Eye On Defence: Accounting To The Public

May 1, 2001 by Legion Magazine

by David J. Bercuson

Cutbacks have meant that the operational fleet of CF-18 fighter aircraft will be reduced to 80.

National Defence Minister Art Eggleton recently surprised the Canadian Forces with his announcement of a one-time additional cash infusion of $600 million into the Department of National Defence budget. The money was not added to DND’s base budget, though it did go some way to easing current budgetary pressures on the Canadian Forces. Though good news, the minister’s announcement came hard on the heels of reports that virtually all of the air force’s capabilities will soon be drastically cut. The operational CF-18 fleet, for example, will be reduced to some 80 aircraft.

In real life such reductions inevitably cut into job performance. But that is apparently not so in the crazy world of National Defence Headquarters, or NDHQ. There, the mothballing of planes, ships, and other equipment doesn’t seem to matter as long as the operational capability of the planes, ships, and other equipment is said to improve. The weekend after Eggleton’s announcement of the extra cash, for example, an air force officer making a presentation to a conference on the future of the navy maintained that the handicap of fewer aircraft will be more than offset by the increased capabilities of the modernized aircraft which will remain in service. That kind of reasoning has even led one oft-quoted NDHQ thinker to claim that by the end of the current decade the Canadian Forces should be able to make do with no more than 10,000 soldiers!

The claim that fewer, but more advanced, planes, ships and other equipment can do more, better, is not untrue. One Spitfire was light years ahead of 10 Sopwith Camels; one Sabre was light years ahead of 10 Spitfires; one CF-18 is light years ahead of 10 Sabres. But it is also, essentially, beside the main point which is that 10 modernized CF-18s are light years better than one.

Over the past 20 years or so the Canadian Forces seem to have dropped the word “more” from their working vocabulary. “More” is now used only in the sense of “more flexible” or “more affordable” or “more efficient.” Whatever the CF leadership may be telling the minister of National Defence behind closed doors–and through the minister, the cabinet and the prime minister–in public, at least, the rain hardly ever falls and the sun almost always shines and everything is always for the better.

One result of the oft publicly expressed unbounded optimism of the serving high command is that the inevitable onset of reality strikes public and press from out of left field. With the onset of Desert Shield before the Persian Gulf War and Desert Storm, the war itself, in 1990, the Canadian navy was forced to scrounge modern guns for its warships. The public was shocked. More recently the public was surprised to find that some 10 per cent of all Canada’s armoured capability was afloat on the high seas, locked in the holds of the GTS Katie, hostage to a civil contract dispute.

The military has little real ability to communicate directly with the Canadian public about the real state of the Canadian Forces, or anything else for that matter. Individual members of the high command know that being candid about military preparedness is the surest way to early retirement.

The fear is real enough and stems not from the partisan colour of any particular government but from the structure of government itself. Despite the existence of the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs, the military today is as much at the personal beck and call of a defence minister as it was in the days of Sir Sam Hughes.

The Standing Committee does much useful work; its recent inquiries into the quality of life of military members was invaluable in moving the minister of Finance to finally pay attention to the needs of the military. But the committee has no real authority over the military, over military spending, over the quality of life of military members, or over the state of military preparedness. The Standing Committee doesn’t even have the power to summon the chief of the defence staff to testify under oath as to the state of the Canadian Forces in general or on any specific subject. The CDS–and the Canadian Forces itself–is responsible only to the minister.

The situation here is in sharp contrast to the United States where Congress has always taken a proprietary interest in the military and where it is much harder for a President to hide the true state of military preparedness. In the U.S. the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must report regularly to the House and the Senate. In itself that process gives American military leaders considerably more political influence than Canadian military leaders and, more importantly, many more chances to tell their side of the story to the public and the press. Not only is American democracy in no greater danger from the practice than is the case here, but it can be argued that a better informed American public and press makes for greater democracy in the governance of military affairs.

Former defence minister Doug Young asked the advice of four academics regarding the future of the Canadian Forces at the beginning of 1997 (I was one of those consulted). All four advocated much closer and more direct ties between the Canadian military and Parliament through such practices as the submission by the CDS of an annual report to the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs and an annual appearance before the committee of the CDS, the three environment chiefs, and the deputy minister.

The government accepted that concept only in part. In 1998 the CDS began to issue a highly general annual report which was and is little more than a piece of public relations and which fulfills none of the rigorous requirements of true accountability. That is not good enough anymore. If the Canadian Forces are going to waste away due to government inaction, the Canadian people should at least know the full truth about the situation. They will only get that truth, full and unvarnished, if they hear it straight from the CDS in the normal course–and as a necessary part–of the performance of his duties.

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