Saturday, February 23, 2013

Centre of Gravity, Indeed

The second day of CDA's Conference on Defence and Security had the most interesting lineup, but one had to find the tasty nuggets buried in vanilla presentations.  The cast included the Minister of National Defence, Peter MacKay; the new Chief of Defence Staff, Tom Lawson; Admiral Edouard Guillard, the head of the French military; General Charles Jacoby who wears two hats--commander of NORAD and commander of US Northern Command; Admiral William McRaven, commander of US Special Operations Command; Lord Peter Levene, who chaired a report on UK defence reform, and then two panels  of folks with one one Governance and Accountability in procurement and the other on Western Hemisphere defence.

MacKay sent a video since he in Brussels at a meeting of NATO's defence ministers (or NAC-D ministerial in NATO parlance).  The video was introduced by a very partisan Chris Alexander who omitted, as all Conservatives do, the fact that the Liberals under Paul Martin actually started the boom in defence spending that is ending this year.  He also summoned up the War of 1812 as a key moment in Canadian identity, which is another favorite Conservative bit of framing.  I don't know whether it is true or not since I did not get steeped in Canadian history in school.*  Alexander's talk was more interesting that when he referred to Canadian interests in the world, he basically mentioned only two sectors (I might have misheard): finance and mining. 
* I consulted Teen Spew, and she reported that the War of 1812 did not play much of a role in her education, but then she got most of her Canadian history in Quebec.  So, the Quiet Revolution, the repatriation of the Constitution (which still confuses me), and the Confederation are the big events, not the War of 1812.

Alexander's talk was far more interesting than MacKay's which was as vanilla as you can get.  No announcements of policy decisions, no real statement of priorities (a recurring theme).  In the coverage of the day, MacKay got little play and deservedly so since there was no news content to his speech.  Apparently, he committed more clearly in a conference call with the media to updating Canada's defence strategy, which will be released after the budget.  This, of course, is both backwards and not backwards.  That one should set priorities and figure out what one needs and then commit to spending, but today's reality is that the priority is to spend less and then figure everything else out.  Indeed, this was a theme that dominated the two days.

Lawson gave a very good speech in that it was dynamic (with the requisite two or more hockey jokes), seemed mostly bland but had a key nugget or two that should serve as a warning to the CF and the defence contractors.  He indicated that the budget was the centre of gravity.  What does that mean?  Usually, when military folks talk about centres of gravity, it means that part of the adversary that must be affected in order to win the battle and that part of the home team that, if affected, may lead to defeat.  For instance, in a counter-insurgency campaign, the people of the country (say Afghanistan) are one centre of gravity--if we could turn the Afghans away from the Taliban and support the government, we win.  However, the centre of gravity the adversary would be targetting--the publics back home in ISAF countries--if the publics soured on the war, ISAF would leave.  So, to say that the fiscal reality and the budget is the CF's centre of gravity was quite a statement--that budget cutting/reallocations would be the focal point of the Canadian military for the near term. 
This point was smothered in vanilla sauce as Lawson pointed out four priorities that were not really priorities.  He said the four are excellence in operations, military professionalism, preparing for the forces of tomorrow and taking care of the military people.  What is left out?  What is most important? What choices does this reveal?  When someone sets out priorities, it means identifying the most important aspects, making other stuff less important.  But these four "priorities" do not leave much out--let's work on today, tomorrow, our people and our profession.  Sure, that is fine, but that does say anything about choices.  It is a nice framework for thinking of the CDS's job, but it does us nada about how one is going to approach ye olde centre of gravity. 
I did appreciate his nuance--that the Canadian relationship with its military it not love/hate but love/don't care.  That the public will not care much about the military in the near future as intervention in sizable ways is off the table.  Lawson is definitely a sharp guy, but he also definitely a guy who has been chosen by a Prime Minister focused on budget-cutting.  Everybody is saying we need to cut more tail and not teeth--that administrative costs should be cut rather than stuff that impacts the fighter, the tip of the spear.  But that is easy to say and hard to do since the big spending items of the near and medium future are planes and ships (more on that later).

Jacoby did not have much news to present (a recurring theme), but he was so very clear about how he wore two hats with two different sets of responsibilites and bosses.  As NORAD commander, he reports to both the US President and the Canadian government.  So, Lawson is one of his bosses and the SecDef is the other (since the US Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff does not have operational authority).  NORAD focuses mostly on airspace and increasingly maritime threats.  NORDCOM includes those but also land-based threats, such as border issues.  His list of missions did seem much more like a list of priorities: homeland defense first, support for civilians (natural disasters, etc) second, security cooperation (mil to mil stuff) third.  He also did a nice job of articulating his basic challenge--that most of the threats are very low probability but very high potential costs.  Which makes for some difficult planning problems.  Oh, and he also included a hockey joke--that NHL's lockout (he called it a strike) greatly harmed NORAD's morale with all of the morose Canadians.  He indicated he was a short term pessimist and a long term optimist given the budget situation.  Given this mission of low probability events, I would think the long term will actually bite far harder, but my math sucks.  His concluding point was that collective security was always a bargain--that it is less expensive to work together and not see each other as threats.  Indeed, as I was asked during lunch, NATO may not be supremely efficient or effective but it is more of both than the alternatives.

Admiral McRaven was the most compelling speaker of the conference, and not just because he was tall and had a good twang.  He made better jokes--about the cold and the power of Beaver Tails to combat the cold--than the usual hockey jokes.
*  I guess the jokes are always about hockey and cold weather because such stuff is inoffensive.  It would have been nice if someone went a bit offscript and teased Canada about ... the maple heist?  But everybody seems to be working from the same playbook.
 What made McRaven compelling was that he had a simple theme that united his presentation even if one could not buy all of it: trust.  That SOF works when the operators trust each other, they trust the intel, the actors from other agencies and governments trust each other, and success is built on good relationships.  Very soft talk for a guy who runs a command that does a heap of killing.  Oh, a command that is essentially the same size as the entire Canadian Forces.  That put some perspective on things.  He focused on a couple of success stories--the Philippines and Columbia--where the relationships built over decades have paid off.  He pushed for more institutionalization of SOF cooperation among like-minded countries (which would be NATO plus the Aussies, Kiwis and other usual suspects).  He seemed to suggest that transparency was a key to trust.  The funny thing is that no one asked any questions.  I wanted to, but could not think of one--too addled by the salmon lunch, I suppose.  But I wish I had--that SOF is often used deliberately to evade oversight, so how transparent can you be?  Another question would be: how big can American SOF be as expansion to build numbers means that the people involved are less special.  Anyway, I blew it, but I was not alone. 

Those were the highlights of the second day.  I must now figure out what I learned for my Monday CIC post.

No comments: