Dealing with a defence deficit
“Every time we try to predict the future, it is probably doomed to failure,” MGen Steve Bowes observed at the recent Kingston Conference on International Security.

The commander of Land Force Doctrine and Training System was describing events intelligence analysts had failed to foresee. But his words were also a caution to military planners betting the current economic downturn and cuts to defence spending are a short-term blip.

MGen (Ret’d) Mike Jeffery, a former commander of the Land Staff who in the mid 1990s lived the “decade of darkness” in which budgets were severely reduced, reinforced the point.

Noting that all western nations face worsening economic conditions, he suggested “we are in for a prolonged period, nothing short of 20 years, before we see substantive change.” Defence officials will have to do their part to help governments get “our fiscal house in order,” he said, but it would be naïve for governments to think the military doesn’t matter. The challenge, then, is for defence leaders to manage potentially deep cuts while preserving capability, and that means understanding the bureaucratic and political processes to be able to work well with civilian counterparts in National Defence and across government.

From his vantage point in Germany as director of the George C. Marshall European Centre for Security Studies, retired American LGen Keith Dayton sees a deteriorating financial situation that recalls the domino theory: if one goes, many others will follow.

“Deficits are here to stay,” he said, adding we are not witnessing a transitory phase “with a light at the end of the tunnel. We are in serious, serious financial trouble.”

The threat environment, however, shows no signs of abating. Withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, for example, is not going to be as smooth as many might hope, he said. And a booming drug trade, in which Afghanistan plays a central role, mounting refugees from failed states, worsening ethnic divisions in many parts of the world, the pervasiveness of terrorism, illicit trafficking and organized crime could all challenge western militaries.

Cyber, the one domain in which governments are investing, remains an illusive target. “We’d love to think we are top of this one, but we are not,” he said.

Can you do more with less, the current mantra of so many in government and the military? While pooling and sharing – the NATO concept of smart defence – has growing support, Dayton cautioned that it would be problematic for the U.S. that has “become embittered against free riders who don’t pull their weight in a large alliance.”

Canadian ships can be built
Despite the plaudits being heaped on the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, delays in ship designs and the actual awarding of contracts have raised concerns about Canada’s ability to build naval vessels.

Take heart. As three retired admirals who played key roles in the Canadian Patrol Frigate program reminded an audience at the Naval Association of Canada, “we did it before, we can do it again.”

VAdm Charles Thomas, RAdm Ed Healey and RAdm Mike Saker helped steer the CPF from its design phase in the mid 1970s to the commissioning of 12 ships in the mid 1990s, a timeframe that Healey noted saw six prime ministers, five changes of government and untold numbers of defence ministers.

Though it too faced numerous delays and obstacles, the end result was a Canadian-managed program with 71 percent Canadian content – “no other project, not even the LAVs, comes close,” Saker said. Key to that eventual success was putting the right people in place, all three stressed.

Though the trio was addressing an audience of over a hundred, their lessons were especially important to one: Commodore Daniel Sing, director of maritime force development, was taking notes throughout.