The lengthy federal campaign is about to enter its third and final month and defence policy has begun to play a larger role. Last week, the Liberals announced they would cancel the controversial F-35 program and inject the savings into the shipbuilding program. However, Justin Trudeau qualified this statement by suggesting the Canadian Forces could still be “leaner, and more agile.”

While the NDP has yet to release a comprehensive defense platform, Thomas Mulcair has suggested he would revamp search and rescue capabilities and reduce response times for natural disasters. Earlier, it was reported that the NDP campaign was musing the idea of increasing defence spending – this now seems unlikely given their commitment to avoid deficit spending. Jack Harris, the NDP’s Defence Critic, has written his party will ensure the Canadian Forces is “an agile, well-equipped, world-class force.”

Most recently, the Conservatives have made a de facto recommitment to the F-35 purchase. On top of this, Jason Kenny, the Defence Minister, has announced the Conservatives would increase the size of Canada’s special operations forces by 35% over the next seven years. Some defence commentators have suggested this will make it easier for the government to commit to international operations without having to disclose “boots on the ground.” A defence vision that focuses on special operations and high-tech procurement, more importantly, seeks to make the Canadian Forces more deployable and agile while avoiding a significant increase in spending.

What all three of these visions for the Canadian Forces resemble is a modest application of the Rumsfeld Doctrine. Not to be confused with the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive force, the Rumsfeld Doctrine was the practical application of the Revolution in Military Affairs – a defence theory that advocated militaries put emphasis on technology, communication, and information to conduct warfare. Writing in Foreign Affairs in early 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, extolled the U.S. Military’s use of special operations soldiers and laser-guided airstrikes during the invasion of Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban Regime rapidly with very few troops deployed. The idea was that by using superior technology, large ground forces would not be needed in the future.

Politically, the Rumsfeld Doctrine was favourably received because, in theory, it allowed the U.S. to uphold its military hegemony, without having to maintain Cold War-era defence spending on a personnel-ladened military. For short-term operations or brief clashes with conventional forces, the Rumsfeld Doctrine made sense. Unfortunately, the next task of the U.S. Military would be two lengthy counterinsurgency wars. Rumsfeld’s focus on technology and special operations left the conventional ground forces ill-prepared for the challenges they faced in Afghanistan and Iraq – this remains the main blight (out of many) on his tenure.

The rhetoric of Canada’s three political parties on defence policy is similar to that of the Rumsfeld Doctrine because it conveys the message that there is a way for the military to do more with less. While calls to make the Canadian Forces more efficient and agile play well to public, there is a danger in neglecting the more costly conventional capabilities. Individually, strengthening Canada’s special operations, search and rescue, and ship-building are all laudable goals. But it is important not to lose sight of the operational strength of the army itself.

Preparing for the possibility of a large, long-term deployment is unpopular due to the cost associated with such a force. Although it is unlikely Canada would face a commitment similar to the size of the Afghanistan mission, it is not impossible. Indeed, few in the preceding decade predicted that Canada would participate in a mission like Afghanistan. This miscalculation resulted in considerable challenges for the Canadian Forces during its early years in Afghanistan. Calls to make the Canadian Forces a light and agile military are a nice idea, and may even fit current operational needs, but it is important that the incoming government make certain the Canadian Forces are prepared for a wide array of security threats. Predicting what, where, or when the next conflict will be is extremely difficult. Underscoring the need for Canada to formulate a defence policy that can meet all possible challenges, not a select few.