Canada’s Defense Predicament: A Cornelian Dilemma? – OpEd


The recent flap in the Province of Quebec over the allotment of naval defense contracts illustrates the inevitable mixing of politics and defense policy in Canada. The Davey shipbuilding industry in Lévis Quebec is an old and venerable institution, which will be vigorously promoted by the Quebec political class.

More pressure can be expected and the fact that Quebec Prime Minister Couillard headed last Sunday’s well attended march for the Davey is significant. Elections in the Province of Quebec are just around the corner and the company and union feel abandoned by Ottawa given the perception of an ‘unfair’ distribution of naval defense contracts within Canada. They point to Irving Shipbuilding in the Atlantic provinces and the west coast Vancouver shipyards as beneficiaries of federal monies while the Davey group is obliged to cut jobs and downsize in the absence of federal defense contracts.

There is evidence that the former Conservative Harper government attempted to implement a shipbuilding plan in 2010 but it did little to calm the main players in Quebec and on the east and west coasts. To its credit, the Liberal government called for public consultations on Canada’s defense policy in 2016. They even set up a blue-ribbon panel of experts to delve into the situation. A lot of talk, not much doing – this has a familiar ring when it comes to the Trudeau Liberals since their election in the fall of 2015.

Maybe its time to get sanguine about exactly what Canada needs in terms of defense assets. Should we be spending huge sums of taxpayer money on buying new planes, or tanks, or ships? Or cyber defense? Military assets, and training to use them, are costly. We should also know that spreading out resources to our armed forces may require prioritization given the cost and the limited available tax base. We can only do some much so perhaps we should make the navy, army or air force a priority.

External Threats

The first question we need to ask ourselves is ‘who is the threat?’ North Korea? Russia?

Of the nation states that are presently in our cross hairs, I think Russia deserves special mention. It has embarked on a confrontational Arctic policy, which puts it in direct conflict with Canada and other world powers. It has anticipated rightly the effects of global warming in the Arctic and the need for building huge ice breakers and submarines to affirm sovereignty over disputed Arctic waters.

Meanwhile, successive Canadian governments have slept though global warming with only an occasional mention here and there in the same breath as they spoke of imaginary carbon targets. Despite his numerous visits to the Canadian Arctic to affirm our sovereignty, ex-PM Harper appears to have overlooked the international consequences of climate change and how it may impact on the defence of that region of the country. The Trudeau formula of plugging climate change as part of the Liberal political spin is not very useful either.

To be clear, in the event of attack by most any nation state, the Canadian army would be of little help. The country is too big and our resources are spread thinly. In terms of defense policy, Canada is cursed by geography and its small population. By the time we had transferred appropriate units of the army to the Arctic or to any of our coasts, the enemy would have already occupied the territory it sought. The army is small and probably should be smaller if we are talking about effective defense of the homeland instead of public image.

Canada’s Maritime Heritage

One fact is significant in this calculation; namely, that Canada has three active coasts. At the end of World War Two, Canada had one of the most powerful navies in the world thanks to our convoy duties in the Atlantic. Whether it is the Arctic, the Pacific or the Atlantic, protection of the coast and Canadian waters is vital both in the economic and political sense.

If we had a strong navy, we could effectively a) defend our legitimate fishing rights, b) assert our territorial claims in the Arctic, c) protect the Pacific fisheries and d) promote the Aboriginal way of life. Canada has important shipping lanes including the Great Lakes and has an interest in preventing oil spills and exert surveillance over municipalities looking to either pollute or remove water. Therefore, it seems logical to invest in a strong navy such that Canada can become a significant regional naval power.

Nothing would send a stronger signal that we intend on exerting our sovereignty than investing in naval assets. Moreover, these assets can produce jobs in Canada whereas costly planes, tanks and other items that the army and air force require are made mainly outside of Canada with a few notable exceptions. In Canada, we have the ship building capacity and the political will to make it happen. Investing in naval assets will build jobs in Canada. The fact that the Davie is griping about not having enough contracts is a good sign and one that empowers the political and economic elites in this country. The funds are spent here, not abroad. Not with Boeing in Seattle. Provincial-federal wrangling over contracts is part and parcel of Canadian federalism. It makes the country work and naval defense contracts oil the machine.

Defense Priorities

Some argue that we would need an air force with expensive and fancy planes to intercept invaders and or pin point their location before arriving at targets in Canada?

There are two counter arguments to this. First, the planes that Canada can afford to buy are usually out of date by the time they arrive on Canadian soil. Part of this is our fault. Purchase of aircraft is a big budget item and it inevitably becomes a political football as well as a contractual and logistical nightmare in an industry that innovates frequently and elsewhere than in Canada. To require Defense Department bureaucrats to solve this problem is unrealistic with players like Boeing exercising its muscle by sparking trade quarrels and inciting tension in political and commercial circles. Second, we can pin point threats using land based equipment, satellites, drones and naval assets like submarines. A strong naval presence in the Arctic would be a much better deterrent than having planes hovering about landlocked areas of our country.

Our ISIL mission is an example of where the very small Canadian contribution to the air war has made little difference and other states hardly noticed that we had pulled our planes. In this regard, Canada should develop an air strategy in support of our naval assets and strategy.

NORAD if necessary but not necessarily NORAD

Nothing prevents us from keeping our NORAD commitment although the maritime function should be fully under Canadian sovereignty and not part of NORAD.

Participation in missile defense is out and constant American whining about Canadian not paying its fair share of defense should be blunted and firmly refuted. Canada, not America, had to clean up the last dangerous environmental mess left by the US military presence in the Arctic. We should continue our present level of support to NORAD, no more, no less.

In conclusion, we need to prioritize our defense resources and earmark them for where they can have the most positive impact. Strengthening the Canadian navy makes the most sense given the size of the country and its geography and geopolitical situation in the world. It makes financial sense by creating jobs and ensuring the ship building industry innovates and proliferates. It also makes economic sense creating jobs and prosperity in Canada. It alone best protects and asserts our sovereignty at home and abroad. Investing money on the purchase of other non-naval assets is likely to be a drop in the bucket, too little to be effective other than paying lip service to Canadian sovereignty. The army, air force with a greatly enhanced cyber defense capability and a growing contingent of special forces specializing in amphibious operations could function effectively in a naval support function.

Bruce Mabley

Dr. Bruce Mabley is a former Canadian diplomat having served in the Middle East, and is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau think tank in Montreal.

One thought on “Canada’s Defense Predicament: A Cornelian Dilemma? – OpEd

  • December 8, 2017 at 11:44 am

    “Strengthening the Canadian navy makes the most sense given the size of the country and its geography and geopolitical situation in the world.” is most certainly accurate in terms of Canada’s military role.

    A second, though not secondary role for Canada’s military is this: Development of permanent rapid assistance capability to disastrous situations is certain to use resources productively while providing Canada with a productive and most welcome international role. Enlarged Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) | Canadian Armed Forces


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