Friday, April 8, 2016

Defence Review, Day 2: Picking on the Conservatives

I have been critical of the Liberals for how the defence review is going to play out: roundtables in places where military expertise is just a wee bit scarce rather than where it is dense.  But I can also be critical of the Conservative response, which can be really, um, dumb.  There is much suspicion that the review is a sham, that the game is rigged.  I am not so sure about that, but the concern that the Liberals might dare to cut the size of the forces?  Puh-lease.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said every government faces the challenge of separating what the military wants from what it needs. But he worried the Liberals had already determined they wanted a smaller force, “and I hope (the review) isn’t the catalyst to put us into another era of darkness for our troops.”
This quote is just extremely, to be kind, problematic.  How so?
First, putting aside whether the Liberals want a smaller force (their defence platform did say leaner, whatever that means), is small bad?  The fixation with larger forces is either symbolic politics (the Conservatives held to the number since they could then say they didn't cut the force), sucking up to the military (cuts cause intra-Forces fighting over priorities and spread of resources), or some basic fixation that size matters (yes, I am making a penis reference).

The entire idea of a defense review is to figure out threats in the world and how best to meet them within the ability/willingness of Canada to pay.  Given that the Chief of the Navy is on the record as saying that the ship building program to replace the main fighting vessels is likely to lead to fewer ships (not 15 but maybe 11-12), would the Royal Canadian Navy need as many sailors if it has fewer ships?  Unless the new ships require more sailors per ship (and that is probably the opposite of the future reality), no.  The purchase of fighter jets will lead to fewer planes than Canada currently has--65 was the planned F-35 buy, which is less than what Canada purchased the last time.  The general escalation in the costs to buy the latest and greatest defence equipment (which is even more expensive if you insist on building in Canada--protectionism raises costs!) means, as David Perry once said, we are going to have to do less with less, not more with less.

Defence Review Consultation Doc
The second key dynamic here is that personnel is roughly 40% of the defence budget (or 47% if you consider the statutory stuff--benefits--as well), so any planning of the future force needs to consider the size.  It is a big constraint on pretty much everything else.  If one does not include the size of the force, then it would not be a serious defence review.  Sticking with the assumption that the force remains the same size might be good for symbolic politics (we didn't cut the size of the force) or for one's manliness (mine is bigger than yours), it is bad for a real review. 

Third, this notion that the era of darkness is about the size of the force is a bit deceptive.  Yes, the late 90s were a dark time.  Was it about the size of the force or was it about the hard tradeoffs made between spending on personnel, spending on capital (ships/planes) and spending on operations and readiness?  Ah, that last category is what leads to a conversation about a hollow force.  That is, one can have a large force with a lot of equipment, but if there is little time to train, exercise and engage in operations, then one is creating a lot of risk.  Risk of accidents, risk of mission failure, risk of declining morale, which then might lead to recruitment problems and attrition of the force.  That stuff is the way of darkness.

And, guess when things got mighty dark?  Pretty recently:
From the same defence doc
Who made big cuts in the budget recently?  Who deferred the purchase of new planes and ships?  Who cut deeply into the operations budget so that the CAF could not train and exercise as they would have liked?  Yes, the Conservatives.  Ooops.

So, yes, the opposition critic must criticize and oppose, but couldn't he be smarter about it?  And slightly more self-aware?  

No comments: