A global pandemic, a resurgence of great power struggles, all the while living on the northern border of what has fast become the world’s most unpredictable and unreliable global power – this is our reality and once again Canada has some big decisions to make. Like all decisions that determine the fate of our nation, they have the potential to impact us for generations to come. All of this taking place during a time where the domestic pressures and consequences of these events threaten to overwhelm Canada and Canadians.

Some have argued given the threat that COVID-19 has presented to global health, both at the individual and state level, it must be seen as a transnational security threat and dealt with as such. Few of those making these suggestions have studied security, fewer still understand policy formulation, let alone how to translate this approach into a national strategy, which remains, at its closest point, a hand waving distance away.  

But to claim that COVID-19 isn’t a security threat doesn’t mean to suggest that its emergence hasn’t highlighted some of the enduring and widening fractures in global security and by extension complicates the lens through which Canada evaluates its decisions on how best to be involved. Everything has risk and cost and the heart-breaking crashes of the Cyclone helicopter and Snowbird reminds us that it is impossible to separate risk and cost. Too many nonchalantly accept the idea of risk and then are offended when that very acceptance is translated into cost. 

The Canadian Armed Forces face risk every day in either doing their job or preparing to do it. Experience suggests that minimizing the latter has a disproportionate effect on accentuating the former. Train hard, fight easy, might be an exaggeration but constant hard realistic training with all of its attendant risks invariably results in a significantly enhanced ability to manage risk on operations. 

Another way of looking at this is to accept that, notwithstanding cost, being bold at the front end provides real benefit down the line. Responses to COVID-19 reinforce this construct and provide a poignant reminder and potential analogy as we contemplate the financial impact of the necessary closing down of the economy. 

Among an almost bewildering array of consequences is the impact on the defence budget which normally is the largest pot of discretionary spending available to the Federal Government. It is here that during past times of financial crisis, Canadian governments have turned to help ameliorate a bottom line awash in red ink. Layered onto this equation is of course what should now be accepted as a scientific given: Climate Change. Almost inarguably the greatest actualized threat to every state around the world the resultant changing weather patterns are having a demonstrably increased impact on every single element of the world’s population. Under these circumstances, perpetuation of the status quo of any national capability should be the only option not worthy of a moment of contemplation. Much like our COVID-19 response, what we have done in the past is no longer going to be as effective as we need it to be in the future and coming to that realization, and doing something about it, sooner rather than later, is what is needed.  

These are among the main factors that will influence whatever it is we are going to decide to do with the most likely diminishing defence dollars or perhaps more accurately described redirected defence dollars.  History clearly reveals that the Canadian government policy with regard to defence has not fundamentally changed in decades, which is not in itself a bad thing. An adherence to three macro tasks has resulted in successive “policy” papers essentially being word-smithing exercises that are really about commitments or announcements (not always the same thing), regarding major procurement initiatives. All have the shared intent of explaining how Canada will recover a place in the world so badly diminished by whichever party was previously in power. All much of a sameness.  

The historic task list consists of defence of Canada and North America, participation in some form around the world with an implied fourth and increasingly visible task of when necessary redirection of the capacity of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to domestic non-security related challenges as we are sadly experiencing in Long Term Care Facilities. The first suggests that an emphasis on awareness and understanding in Air and Maritime domains is likely the macro move needed. Adopting solutions that increasingly rely on new high-tech capabilities as opposed to merely more modern versions of a construct from the cold war would be a good starting point. 

Space-based and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are likely solutions but ones which continue, for no rational explanation, to receive a backseat to more traditional approaches. 

On our seas the introduction of the Arctic Offshore Patrol Vessel will go some ways to providing presence and response, notwithstanding its somewhat prosaic closing speed and a restrained capability to operate in our True North. The Surface Combatant project seems to have continued an unaltered approach to Canada’s involvement in the global commons. For a nation whose economy floats on saltwater, contributing to the freedom of navigation seems a reasonable strategic choice. 

This leaves the Army, which has remained focused on a general combat capability. Notwithstanding its repeatedly excellent performance whenever tasked the question that remains begging is: Are we asking it to perform the right tasks? After all, expeditionary operations are discretionary. Canada chooses not just “if” it gets involved but equally consequentially “how” it might do so. The decades long commitment to building a more effective conventional force best suited to a 1970’s version of Western Europe may now have usefully run its course. In Churchillian fashion, this crisis should not go to waste and the government has an opportunity to spell that out.

Budgets are macro policy statements providing updated direction as to how each department will prioritize and how they will implement those priorities. In the wake of unprecedented and unforeseen challenges, now might be the time to rethink Canada’s future defence capability set. Difficult and costly decisions will only become more difficult and more costly in the future. A refresh of Canada in the world, that is, an actual Foreign Policy is what is now needed, when combined with an equally much needed Security Policy the basic planks would be set for a refresh of the Defence Policy. Lacking both of these efforts suggests yet another exercise in messaging as opposed to substantive and necessary evolution to meet future needs. Without being prescriptive, such a refresh should surely abandon the decades old status quo of a CAF that looks remarkably similar to a 1970’s version of itself. 

The world has changed dramatically, Canada has an opportunity to be holistic in its response laying out its vision of Foreign and Security Policy and how that will be translated into a Defence Policy. Regardless of the issue, the latest pandemic reminds us of the cost of not being sufficiently prepared.