Is Canada's 'capability gap' military or political?: Terry Milewski
Defence minister says Canada lacks the ships and planes it needs, but there's no plan to fix the problem
First, the Conservatives bemoaned the Liberal "decade of darkness." Then, the Liberals bemoaned the Conservative one.
So they're both really good at moaning about the sad state of Canada's armed forces.
But will anyone actually fix it? A hardy band of defence experts is starting to wonder, and the aging ships and planes aren't getting any younger.
- Sajjan going back to drawing board on fighter jets, launching consultations
- CF-18 airframes approaching their age limits as replacement debate rages
Take the navy's last functioning supply ship, the Protecteur. After 46 years of service ferrying fuel, food and water to the fleet, the old ship was already something of a wreck when the engine room caught fire off Hawaii in February 2014. It was a sorry end to a long career: adrift and alone in the ocean, then towed to port to be chopped up for scrap.
That left the Royal Canadian Navy with no supply ships at all. To grasp how ignominious that is, consider what it really means: the navy can sail out to sea but can't sail back — not without help from its allies. Any ship running short of fuel needs to beg and borrow from friends and that is what the navy has been doing, routinely, ever since the Protecteur flamed out.
Canada's defence minister, to his credit, makes no bones about this. Instead, at a Wednesday meeting with industry experts, Harjit Sajjan was quite blunt.
No disrespect to the fine Spanish and Chilean navies, but it's not an inspiring picture for Canada — a nation with the world's longest coastline. And the gap is not being filled. With three oceans to patrol and supply, Canada is now working on ... just one new supply ship.
OK, it's not really new at all, it's a second-hand freighter, being refitted in a hurry as an "interim" supply ship.
Another two new ones are certainly planned. There's no shortage of plans. But those two ships are to be built by Seaspan in Vancouver under the Conservatives' National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, which continues under the Liberals. Six years after the NSPS was announced — and 2½ years after the Protecteur burned — the building of the two supply ships has not even started. So Canada will be begging and borrowing on the high seas for quite a while.
Oh, but one thing has changed under the Liberals. It's now called the National Shipbuilding Strategy. They've taken the "procurement" out of it. Maybe that will speed things up.
The fighter gap
And jet fighters? Of course, that's the zombie debate: it just won't die. After tormenting the Harper government for years, it's lumbering into view all over again.
Here, too, there's an urgent "capability gap," according to the minister. Out of 138 CF-18 fighters bought in the 1980s, Sajjan says only 77 are still airworthy — and that's not enough.
- Lockheed Martin warns it will pull $825M in F-35 contracts if Canada buys another jet
- MacKay says he regrets Conservatives' failure to buy new fighter planes
"Between our NORAD and NATO commitments, between how many jets are serviceable at one time, we cannot meet those both requirements simultaneously."
If so, that means a solution is urgent, right?
Wrong. Apparently, it's not that urgent at all. Sajjan refused to say when he might have a solution. First, he will listen. He will consult. He's done seven consultation sessions so far, building on the studies done by the Harper government, which produced an experts' report in December of 2014.
Those, in turn, built upon a long list of consultations going back to 2012.
What about political capability?
But, if the military "capability gap" is real, might there also be a political capability gap to deal with?
The question arises because of a ticklish communications problem facing the government — a conflict between two Liberal campaign promises.
The problem is that it has to be one or the other. If you rule out the F-35, your competition is not open. So the question to be answered is not just which planes to buy, but which promise to break.
And while the government ponders all this, defence industry lobbyists are tearing their hair out. Years go by, and payday never comes.