The first rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club. The first rule of the Conference of Defence Association’s annual Ottawa conference is not to disparage the F-35 … unless you do not mind being buttonholed by a Lockheed representative. Yesterday, I attended the first day of the two-day conference, and dared to ask a question only once, at the end of the day, about the tendency to deny, deny, deny. People did not like the question too much (I should not have used the detainee stuff as an example), but did engage me afterwards. So, unlike a friend who showed me the ropes, I am not persona non grata at the conference or in an African country not to be named here.
What did I learn? Well, the first thing I noticed was that among the premium sponsors of the event was Rafale, the French aerospace company. That was pretty interesting given that unlike most of the other sponsors, Canada is not current purchasing any Rafale products (that I know of). But if the F-35 were to be rejected, Rafale does make a competing plane. So, it was instructive that Rafale senses that it is worth an investment in the major defence contractor conference.
Beyond plane competition, the thoughts of the panelists in the morning focused mostly only whether Canada should develop a national security strategy and what that would look like. This is something I have discussed at CIC before (here and here). The conversation started with a new Vimy paper that provides one take on Canada’s strategic outlook. The key theme in the paper and the ensuing discussion is financial constraint—that Canada will not be engaged in significant interventions in the near term due to the costs of such operations. No argument here on that. Indeed, the big largely unanswered question of the conference, funded by defence contractors, is which programs will be cut. While there were references in the discussion about an optimal mix of defence cuts, it is not clear what that means in practice.
The next session was a conversation with John Manley that covered a lot of issues pretty quickly and none too deeply. He reiterated a statement he made in the aftermath of 9/11—that Canada is neither a neutral country nor a pacifist one. After a decade of on and off war, this is less controversial than perhaps it once was. When asked about the panel that he led that facilitated the final renewal of the Kandahar mission, Manley indicated that it was the right decision at the time, as a result of the accumulation of previous decisions. As a social scientist, I appreciated his understanding of path dependence—that each decision constraints subsequent ones. He focused on factors outside of NATO and Canadian control that produced “an outcome not as positive” as we would have liked—corruption, Pakistan and so on, and these factors were/are clearly key. Yet, it would have been interesting to see if Manley could suggest what Canada and NATO could have done better.
The focus then went onto whether Canada should direct defence procurement efforts at domestic producers even if the costs are higher. Given how tangled the Canadian procurement process is already, I am not sure focusing more on the job-creating aspects is a good idea. Also, given the budget cuts of today and tomorrow, buying more expensive equipment for the sake of domestic industry does not seem wise.
The third panel was most interesting: Ian Brodie, former Chief of Staff to Harper; Jack Granatstein, the well known historian; and Major General (ret.) Richard Blanchette, former senior adviser to the Canadian National Security Advisor discussed whether Canada needed a national security strategy. This panel had some interesting disagreements, including Granatstein’s assertion that Canada was bound by its colonial past to be a strategy consumer, adopting whatever the strategy is of the country upon which it depends. Brodie suggested that Canada did not need the equivalent of American quadrennial reviews and made the controversial claim that the Prime Minister did not learn of Operation Medusa until the plans were discussed on the BBC. The military people around me found this problematic in the extreme. So, the history of the Kandahar mission is contested still. Blanchette said we need a national security strategy more now but that we are moving away from one at this time. The takeaway from this panel is that Canadians who have observed and experienced the big decisions cannot agree on either the past or the future.
The keynote speaker at lunch was Admiral Samuel Locklear, who is the American commanding all of U.S. forces in the Pacific and most of Asia (the line is drawn at the India/Pakistan border). It was a pretty vanilla speech, although he did a good job of discussing the “strategic complexity” of his area of responsibility. He asserted that the American pivot to Asia is not about the containment of China. So, he gets points for being diplomatic, a primary job of any “combatant commander,” but I am not sure I bought it. He spoke of deepening American alliances in the region, which was reminiscent of one of the primary strategies the U.S. used to contain the Soviet Union. His speak did remind me of one basic truth that I learned in the most unilateral of times (in Rumseld’s Pentagon in the early 2000s)—the U.S. military deeply and sincerely believes in multilateralism. He did provide a note of realism—that China will be doing rising power things and that we should not be surprised like when China acquires an aircraft carrier.
I spent the next two panels talking to individuals who are or were in the Canadian defence sector, including former students who proved that a B.A. in Political Science is not a career killer. They are doing quite well, working for the government and for defence contractors.
The final panel of the day was the CF and Public SAervice, moderated by Doug Bland, who held a Chair in Defence Management Studies at Queen’s with Mel Cappe, who was former Clerk of Privy Council, and LtGen (ret) George Macdonald, former Vice Chief of the Defence Staff. This was a panel close to my heart as it had a former military person and a civilian talk about civil-military relations. Macdonald argued persuasively that the two sides would never see eye to eye, and this is ok—that a healthy tension between civilians and military is fine and productive. Of course, what is healthy and what is problematic can be hard to distinguish, as I have tried in this column over the past year. Cappe argued that the civilian side needs to do a better job of educating themselves about the military, including the parliamentarians—that they have a responsibility to know what they are spending tax dollars on.
It was at the end of this panel that I asked a pesky question about the tendency for DND/CF to deny rather than clarify. I got a fair amount of push back—most on the examples. They somewhat read into the question that I might be engaging in conspiracy thinking and that the reality is that things are most often complex, and that the folks involved may sometimes make the stupid choice, like saying the C-17 mission in Mali would only last a week and then only a few weeks when they could have specified a longer time span. I clarified that my concern is not that there is some great conspiracy to avoid the truth, but that the government seemed to lack a learning curve—making the same mistake over and over again. A little straightforwardness and anticipation might go a long way to reducing the credibility gap that seems to have opened up.
It was a very educational day. I went back for the second day with speeches by the Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay, Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson, the Commander of American Special Operations Admiral McRaven, NORAD commander General Charles Jacoby, and others. I will provide my take on that tonight or tomorrow.
The good news is that I have learned a great deal in a short time, reminding me of a phrase I learned in the Pentagon: drinking from the firehose.