Is Canada's 'capability gap' military or political?: Terry Milewski

First, the Conservatives bemoaned the military's "decade of darkness" under the Liberals. Then, the Liberals bemoaned the military's treatment under the Conservatives. So they're both really good at moaning about the sad state of Canada's armed forces. But will anyone actually fix the problem?

Defence minister says Canada lacks the ships and planes it needs, but there's no plan to fix the problem

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says Canada's aging fighter jets need to be replaced soon but there's no timeline at present for when and how that's going to happen. (Canadian Press)

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.

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.

"If you do not address the capability gap," he said, "you will actually end up losing a capability. And that's exactly what's happened with our navy right now. Right now, we require Spain and Chile to assist with the re-supplying, because we don't have ships right now to re-supply us."
Naval officers at HMCS Protecteur's paying-off ceremony in Esquimalt, B.C., on May 14, 2015. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

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.

"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 first was to rule out buying F-35 fighters and to use the savings to invest in the navy. The second was to "immediately" hold an open competition to choose a new fighter.
During the 2015 election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised not to buy F-35s and instead go with a cheaper alternative. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

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.

As one said this week through gritted teeth, "This government needs to grow a pair and make a decision."

Sajjan says the RCAF can't meet its commitments

7 years ago
Duration 1:38
The defence minister warned that Canada can't currently meet its commitments to both NATO and North American defence.


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.