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Why Canada's New National Defence Policy Matters

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James Cox and Sean Speer are Senior Fellows at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and co-authors of the recent essay "From a Mandate for Change to a Plan to Govern: A New National Defence Strategy for a Dangerous World."

Foreign and defence policy has loomed over Parliament's first week back to work. Question Period is focused on big questions about when and where to use the Canadian Armed Forces, what values to champion abroad, and how to engage recalcitrant regimes. This is heady stuff.

These debates are taking place against the backdrop of the Defence Minister's recent pronouncement that the government will undertake a comprehensive review of defence policy. The review, which is to be completed by the end of 2016, will need to answer some big questions.

What role will the Canadian Armed Forces play in the defence of Canada? Where and how will the Canadian Armed Forces cooperate with United States military forces in the defence of North America? Why, how and where will the Canadian Armed Forces be deployed abroad? What are the Canadian interests that will guide our military deployments? What kind of military do we need?

Confronting these questions now is critical. Consider how much has changed since the previous government launched its Canada First Defence Strategy in 2008. The "surge" in Iraq had brought relative peace and security to the country, and the world was still unfamiliar with ISIS. Major defence procurement projects remained largely on their timelines and within budget. The global financial crisis had not yet surfaced to disrupt the government's finances and plunge it into several years of deficit spending.

The government is right, then, to carry out this type of review now. As the Chief of the Defence Staff has said, "... it's important for the government every now and then, the country, to take stock."

There isn't enough space here for us to attempt to answer strategic "what", and "why" questions with regards to Canadian defence policy. But suffice it to say the review will have to address more than simple platitudes about peacekeeping and restoring Canada's reputation as an "honest broker." The government will need a better-defined defence policy to face tough decisions - such as whether to continue the current mission against ISIS - throughout its mandate.

Irrespective of what the government ultimately decides with respect to its overarching priorities, there are some key ingredients -- what the Minister has called the "how part" -- to place defence policy on a stronger footing.

Lessons from the past suggest that the government must establish clear priorities for what capabilities and capacities our military needs, adequate, predictable funding, and a more effective and efficient procurement process, to better execute the national defence policy.

Defence policy should reflect the government's overarching objectives, playing to our strengths in maritime, land and aerospace expeditionary capabilities. This will help ensure that resources -- both financial and human -- are properly targeted and giving us the most bang for our buck. Financial resources should be directed to a few critical priorities instead of a "Walmart approach" to military expenditures.

Consistent, predictable funding is also important. A key goal of the review should be to match defence objectives with fiscal resources, so that ends have adequate means. This will invariably involve some tough questions but it's ultimately a much better approach than a one-off spending cut. The new government's affirmation of the recent defence budget increase is a good first step, but it must exercise caution in any efforts to squeeze out further budgetary savings through an across-the-board exercise.

Another area for reform is the procurement process itself. The current Defence Procurement Strategy has strengths, but problems with respect to procurement capacity and internal decision-making still linger. Any good plan will ultimately flounder if the department is unable to acquire new assets and resources on-schedule and within budget.

Procurement review should therefore focus on improving the capacity of the department's procurement workforce. Over the last decade, the number of big and complex defence projects increased significantly, but the procurement workforce did not, resulting in too few people, with too little experience, spending too little time on complicated files before rotating off to their next job. The government needs more experienced procurement experts, increased access to training and professional development, and retention of trained personnel in key positions. This will probably require shifting resources in light of the government's overall budget constraints.

These three recommendations won't help the government answer the big picture questions it's facing in Question Period. But they will help the government implement its defence policy more effectively and better ensure the Canadian Armed Forces have the trained personnel, equipment and infrastructure they need to defend Canada and Canadians at home and abroad, now and in the future.

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