Friday, July 11, 2014

Bad Military Argument Week?

Something seemed to become a trend this week--really dumb arguments about Canadian defence stuff.  Part of it was the timing of when I read stuff as opposed to it being published this week, but as a card-carrying member of the military-industrial-academic complex, I am embarrassed. 

Before I get going, I need to make my biases clear:
  • I am ambivalent about the F-35--it is too expensive and not that good of a plane but the alternatives are none too spiffy.
  • On the other hand, I love subs.  I spent much time in my teens and then since reading about the real exploits of American subs in Pacific during WWII and fictional exploits during/after the cold war.  
  • I am often seen as a hawk because I think that militaries are instruments of national policy.
  • I am often seen as a dove because I am skeptical about the use of force--it has limited utility.
Ok, with those, ahem, caveats out of the way, let's start with this piece on Canada's non-need for fighter planes:
"New Canadian fighters would almost certainly never be involved in serious strike or aerial combat operations"
Um, the current batch of fighters participated in the aerial campaign against Serbia in 1999 and over Libya in 2011.   Given the likelihood that air power will be the first step in any future NATO effort anywhere, it is likely that strike aircraft of some kind will be the asset that NATO commanders will seek to deploy.
"The only credible aerial threat to Canadian territory, sovereignty and populace is a copy-cat “9/11” attack – a danger that essentially cannot be defeated by fighter aircraft."
Actually, fighter aircraft are exactly what you want to have to trail a hijacked airliner and even, dare I say it, shoot one down if necessary.

While the author is correct that Canada would barely make a dent in a US-China or a US-Russia war, having an advanced aircraft would be handy against lesser opponents as anti-aircraft weapons spread.
"Fighters simply cannot contribute anything substantial toward the achievement of the six Canadian defence objectives." 
While I agree that Canada needs to re-assess the objectives and prioritize, fighter planes would be handy for three of the priorities--NORAD/continental ops, respond to terrorist attack, lead/conduct major international operation, deploy forces in reponse to crises elsewhere in the world.  The last perfectly describes the current Canadian deployment to Romania and its turn in the Baltic Air patrol this fall.

I also happened to read anti- and pro-Canadian sub arguments that contained some similar doozies.

The pro-sub argument, by Paul Mitchell, starts from a very weak spot: challenging the lemon reputation of the current Victoria class subs: "largely because of a series of unfortunate incidents."  Holy Lemony Snicket!  That the subs in 2013 had something like 265 operational days at sea might sound impressive if that were the average per sub, but that was the total for all four subs.  That is, the subs averaged less than seventy days at sea each.  The article blames it on tight budget constraints, but it is obviously more than that.  Plus if you cannot operate under tight budget constraints, then good luck as those constraints are not going away.  Indeed, my primary argument against Canadian subs is that the budgets are and will always be tight, so that the capability will never be enough to be more than symbolic.  And lots of money for symbolic capability would be fine if there not serious tradeoffs ahead.

That the subs share features with British nuclear subs is seen as a feature, a plus, when it turns out that this bit of reality meant that the British would not share much info with the Canadians about the subs and how to fix them.

Much of the debate about subs, like about planes, is whether they can help out in the far north.  These subs cannot breathe under the ice, alas (nuclear subs can and some with special systems but Canada can't afford them any time soon).  The good news, according to the author, is that the arctic will be ice free so who needs to breathe under the ice?  The problem is that by the time the ice is gone, the subs will be too.  They simply will not last beyond 2030 without a heap of luck and duck tape.  And that drives home the real problem.  The main argument for keeping Canada in the sub business is that once out of it, it is hard to get back in.  But my guess is that Canada will be out eventually anyway.  The next batch of subs will be far more expensive than the current batch, because that is how military inflation works especially when one does not manage procurement well.  So, will Canada invest in six or eight new subs?  No.  Four?  Maybe, but then we are stuck with a purely symbolic force again.

The main claim to keep subs is to stay in the intel sharing business with the US, but that seems like something that can be negotiated regardless of subs or no subs.  The funny thing is that the article takes shots at the anti-sub argument's take on UAVs and ignores the other possibility--underwater unmanned vehicles.  They exist and will be developed much further.  Why not invest in those and not in more subs?

The best arguments for subs are mostly that some of the anti-sub arguments, by Michael Byers, are quite lame.  For instance, arguing that China might be deterred from war due to its dependence on international trade is amusing/ironic/historically blind.  Japan was quite dependent on international trade--especially oil and iron from the US--before WWII and yet went to war.  It turned out that its need for imports became a huge weakness as American subs destroyed most of the Japanese merchant fleet.

Ultimately, I side with Byers not because I don't think subs can be handy.  They can be.  I just don't think that the benefits of having a symbolic fleet of four semi-broken subs are worth the cost in a time of flat/declining defence budgets.  I don't expect Canada to ever be that serious about investing in subs.  If they were to do so, then it would mean cutting elsewhere, and that is a tradeoff that the Canadian defense establishment refuses to face.

Regarding the F-35, I am still unsure.  I tend to think the Super Hornet is a better idea because it is a proven technology.  While there will not be the same economies of scale in the upkeep down the road, I am guessing it will need less upkeep than a plane that is being produced even as it is being tested.  Of course, I could be completely wrong, and Canada might start buying French stuff


John T said...

"Blind Man's Bluff" by Sherry Sontag and Chritopher Drew is an excellent non-fiction account of submarine espionage during the Cold War if you are still into that sort of thing.

On the sub topic, I largely agree with you, though the Americans will do quite a bit of arm twisting for us to stay in the game. They love having friendly diesels to practice against since they are much harder to find than nukes.

On fighters, I am also leaning super hornet. Available now at a reasonably price and at least an 80% solution to Canada's needs.

Paul T. Mitchell said...

Steve: fair comments all. However, you might as well conclude the same for Canadian defence in general. It's all symbolic. The size of the CAF is insufficient to meet most of the commitments that are laid out in the last defence paper. 65 fighters of any kind can barely cover our own airspace and only if the NORAD commitments are backstopped by the USAF will there be enough capacity to send a six pack to places like the Baltic or Libya. We have mostly lost the ability to deploy an independent naval task group, ensuring that we will not have any opportunity to exercise command such as we did with CTF 151. The army is stressed to maintain a single brigade group overseas. Canada's contribution to Khandahar could also be properly called "symbolic" given the forces deployed there were grossly insufficient to control the ground in the province. So is the proper conclusion that Canada should get out of the military business entirely? Its a fair question.

David Betz said...

An interesting exchange, fellas. As far as the Arctic is concerned I really think the best option for Canada would be a large number of cheap Icelandic trawlers/support ships/research vessels/environ-clean up whatever. As long as it's cheap, useful in peacetime, and robust with a very sturdy hull. The logic being:

1. that Canada's contribution in any real naval shooting war in the Arctic, if you can even imagine one, would be nugatory. Whether it had 4 working subs or 4 semi-working ones, leaving aside the AIP issue even, because the real players have so much more.

2. quite a few of those whom you wish to impress with your sovereign power in the region are your long-term allies anyway so shooting torpedoes at them is probably a bad idea.

Iceland did very well against Britain in the 1950s through 1970s 'Cod Wars' under not dissimilar circumstances through the simple expedient of crashing into the Royal Navy's ships. Warships are fragile and expensive--they come off badly from such encounters and they're harder to replace. Admiral Lord West tells an amusing anecdote in his recent radio series on Britain at Sea. At the high point of the Third Cod War a goodly fraction of the Royal Navy was laid up in harbour badly damaged. Iceland ultimately got its way.

On the other hand, there is a very good argument for the continuation of a submarine programme by the RCN. It's tradition in ASW is longstanding and a noteworthy and welcome contribution to the collective efforts of like-minded nations to keep the sea safe. Paul somewhere (I forget) quoted Chretien saying submarines are just fundamentally un-Canadian. Be that as it may, ASW is not. Nowadays, I am told by naval experts more knowledgeable than me, that technological advancement in submarines is such that the job of killing them is really for other submarines, surface ASW being outclassed/too dangerous.

Ultimately, of course, it comes down to what Canada wants to achieve. What's the policy? If it's simply symbolic then do what the French, and lots of others, do: build inexpensive frigates that look nice. If it's got a 4 inch gun on the front, you can fly a helicopter off the back, and wave the flag from the top then it's perfectly fit for purpose.