How to Tackle the Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Defense?

By James Fryer

Across much of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has re-prioritized government business to a degree not seen since the Second World War. Even as tax revenues plummet from employees being furloughed or otherwise laid off, massive spending programs to keep citizens afloat have been initiated. Fiscal deficits not seen in Canada since the 1940s are upon us. Yet unlike the war, where citizens could trace the progress made against a tangible enemy and anticipate the hour of victory, success in the current crisis is not so easily measured, leading some to conclude that the virus and its effects could grip the planet indefinitely.

As Canada and others focus, rightly, on mitigation measures and assessing risks associated with re-opening the economy, the fiscal implications of the pandemic are becoming evident. Some have argued that low interest rates may cushion the impact of the borrowing binge;others forecast a fiscal train-wreck that will alter Canada’s financial health for a generation. It is not unimaginable that a slow recovery, combined with the need to reduce accumulated debt, may crowd out spending programs across various government departments. Added to this is the possibility that governments could re-conceptualize (inter-)national security in a manner that demands more resources for the mitigation of pandemics, including their knock-on effects.

It is not too early, therefore, for policy-makers and strategists to think hard about the possible effects of COVID-19 on Canada’s defence effort.

These are already being felt, as Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) ramps down its engagements in Iraq and Ukraine and cancels annual exercises in order to protect service members.

Yet this is but one dimension of the problem. As noted in a recent study for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, no serious financial crisis in Canada has of late been weathered without resorting to significant reductions in defence spending. Since budgets influence Canada’s defence capabilities and ambitions, deficits in the hundreds of billions of dollars could alter the size of the armed forces, as well as the breadth and depth of military capability.

This could have serious implications for Canada’s foreign and homeland security policies.

How might this near-inevitable reckoning be dealt with?

A combination of disciplined strategic thought and courage by civilian and military planners, unbound by dogma or service loyalty, may provide a way forward.

A tenuous status quo

It is typical for allies who experience major fiscal contraction to re-evaluate defence policy. If the invoice for the government’s wage and business subsidy programs comes due in 3-4 years, this offers time and space for a serious conversation about what Canada must do at home and abroad to achieve an acceptable degree of security and prosperity. When the Department of National Defence is asked to contribute to deficit reduction in future, work will have been done to identify the overseas and domestic defence tasks which are truly compulsory and those that are apt to be considered discretionary (loosely defined as ones where there is flexibility in whether, how, or to what extent Canada participates). Capabilities to undertake the former will thus be prioritized, and all others will be treated as secondary.

Although it would be unfortunate that a global pandemic would prompt an appraisal of ends and means, it may, paradoxically, be a welcome catalyst for change. It offers the opportunity to take a fresh and comprehensive look at foreign and homeland security policy, from which a revised defence policy would naturally flow. In any case, Canada may have no choice. With the defence budget accounting for 20-25% of federal discretionary spending, it is near-impossible to not contemplate reductions if the Department of Finance insists on them.

Yet the policy status quo shows how Canada starts from a position of self-inflicted disadvantage. The Trudeau government did not conduct a review of foreign or homeland security policy prior to (or concurrent with) its defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE), making it difficult to rank international and domestic security priorities in order of importance. Then-Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freedland attempted to provide context for SSE on the eve of its roll-out, but her address to the House of Commons on 6 June 2017 reads like a laundry list of aspirations rather than specific guidance as to the government’s priorities. This reduces the efficacy of defence policy, as finite attention and resources are sprinkled everywhere instead of in areas where they are most impactful on the well-being of Canadians.

In the government’s defence, Ottawa has traditionally refrained from over-specification, categorizing defence tasks as ‘compulsory’ or ‘discretionary’. Rigid categorization may blind decision-makers to unforeseen threats. Ingrained political pragmatism prevents them from foreclosing options, knowing that even low-probability threats can have major consequences. Aware that allies and partners expect  that international security burdens will be shared, Ottawa is likewise disinclined to tie its own hands by shedding capability or eschewing all external engagements.

Categorization may also be stymied by service parochialism, where parts of the Canadian military identify with certain capabilities and are loath to see them atrophy or disappear. Even if government is set upon reducing burdens due to perceived changes in international environment, the CAF may resist the loss of what it considers to be core combat capabilities. Instead, it may offer up savings by reducing operations and maintenance spending – in effect trading readiness and capability depth for the preservation, however tenuous, of a general-purpose force structure.

Yet if the political and military desire for options accounts for the maintenance of general-purpose, combat capable forces, the military meaning of ‘general-purpose’ is decidedly, if not deliberately, elastic. One can re-prioritize resources while still claiming to offer the nation a wide variety of military options. This underscores the rationale for well-considered foreign and homeland security policies that provide critical top-level direction to identify the most important options.

Canada’s governments have seldom shown the level of determination required to provide strategic direction in a manner that would see a major re-orientation of effort. Nor has there been much inclination on the part of the CAF to proactively propose alternatives to the status quo.

The Pearson and Trudeau (Sr.) governments came close to re-casting the army’s role from defender of NATO’s front line and divest heavy armour in favour of lighter and more mobile forces. The ‘new look’ for Canada’s army was ultimately reconsidered at the behest of the CAF leadership and key allies. However, this was done in the face of an existential threat from the Warsaw Pact, in the context of a breakdown in detente in the 1970s, along with the modernization of the Pact’s ground forces. Trudeau Sr. was persuaded that retaining heavy armour would send a signal of Canadian steadfastness, and be rewarded by Europe with improved trade.

The situation in 2020 is different. Despite justified concern over Russian (or Chinese) assertiveness, no existential threat exists, and Canada has its free trade agreement with the European Union. Accordingly, Canada should theoretically have more latitude as to what engagements and what capabilities it should maintain. With the looming tower of deficit-slaying on the horizon, Canada has another compelling reason to reconsider its defence priorities.

For political and economic reasons, therefore, foreign and national security policy reviews should be undertaken at the earliest possible opportunity, with a revised/updated defence policy to follow shortly afterward. The need for prioritization of missions and resources has arguably never been greater. Per Minister Freedland’s speech, if everything is important, nothing is.

Inconvenient truths…

Are there things that practitioners of strategic thought in Canada have long suspected, but seldom articulated in defence white papers? Does defence policy ever give voice to ruminations on, for example, the relative importance of the three principle tasks of the CAF: the defence of Canada, of North America, and contributions to broader international peace and security? One suspects not, as such might pose uncomfortable questions regarding the form and function of Canada’s military. It has been the ambition of successive governments to play, or seen to be playing an out-sized role on the international stage (the last of the principle tasks). It has been the preference of the military to retain a general-purpose structure, both as a way of adhering to policy but also as a matter of self-definition as a fighting force. But what if policy direction, propelled by resource scarcity, makes that less viable going forward?

However harshly Canada is judged for its parsimony regarding United Nations peacekeeping or its non-adherence to NATO’s spending goals, these are clearly less important to Canadian voters and their governments than whether a major civil or military call close to home can be effectively answered. For decades, the political class has successfully endured whatever reputational damage has resulted from being viewed as an ‘easy rider’ on the allied defence bandwagon. Like it or not, herein lies the basis of a distinction between defence tasks that are compulsory and those that are discretionary.

While Canada has been content to pool its (modest) resources in coalitions of the willing acting externally, it must to be able to act unilaterally in its own backyard – if for no other reason than mission failure or inaction at home could be more consequential for citizens and their governments than mission failure/inaction abroad. Canada has been steadfast in support of allied causes. But neither the costly stalemate in Afghanistan, the unintended consequences of the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya (leading to that country’s violent dissolution), nor Canada’s ignominious withdrawal from the UN operation in Mali after only six months have provoked public backlash or dented government poll numbers. The mission to bolster deterrence in Latvia was undertaken as a matter of alliance management rather than perception of a clear and/or imminent threat to Canada from a revanchist Russia. To a large extent, Canadians acquiesce to these commitments and tolerate their shortcomings (if any) because they instinctively know them to be of second- or third-order importance. They also know themselves to be largely insulated from their effects.

Outside a general war between great powers, it is unclear how much and what types of instability abroad will demonstrably perturb the physical security of Canadians. (Even participation in major regional conflicts are apt to fall somewhere within the ‘discretionary’ category.) Being concerned or offended by goings-on elsewhere is not the same thing as being materially affected. In contrast, government powerlessness in the face of a pandemic, natural disaster, terrorist attack, or repeated/prolonged incursions by others into sovereign territory will be ruthlessly scrutinized and may be severely punished come election time.

This is not an argument for an exclusive focus on national/continental security. One can accept that some instances of instability abroad may sufficiently agitate Canadians to spur them to action. The point is that along the continuum of ambition/engagement, one can also envision a ‘restrained’ or ‘focused’ internationalism which does not amount to either rigid continentalism or inward-looking nationalism. Canada can continue to look outward, actively favouring an international order that conforms to its interests and values while being more selective in how, when, and where it engages militarily.

To a great extent, Canada already practices such restraint. The funding goals articulated in SSE amount to an explicit rejection of NATO’s target of two per cent of gross domestic product devoted to defence. However much (or little) Canadians see their military as a tool of statecraft, they seem quite content that this particular tool will remain, to borrow Teddy Roosevelt’s metaphor, modest-sized stick.

…and their implications

A cursory review of successive Canadian defence policies reveals a high degree of continuity regarding the main tasks of the Canadian Armed Forces. The security of Canada, and then of North America, tops the list, with overseas contingency operations coming in behind. This is for good reason, as the political consequences of crises close to home will typically be felt more acutely than those happening at a distance. To be sure, not every crisis can be held at bay, and Canada may feel compelled to lend a hand abroad if government perceives that vital interests are at stake. But, with national/neighbourhood security and defence consistently ranked so highly by successive governments, it stands to reason that the tasks and capabilities required to carry them out should have first call on resources.

Canada’s geographical position is favourable, being physically isolated from pockets of persistent instability manifested by war, refugee flows, etc. Other security threats – such as disease, terrorism, and adversary information operations – easily transcend borders and the CAF will clearly have some role in addressing these. Yet military threats to Canada and North America – the rasion d’etre of the CAF – are arguably more circumscribed.

Capable state adversaries have the ability to reach Canada/North America by sea, air and through cyber space. Navies are mobile and can bring to bear weapons with strategic range and precision effects. Aerospace forces have the same, while information warriors can reach across oceans without leaving their desks. New technologies – including hypersonic weapons – pose significant challenges to continental defence by virtue of their speed and manoeuvrability. The technologies required to detect hypersonic missiles, and give defenders adequate time to classify the threat and respond, have not yet been invented. (It is a statement against the thoroughness of SSE that hypersonics were not even mentioned as a strategic game-changer.)

By contrast, Canada faces no conventional terrestrial threat. No potential, capable state adversary has designs on any part of the Canadian land mass. Serious ground combat within Canada (or North America) is unrealistic – not least due to the vast distances that must be overcome by an attacker. It may therefore be argued that much of Canada’s highly professional army is trained and equipped not for national or continental defence, but for overseas contingency operations. While few would argue with the need to maintain at least a residual ground combat capability as a measure of national will, much of the current army is of scant relevance to the military threats that are likely to directly befall the homeland. Therefore, an argument can be made that greater prioritization of the ‘home game’ – both as a matter of strategic logic and as a response to Canada’s expected financial position – means de-prioritization of the ‘away game’.

Rubber, meet Road

If defence austerity returns in the short-to-medium term and capability reductions are required, Canada may be wise to consider sacrificing capabilities that do not conform to the nation’s highest policy priorities. Cuts should not fall symmetrically on all branches of the CAF. However painful it might be to regiments and cap badges, and however untimely given the billions of dollars spent on re-capitalizing the army’s combat vehicle fleets in recent years, significant de-funding of the Regular land force may be required in order to preserve protection against the military capabilities than can actually reach Canada and North America. This is certainly not an argument for the disbanding of the Canadian Army. Rather, it is to question the necessity of its current size and/or configuration, as well as its ability to deliver on concurrent overseas operations.

The emphasis the army places on mechanized forces – with all their re-capitalization, maintenance, and power-projection challenges – needs to be reconsidered in the context of a resource-constrained and more homeward-focused defence effort. A reduction in size of the Regular force’s combat arms, coupled with an inversion of the current structure, should be explored. Lighter forces, with only a small core of mechanized troops (if any), would lessen financial burdens over the medium-to-long term while still giving Canada options for dealing with some overseas contingencies, including combat against a capable adversary. By virtue of their relevance to both domestic and international tasks, combat support/service support units would be less affected.

The Royal Canadian Air Force brings to bear a variety of capabilities germane to territorial protection and assistance to civil partners. Aerospace protection, domain awareness, transport, support to maritime security, and search-and-rescue make for a largely unchanging mandate. Yet even here the government may have to re-consider its ambitions. The announcement in SSE that the ageing CF-18 would be replaced by 88 new fighter aircraft, enabling Canada to undertake domestic and foreign operations simultaneously, may have to be re-scoped in the face of budgetary austerity.

While Canada has asked bidders to quote prices for 88 airframes, this may be in excess of both what is affordable and what is necessary for a more restrained defence effort. Re-visiting the requirement for concurrent fighter operations – something that was pointedly not substantiated in SSE – may allow a reduction in the number of aircraft needed, with both short- and longer-term savings in capital, operations and maintenance demanded by the government

The Royal Canadian Navy has shown its versatility in responding to transitional and non-traditional security threats, but may also have to give ground in the battle to restore public finances. This may not be an entirely unwelcome prospect. The $60-billion Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) project promises to begin delivering 15 frigates to the RCN toward the end of this decade. Yet no contract for the construction of the ships has yet been signed, and it is unclear if the government, faced with the political optics of such a large outlay for defence, will proceed as originally anticipated.

On one side, there are powerful political and industrial constituencies that wish the CSC project to move forward. On the other, there are pre-existing obligations to purchase and crew the forthcoming Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) and Joint Support Ship (JSS), both of which are under construction. (AOPS is, if anything, a symbol of government commitment to playing the ‘home game’ better.) In addition, the RCN continues to face recruiting and retention challenges, with sailors in the technical trades constantly being lured away by private industry.

The price of the CSC program, combined with policy direction that favours operations closer to home, may provide a way of reconciling these various challenges. A truncated program of 12-13 frigates may indeed drive up unit costs. The navy would have to adjust its ambitions, eschewing presence in the most distant oceans, sending single ships on international deployments, and deploying the multi-ship task group only in extremis. However, such a move is likely to reduce overall project costs, satisfying the Treasury’s desire for post-COVID financial concessions, while sending a message to Canadians that the armed forces are sharing in the task of restoring public finances. The RCN to would maintain a credible and sustainable combat capability while fulfilling the need to crew other classes of vessels coming into service.

Even as it restrains the re-capitalization of major fleets and re-directs the force development effort in the manner outlined above, the CAF could still generate other leading-edge capabilities (such as cyber operators, special forces) to deal with non-traditional security challenges at home and abroad.

Crisis or opportunity?

Although COVID-19 is an unexpected development, its probable financial effects only accentuate the need for Canada to come to grips with questions that SSE did not resolve – namely what Canada and its armed forces must do versus what government would like to be able to do.

The perennial challenge of reconciling ambitions with resources, distinguishing the compulsory from the discretionary, has been put into sharper focus by the effects of a global pandemic. If history is any indication, a financial reckoning will soon be at hand.

To master this situation, government needs to be clearer on where and to what degree threats to Canada manifest themselves, and prioritize finite resources accordingly. To be sure, Canada has interests far beyond its borders. However, a rigorous examination and ranking of these should help separate the metaphorical wheat from the chaff, resulting in realistic and aligned foreign and national security policies, as well as a defence policy that is focused, coherent and achievable.

Priority should be given to threats that would bring greatest distress to Canadians. The author suggests that these will tend to manifest themselves closer to home. Yet even a re-focused defence effort would still generate useful, if reduced, capabilities in support of Canada’s allies further afield.

Therefore, in expectation that COVID-19 mitigation programs, along with broader global economic stress, will put unsustainable burdens on the Treasury and, by extension, on the defence budget, the Government of Canada should:

  • Identify, through rigorous and iterative analysis, those core interests which require a military response, recognizing the primacy of threats that can reach close to home; publicize these in an integrated foreign and domestic security policy document within 12 months;
  • Re-evaluate the ambitions articulated in Strong, Secure, Engagedbased on the findings above;
  • Allow for asymmetric development of the Regular Force, prioritizing capabilities that block the most likely avenues of attack on Canada:
    • Fund aerospace, naval, and cyber capabilities sufficiently, relying on their inherent mobility/reach to defend Canada while allowing for modest yet relevant contributions to international peace and security;
    • Retain a smaller, re-configured land force while preserving appropriate combat service/service support;
  • Restrain any inclination by DND/CAF to raid the readiness account to preserve capability that the new policy orientation does not call for;
  • Accept that the involuntary separation of some personnel from the CAF will be necessary.

All this may seem painful to the defence establishment – particularly in the wake of SSE, which pledged to restore funding stability to the CAF. Yet broader national priorities must take precedence, and defence will inevitably be asked to contribute substantially to economic recovery. Meeting these challenges by simply idling personnel and mothballing equipment in the hope that ‘better days’ soon will return is a recipe for poor morale and policy failure.

If, on the other hand, COVID-19 and its effects compel decision-makers to return to the drawing board and reconsider the nation’s ambitions, distinguishing between that which must be done and that which is merely desirable, Canada’s military can be set up for success over the long term.

Time to get ahead of the curve and start planning.

James Fryer is an independent defence analyst based in Toronto

This article was published in Front Line Defence, Issue 1, 2020.