Earlier this year the United States Department of Defense released a strategic guidance document for the American military. Meant to reorient American defence policy in light of Afghanistan and Iraq, the document also called upon NATO members to adopt a new approach to burden-sharing and cooperation.

“In this resource-constrained era,” the document states, “we will also work with NATO allies to develop a ‘Smart Defense’ approach to pool, share, and specialize capabilities as needed to meet 21st century challenges.”

At a time when NATO members are faced with austerity measures and rising defence costs, this pooling of resources and sharing of capabilities will be necessary to preserve the Alliance’s overall ability to undertake high intensity operations in the coming decades.

Underlying the idea of Smart Defense is the reality that many NATO allies are either unwilling or unable to spend the money required to recapitalize their general purpose forces.

Canada is one of these allies. Notwithstanding the confident rhetoric of the Conservative government, current and projected defence expenditures are insufficient to maintain the Canadian Forces’ existing constellation of capabilities.

The 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy put forth a bold and ambitious plan to revitalize the CF. CFDS sought to replace the CF’s major fleets, as well as augment the military’s capabilities in key areas, such as Arctic patrol. As well, the strategy pledged to increase the size of the regular force, while repairing and modernizing the Canada’s military infrastructures.

However well intentioned, CFDS quickly proved unrealistic. The strategy was overly optimistic about the costs of replacing the CF’s major fleets and modernizing the military’s existing capabilities.

Indeed, as a number of delayed procurements indicates, the strategy tended to underestimate the cost of new equipment, particularly when industry is asked to meet the specific needs of the Canadian military and defence-specific inflation is taken into account.

Exacerbating these difficulties are personnel costs that have reached nearly 60 percent of the defence budget, expenses associated with the military’s expanded command structure, and the drain on resources caused by the CF’s excessive numbers of bases, installations and buildings.

Taken together, these costs have left Canada with an unsustainable set of defence programs and policies. Unless defence expenditures are markedly increased (which is an impalpable option until the federal deficit is eliminated), and serious efforts are made to make the defence department and armed forces more efficient, the CF will likely experience a gradual reduction in capabilities, and the Canadian government will be forced to make difficult choices about what it would like to do with its armed forces and what it can actually afford to do.

Truth be told, even if these challenges are surmounted, planned capital expenditures may still be insufficient to recapitalize the CF’s existing force structure. Accordingly, the Conservative government and Department of National Defence should take a serious and sober look at the ‘Smart Defense’ proposal.

Now is the opportune time to consider this option. The process of replacing the military’s major platforms has been slowed by various factors, meaning that there is still time to reconsider what equipment a honed CF would require.

At a minimum, the CF must be able to protect Canadians and Canadian sovereignty, and work alongside the United States to defend North America. Successfully completing these missions must be the highest defence policy priorities of the government.

But beyond these domestic and continental missions, defence planners should consider what expeditionary capabilities the CF might focus on in the future as part of a Smart Defense partnership with certain close allies, such as the U.S. and United Kingdom.

Niched forces have long been disavowed by the Canadian defence community. With the United States making a clear call for its allies to embrace Smart Defense for the sake of future NATO operations, this aversion to greater specialization should be set aside, particularly when a period of prolonged austerity looms ahead.

At the very least, this is a discussion that the Canadian defence community should have, whether the government answers the ‘Smart Defense’ call or not.

Philippe Lagassé is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa.