Canada's military gets new bosses, same old problems

Stephen Harper demanded "more teeth and less tail" from Canada's military. But the procurement quagmire looks set to outlast four ministers and four chiefs of defence staff. Is the "decade of darkness" turning into two decades?

A new minister and a new chief of defence staff face familiar procurement quicksand

Defence Minister Jason Kenney, right, and Admiral William Gortney, Norad and U.S. Northern Command, speak at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute conference in Ottawa on Feb. 19. A month into his new portfolio, Kenney is looking for a new chief of defence staff. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada's military, though modest in size, is of great political value to the Harper government.

Ever since taking power in 2006, Stephen Harper's Conservatives have bemoaned a "decade of darkness" under the Liberals. They've missed few opportunities to drive home the message: those other guys just can't be trusted to protect Canada.

Now, in the coming election, they will try to extend their own reign to a decade and more — but is the darkness dispelled yet? It's a tricky question as the team at the top undergoes yet another round of changes. 

Harper's fourth defence minister in nine years, Jason Kenney, brings legendary drive to the Defence Department. He'll need it. Despite repeated pleas from NATO, Canada's defence spending remains nowhere close to the alliance's desired level of two per cent of GDP. At just one per cent, Canada's a laggard. Only five of NATO's 28 members spend less.

There's no chance that Kenney will fix that in a hurry, even if he is famously in a hurry. And first, he will need to find the Harper government's fourth chief of defence staff, because Gen. Tom Lawson plans to step down this summer.

Whoever takes over, the new chief of defence staff and the new minister must hope for two things that don't seem certain: luck and money.

Lots of promises, no new ships

The problem is simple: the rusting out of the existing stock of military hardware. The solution is hard: years go by, and the replacement for an aging fleet of fighter planes is nowhere in sight. First, it was definitely going to be the F-35. Then, the fancy new stealth fighter turned out to be much more costly than advertised. So it was back to the drawing board. 

And it's always back to the drawing board. Decades go by, and a new fleet of ships is delayed and delayed again. Two rusty supply ships have already been pulled out of service and the construction of new ones is not even close. A new icebreaker has been announced, and even named — the Diefenbaker — but don't expect to see any steel cut until the end of the decade.

All of that is to happen on the West Coast, while on the East Coast a new fleet of "six to eight" Arctic offshore patrol ships was promised — seven years ago. Construction is finally supposed to start later this year, but delays have taken a bite out of the budget. Now, we'll be paying more for fewer ships.

Those patrol ships, though, are just the test run for the vaunted national shipbuilding procurement strategy. The heavy lifting doesn't really begin until construction starts on a fleet of warships called the Canadian surface combatants. That will be when the patrol ships are done — theoretically, around 2020, if all goes well.

Which it rarely does in the byzantine world of military procurement.

Remember the epic quest for new search and rescue planes? If you forgot, you can be forgiven: it's now up to 11 years and counting. A request for bids is just around the corner. Really. Any day now.

More teeth, less tail — in theory

Through all these years, the Conservatives have used muscular rhetoric to tout a more muscular military. The prime minister famously demanded "more teeth and less tail." And it was not all rhetoric: new CC-17 and CC-130 transport planes were successfully purchased, while the "Royal" prefix was put back in the names of the navy and the air force.

Gen. Tom Lawson was appointed chief of the defence staff in 2012 with orders to find 'more teeth and less tail' in the Canadian Forces. Lawson intends to step down later this year. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

But you can't launch a new ship or fly a new plane by calling it royal — and the budgets haven't been royal at all. While the Liberals cut the number of staff working on procurement in half, the Conservatives did not replace them. "Less tail" has an effect, defence experts say. So both parties have done their bit to prolong that "decade of darkness."

Still, for the present government, the procurement quagmire has an important silver lining: delaying such huge purchases means delaying billions in new spending. That's made it much easier to balance the budget in time for this year's election.

In another sense, though, it's not helpful at all. If the Conservatives win the election, they will be the ones accountable for a decade of big talk and little action on the needs of the military. And, if the Liberals win, we'll probably have to listen to them wailing about a Conservative decade of darkness.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?