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