Monday, July 19, 2010

Gilding the Lily or We Need to To Be Sneaky?

Some controversy heating up over the next big Canadian defense project:  F-35's to replace the current fighters protecting Canadian airspace.   A friend of mine, Philippe Lagass√©, a prof at University of Ottawa, raises some questions about the choice of the most expensive option and the timing--why now in the summer when Parliament is out of session?  Oops, never mind.  I guess we know why the timing, but why the most expensive option?

In my conversations in my year in the Pentagon, it was clear that the military guys would always, always prefer the best stuff, such as the Crusader artillery system, even if it means buying far less [I feel squeamish to be on the same page as Rumsfeld on this one--sometimes less is more and more is less].  But it is not their job to assess guns versus butter.  Politicians need to make those calls, and they need to know what the plane is necessary for.  In this case, there is a pretty obvious question: is there a need for super-stealthy technology?  Well, that depends: do you think the planes will protecting Canadian airspace or projecting Canadian power (along with NATO, presumably) into countries with air defense systems (like Yugoslavia in 1999)?  If the latter, then sure, Canada would need the best penetrators of defended airspace.  If the former, then not so much.  It may be an oversimplification, but sneakiness is most necessary when one is sneaking in, not when one is hanging out.

Of course, this raises bigger questions about Canada's Defence requirements.  Canada cannot afford to field the most modern armed forces---it can choose to have two modern arms but perhaps not three.  That is, choose to have an air force and a navy to protect the Arctic and homeland and give up on the idea of doing serious expeditionary stuff (Afghanistan, Africa, Balkans).  Or it can have a robust army that be a big help to NATO.  But it cannot have all three and be excellent at all three. 

Because I don't think that Canada will/can invest enough to be serious enough in the Arctic to deter/thwart Russia AND the US, I would recommend focusing more on the army for helping the US and the allies out in difficult places, thus compensating for the free-riding on North American security.  That would be an investment that pays off with international influence, whereas arctic sovereignty will annoy the US and not actually accomplish that much.

That has worked pretty well for Canada over the past fifty years or so.  But it is not popular for votes at home.  And making hard choices is unpopular as well.  My prediction as a professional political scientist is that Canada will try to choose to have all three--robust army, robust navy, robust air force, but will end up with a melange of capabilities good enough to get Canada into trouble, like having too few modern helicopters, to carry out the missions. 

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