To say the Canada First Defence Strategy is outdated is an understatement. Published in 2008, the document still lists the 2010 Winter Olympics as a defence priority. Moreover, a series of fiscal cutbacks and deferrals in 2010-2014 have left many of its major capital projects, like the Canadian Surface Combatant, underfunded due to inflationary pressures and a weakened dollar. Yet, despite these changes the CFDS remains Ottawa’s official defence policy and a planned revised version was never issued during the Conservative’s final years in power.

Jeffrey Collins
Jeffrey Collins

Fiscal woes and outdated objectives aside, the CFDS also suffers from a lack of strategic analysis. There was little space given to analyzing the time period’s global security context, depriving the CFDS of a framework in which to prioritize and explain the choices Ottawa wanted to make for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and the Department of National Defence (DND). Instead, the brunt of the document reads like a shopping list of multi-billion dollar projects without much rationale provided as to how Canada’s national interests will be furthered by their acquisition.

The current Liberal government has sought to address this conceptual shortfall by conducting a defence policy review sometime in their first term. However, as demonstrated in the recent Speech from the Throne, details remain scarce:

“To keep Canadians safe and be ready to respond when needed, the Government will launch an open and transparent process to review existing defence capabilities, and will invest in building a leaner, agiler, better-equipped military.”

Nevertheless, in approaching the defence review, Ottawa may want to look at the United Kingdom’s recently released National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (‘Security Review’), published in November 2015. There is much to admire about the Security Review. Firstly, unlike the CFDS, it has a solid strategic analytical grounding: the document takes a ‘whole-of-government’ approach to articulating the case that multiple departments and agencies are needed in order to achieve a “secure and prosperous UK, with global reach and influence.”


The Security Review frames its policy recommendations in the context of three ‘National Security Objectives’: protecting the domestic population, projecting international influence, and promoting prosperity. Hence, economic security is seen as being intrinsically tied to national security. Likewise, soft power is key to fulfilling the Review’s objectives. Boosting the diplomatic corps; pegging foreign aid at 0.7% Gross National Income; doubling United Nations peacekeeping contributions; supporting permanent member status for India, Germany, Japan, and Brazil on the U.N. Security Council; funding international scholarships for foreign students to study in the UK; and giving more funding to the BBC World Service are singled out as important non-military areas in which to invest resources and advance the national interest.

This is not to say there are not challenges. Terrorism, cyber attacks, conventional conflict, and the “erosion of rules-based international order”, in the form of Crimea’s annexation and Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons use, are cited as the primary security concerns for the next five years. As such, in addition to the soft power plans outlined earlier, the Security Review emphasizes the need to strengthen the UK’s intelligence agencies – in the form of 1,900 more personnel – while allocating £1.9 billion for cyber security over five years.

In terms of its Armed Forces, defence spending will be kept at the NATO standard of 2% GDP per annum until 2020, making the UK just the second nation outside of the United States to meet this goal (the other being Estonia). By this token, British defence spending will amount to £39.6 billion per year by 2020, up from £34.3 billion in 2015. This move represents a significant departure from the austerity-oriented 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review when the military shrank by a sixth and defence spending was cut by 8% in real terms as the government grappled with deficits. That certainly does not mean that cuts are not in order: the MOD’s civilian workforce will be shredded by 30% on top of the 33% cut outlined in the 2010 policy.

Still, from a Canadian perspective, there are a few things that stand out. For one, there appears to be a prioritization by stealth of the armed services. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force seem to be the primary beneficiaries of the planned spending increases and acquisitions. The RN will see the commissioning of both Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (up from one in 2010) between 2017 and 2020, a squadron of F-35Bs for the Fleet Air Arm, and four nuclear ballistic missile submarines. The RAF, in turn, will retain its C-130Js and acquire two new squadrons of Typhoon jets plus an extra squadron of F-35Bs, for a total of 138 F-35s in both armed services.

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The British Army, in contrast, while not facing any more cuts beyond those outlined five years ago, will maintain a troop ceiling of 82,000 (down from 102,000), and a withdrawal of personnel from Germany by 2020. With personnel costs typically represent around a half of all defence expenditures it should come as no surprise that cutting troop numbers is a relatively easy way of generating savings. Debate in Canada has persisted for sometime on the possibility of prioritizing two of the three armed services by possibility cutting back on the strength of the Canadian Army; a view echoed by retired Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hiller in 2013.

Moreover, on the matter of Ballistic Missile Defence the UK is much more clear-eyed about BMD being a ‘fact of life’ in NATO. Whitehall intends to purchase a ground-based BMD radar and possibly configure some of its new Type 45 destroyers to operate in a BMD role, akin to the U.S. Navy’s Aegis system. Similarly, in terms of airpower, the Security Review foresees the need for both a mixed manned and unmanned combat fleet for the next several decades. It is telling that yet again another Canadian ally is pursuing the purchase of F-35s despite the controversy that exists on this side of the Atlantic.

This is to say nothing about combat UAVs: the UK plans on replacing its 10 Reaper UAVs with 20 newer variants, in addition to engaging in joint research with France on a new combat UAV. Meanwhile, Canada’s equivalent UAV program, JUSTAS, is nearly a decade behind schedule. Reflecting an increase in Russian submarine activity in European waters the, RAF will also enter into a sole-source acquisition of nine P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft to replace a capability lost with the retirement of the Nimrod fleet in 2010.

All told, the 2015 Security Review represents a significant realignment of defence policy and expenditures with contemporary security challenges. Thus, if there is one takeaway for Canadian defence planners from the UK experience it is in the need to link strategic analyses with military capabilities. A strong grounding in strategy, taking into account both military and non-military means, helps planners prioritize procurements and tailor the military’s force structure to the government’s objectives. It is worth remembering that in the end financial resources are scarce and threats often change. This makes it doubly important that governments be prudent in spending public money and rigorous in their analysis.


Jeffrey F. Collins is a sessional lecturer in political science at the University of Prince Edward Island. A former policy advisor to Canada’s Minister of Veterans Affairs (2013-14), he is completing his doctoral research in Canadian defence policy at Carleton University. His first book, Reassessing the Revolution in Military Affairs, was published in 2015.
Perry, Dave. “A Primer on Recent Canadian Defence Budgeting Trends and Implications.” University of Calgary: School of Public Policy. April 2015. Web. 15 December 2015.
Government of Canada. Making Real Change Happen – Speech from the Throne. 4 December 2015.
Government of the United Kingdom. National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 2015: 9.
Chuter, Andrew. “Britain’s New Strategic Defense and Security Review Draws Praise, Caution.” DefenseNews. 25 November 2015. Web. 15 December 2015.  
Maclellan, Kylie. “Britain commits to NATO 2 percent defense spending target for next five years.” Reuters. 8 July 2015. Web. 15 December 2015.
Chuter, “Britain’s New Strategic Defense and Security Review Draws Praise, Caution.”
Atkinson, Emma. “Armed forces job cuts reach target three years early.” BBC News. 29 July 2015. Web. 15 December 2015.
For example, see Jones, Peter and Philippe Lagasse. “Rhetoric v. Reality: Canadian Defence Planning in a Time of Austerity.” Defense & Security Analysis 28.2 (2012): 141-152.
Janus, Andrew. “Canada ‘just can’t get around’ army cuts, Hillier says.” CTV News. 23 September 2013. Web. 15 December 2015.