Matt Gurney: Our military is accomplishing its mission: giving the politicians cover
The sorry state of our armed forces isn’t a failure of our policy. This is our policy.
By: Matt Gurney
Canadian politicians have an inputs problem. Maybe that's actually the wrong way to describe it — the problem is with the outputs. But it's the inputs they love talking about.
If that all sounds a little vague, maybe this sounds familiar: “Hey there, citizen. Alarmed about Troubling Issue X? Well, don’t worry. We’re pledging $300 million over the next six years to Troubling Issue X. Oh, and Annoying Irritant Y? We’re announcing a task force to report back on that.”
Does Troubling Issue X get solved? Does Annoying Irritant Y get less annoying and irritating? Eh. We probably don’t collect enough stats to even know. The purpose of the announcement isn’t to solve the problem. It’s to announce something and hope people stop paying attention.
A few weeks ago, I returned from the beautiful city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I was a guest of the Halifax International Security Forum. The forum, put on by Washington, D.C.-based HFX, brings military, defence and intelligence experts and leaders to Halifax from across the free world for a three-day conference on the pressing issues of the day. (Ukraine was obviously a big part of this year's agenda.) As I left the conference, I sketched out four broad ideas worth writing about; the first two of those are already online here and here, and the fourth is a little more tangential, and I'll get to it in the new year.
The third topic, though, ended up being a bit more challenging to write about than I'd expected, but for a happy reason: someone else said it better than I would have.
A big part of the conference, which is funded in part by the Canadian government, is showing that Canada is pulling its weight in its alliances. More than one person observed to me at the conference "how lucky" Canada is to have landed a plum annual event like the Forum, precisely because it gives us a chance to centre ourselves in key discussions in a way our actual substantive contributions to international security alone do not. I had thought I'd write a column about that idea, linked to Canada's fairly underwhelming plan for the Indo-Pacific region, but then retired LGen. Michael Day, a long-serving veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, wrote a better piece (and with more authority!) than I ever could. He laid bare the problems with our Indo-Pacific plan: it sounds good, but it's lacking in actual goals and any real way of measuring success or even failure. There isn't much there there. It’s just … an announcement.
I won't repeat the general's arguments at length. You can just read his piece! But his argument, and the one I was originally going to make, share a common theme: we are good at talking but not at doing. And the reason for this is because, for the purposes of the government, the talking is the point. The doing isn't really necessary. A lot of what looks like policy failure in Canadian foreign and military affairs only looks like a failure when you forget that accomplishing something wasn't the point. Being photographed and videotaped saying you'll accomplish something was the point. And the announcement itself accomplishes that!
It's not that Canada accomplishes nothing on the world stage. We accomplish things. Sometimes we even play an outsized role — Canada did, for instance, perform well and above expectations in Kandahar. The odd exception aside, though, when it comes to foreign policy generally and especially with defence policy, successive Canadian governments have set a very clear target: we will do, technically, more than nothing. We won't often do much more than that. But we'll do enough to not get kicked out of the club of allied nations.
Why do we want to be in the club? Not because we feel any sense of duty or obligation to lead and take on any real burden. But because being in the club makes us safer, and it would, after all, be embarrassing to get kicked out.
It's important to remember that Canada is, by any standard, a rich country. We could be an actual force for good and stability on the world stage if we wanted to. We could build a bigger fleet and patrol more places, more often — we’d be welcome! We could have a bigger army and lead more peacekeeping missions, or contribute more to NATO. A bigger air force, likewise, could contribute more to our allies, especially in Europe in these unsettled times. In a parallel universe where we did these things, we'd then be able to say with a straight face that the purpose of Canada's navy was contributing to the safety and security of the seas, the purpose of our army was to assist allies and provide peacekeepers to help end international crises, and the purpose of our air force was to project power and bring support to threatened allies.
In the world we actually live in, though, the purpose of the navy is to technically have a navy that technically does things, the purpose of the army is to technically have an army that technically does things, and the purpose of the air force ... you see where this is going, right?
Our navy does things! It shows up places, and patrols areas. But only as much as necessary to technically tick that box. The army is in much the same condition; with a growing number of domestic commitments sapping its strength and budget, even its ability to assist with disasters at home is largely maxed out, but we send a few hundred soldiers here and there, thereby allowing ourselves to proclaim that we’ve … sent soldiers somewhere. The air force, as was just reported this week, can't even really do even that much this year. The exhausted force is skipping the very modest — a half-dozen fighter jets — annual mission to Europe. The air force is just too burnt out to sustain even that tiny mission.
This is a big and growing problem. Canada, again, is rich enough to make a difference in global security affairs, if we chose to make different choices with how we spend our money. We have made the opposite choice. We field just enough of a military to be able to make just enough difference to avoid being accused of being total deadbeats, and no more.
Can it fight? Eh, maybe a bit. Can it make a difference? Depends how you define “difference,” I guess. Does it make the world and our allies safer? In a way? Can it keep Canadians safe at home? Sort of.
This isn’t a failure of our policy. This is our policy. We show up with as little as possible for as brief a time as possible, but gosh, do we ever talk about the showing up.
And that's where we get back to the real purpose of it all: the government wants just enough of a military to assure our allies we technically have one, and that also applies at home. Every political leader likes showing up at conferences, visiting the troops, sailing with a frigate for a day or two, and so on. The military isn't a huge issue in Canadian domestic politics, so a few photo ops a year are sufficient. Once the political needs of the government are met, it loses interest, until it either needs some new photos, has a juicy procurement contract to announce, or the military does something so stupid the government has to be seen doing something. (The unfolding sexual misconduct crisis in the ranks is a damn topical example of that kind of stupid thing.)
But otherwise, in this, the Canadian Armed Forces serves the same goal for both foreign and domestic audiences. "Here's our warship. See?"
There's two big problems with this policy, and I should note that it’s not a particular Liberal failing — they’re bad, but the Tories aren’t really any better. The first problem is that the manifest state-capacity failures that are eroding Canadian capabilities across the board are cutting into the military, too. When the bar for the size and capability of the force is deliberately set at "Just barely enough," you don't have much room for attrition via incompetence. It doesn't take a lot of missed recruiting goals or delayed procurements to put our armed forces into a real capacity crisis. There just isn't any muscle left, every cut goes right into the bone.
And the second problem is a moral one: do we want to be a force for good? Are we satisfied not doing all we can to make the world a more stable, peaceful place?
On that second point, the answer is sadly obvious: we do not want to be a force for good (assuming we have to actually work hard) and we are indeed satisfied — or at least not particularly dissatisfied — doing less than we could. The world probably does need more Canada. There are small countries warily eying Russia and China that would be assured by a regular Canadian naval presence in their region. There are people living under real danger of brutal personal violation and death today who’d love a battalion of Canadian peacekeepers in their city or country. But Canada isn't interested. We feel bad for y’all, but we’ve done enough for this year’s Christmas photo album. So sorry. Good luck and everything, though, eh?
And this is our inputs/outputs problem. A critically understaffed and underarmed army is fine if it can still throw a few sandbags after a flood. A few warships on patrol, a few times a year, on the world’s largest ocean, means we get mentioned in the U.S. military tweets about the allied exercise, and who could ask for more? And the air force. Well, best not to ask about them. They’re in a pinch right now, sadly. Those are the inputs the government needs. For them, it’s mission accomplished.
No one worries much about our lack of outputs: meaningful, tangible accomplishments and contributions to global security, and a Canadian Armed Forces with enough personnel, equipment and training to be a real, effective fighting force, ready and able to keep Canadians safe at home and contribute to peace and security missions abroad.
And we could have that. It would cost a lot, in both money and political capital. But it’s a realistic goal. And it’s also what all the politicians are telling you they’re doing. We have to start calling them out on this. It’s nonsense, and transparently so. Every time they dribble out some new announcement — new pistols! a new ship is commissioned! — we have to ask them the key question: what is the mission of the Canadian Armed Forces, and is it currently capable of carrying out that specific mission?
I’m not holding my breath, to put it mildly. But the world isn’t getting any friendlier. We can fix this now, when all it costs is money and political capital, or we can rush to fix it later, when it may cost us lives.
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