Saturday, December 3, 2016

Good Times for Civ-Mil Scholars, Bad Times for Democracy and Governance

I just wrote about the problems facing the US as President-Elect Trump may choose too many retired generals for his cabinet.  In Canada, the problems is a bit different: active generals are being put in awkward positions by the politicians.

How so?  The story of the week in Canadian civ-mil, regarding the fighter plane procurement problems, appears to be part of a larger trend: the Liberals getting advice they don't like and soldiering on (sorry) anyways (see electoral reform effort or not).

The Liberal government has stated that it needs to buy 18 Super Hornets to fill a capability gap--that Canada doesn't have the planes it needs to defend North American airspace (the NORAD requirement) and to meet its NATO commitments at the same time.  There are lots of problems with this:
  • There is no formal NATO requirement BUT to be fair to the Liberals, there has been a regular demand by NATO for planes to patrol over Iceland and over the Baltics plus regular multilateral efforts elsewhere (Kosovo, Libya, Iraq).
  • Interim purchases are interim: Canada will have to sell, scrap, give away or somehow transfer the 18 Super Hornets once Canada gets the big batch of new planes (whether they are Super Hornets, F-35s, Rafaeles, or whatever).
  • The math.  Canada needs 36 planes for NORAD, 6 for NATO-ish=42.  But you need to have twice as many or so in order to field the 42 at any time time=84.  But planes, alas, crash and have other problems, so you probably need another 6-12.  So, 90+ planes in the next batch of purchases.  Given the budgetary envelope for the next plane was enough for 65 F-35s, the math suggests that the Liberals would need to buy a plane that is 2/3s the price of the 65 as 65/90 is 2/3s-ish.  But the Super Hornet is not that cheap.  Plus the Liberals had promised to take the money saved on the planes to fund the ship-building.  Ooops.  
But the problem du jour is making generals dance.  RCAF Commander Hood has been caught between what he has said before and what he is saying now.  Before, he had said that we had no capability gap and that 65 planes would ultimately be sufficient.  Now, he says that there has been a policy change, so a gap exists.  Is he lying?  No.  The Liberals decided (for whatever reason, its decision-making has not been transparent) that Canada needs to be able to do both jobs at once (a stance that makes sense but is not applied to anywhere else in the CAF or else we would have more than four subs, for instance).  And it is the right of the government of the day to change policy like this, as it is a political, not military decision, about how much risk to accept.  Is it likely that Canada would need to have its entire NORAD commitment in the air at the same time as it is engaged in an NATO-ish operation?  No, but it could happen.  The US used to plan for fighting two major wars and a minor one, and then the world changed and so the US changed how much war it planned to fight at one time (ironically, it then began to fight many wars at once, but not any wars with near-peers).

The general is in an awkward spot when he appears before Parliament as he is answerable to Parliament but accountable to the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence.  I used to think this was a distinction without a difference, but it is all the difference in the world.  As the generals must answer questions that parliamentarians ask of them unless it is advice to cabinet or it is classified.  Which often means that they cannot really answer all that much and certainly heaps of interesting questions can't be answered.  Because of how civil-military relations works in Canada, where the military has only one boss (the PM via the GG), the officers cannot pubicly disagree with government policy.  Cannot!

In the US, where the military has two bosses--the President (and SecDef!) and Congress--the officers have to tell the Senators and Representatives not just the facts but also what they think, even if it conflicts with the policy of the day.  General Shinseki famously got put into a tough spot when asked about the footprint needed in Iraq to stabilize the place after the invasion. He gave a number that was far higher than what SecDef Rumsfeld was planning, but Shinseki had to answer the question as he was accountable to Congress.

But Canada is not the US, so politicians can try to make the military look like the bad guys in the decision-process, but, in this case, whatever is going on this fall with fighter plane procurement, it is a mess the Liberals made.  Sure, the larger procurement problem is shared--the military may have come up with requirements that gamed the initial results to get to the F-35, the Conservatives deferred and delayed so that the decision would take place after the 2015 election, and the Liberals have their turn now to mess things up.  But the effort lately to shift the blame to the military is a mistake, one that a government focused on transparency and deliverology should not be making.

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