Written by: Marie-Danielle Smith
Published: Wednesday, 01/13/2016 12:00 am EST
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says he plans to complete a thorough defence policy review by the end of 2016—and the public will be asked to participate.
In an interview with Embassy Jan. 12, Mr. Sajjan confirmed that Department of National Defence officials are already identifying how the review, or Defence White Paper, will be conducted.
Public consultation will be involved and foreign allies will be consulted, he said. The review is expected to set a road map for the next 10 to 20 years.
“I want to make sure that we get the 'How' part. It’s so important,” he said. “If we don’t get that right then the quality’s not going to be there at the end.”
Arctic sovereignty, NORAD prioritized
As the raison d’être for the Canadian Armed Forces is debated once again, Mr. Sajjan said there are elements of Canadian defence policy that he assumes will be prioritized. The safety of Canadians will always be the “number one priority,” he said, while continental defence, Arctic sovereignty and Canada’s responsibilities within the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will stay constant.
Even so, he said defence policy needs to be placed “in a wider context that suits the needs of the vision that our government is setting." The Liberal government, in its early days, has talked up a return to multilateralism and a greater focus on diplomacy.
Working with foreign allies is “critical,” Mr. Sajjan said. The minister has connected with his counterparts from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and France, as well as other NATO allies.
British, Australian lessons
“The British just did a defence review," he said, referring to the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 released by the Cameron government on Nov. 23. "Australia is about to release theirs, and especially it’s important for us to be able to learn from those lessons."
He said he recently spoke with UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon in London. “It is helping me to shape how Canada can look at doing [the defence review],” he said, noting the UK had used an interactive website to get public input.
“I’ve got some really key ideas that Fallon provided, and I’m looking forward to reading the Australian review when it comes out as well,” Mr. Sajjan said.
The minister said the credibility and relevancy of the review was important. “We can do a white paper of everything on the wishlist, but if you don’t have the budget to support it it really doesn’t matter.”
Defence officials declared the previous Harper government's military wishlist, the Canada First Defence Strategy, unaffordable in 2011, but no updated document was ever released.
'Very focused' on procurement
Sitting in his office at National Defence headquarters—where staffers said reporters hadn't been seen in the past few years under the previous government—Mr. Sajjan told Embassy that procurement is being looked at in “extreme detail."
“Does it have the right number of people, the right type of expertise to be able to make it more efficient,” he posited.
A recent report from the Canadian Global Affairs Institute’s David Perry had warned that cutbacks to DND’s materiel department were causing major slowdowns to the process.
“To have an agile force we need to support it as well. Certain areas we do need to increase,” Mr. Sajjan said. Procurement is "definitely one of them."
Though hesitant to look back at the previous government’s record, he acknowledged a belaboured procurement process.
He is “dismayed” at the capability gap in the Canadian Navy, he said, “because we didn’t get the procurement process right.” So he is “very focused” on making sure that procurement becomes more efficient.
“We’re going through a process that’s going to be more transparent, so that it’s done in a manner that gives confidence to the Canadian public,” Mr. Sajjan said.
He would not confirm, however, whether the Statement of Requirements for new defence procurements would be released publicly. In 2013, DND quietly decided to no longer post these key technical documents on its website, which allowed the public to see the military’s requirements for crucial new planes, ships, and vehicles.
With the ubiquitous F-35 fighter jet program, shafted by the Liberals to replace the CF-18s in favour of an open competition, Mr. Sajjan said “the last thing I want to see with our fighters is what we have with our Navy right now: the gap in our capabilities.”
When it comes to figuring out how Canada's National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy should move forward—including narrowing down exactly which ships are needed and how many—the defence policy review will help to provide “a lot more clarity.”
'Consistent and predictable' funding
Asked about the transformation recommendations of fellow MP and retired general Andrew Leslie, whose controversial report recommended ways to improve the department’s efficiency, Mr. Sajjan noted there could be redundancies in some areas within the department. The defence review will identify these, he said.
Another thing the review will determine, he said, is the future for Canada’s reserve force. The previous government had committed to an accelerated expansion from 24,000 to 30,000 members.
“With the defence review it will allow us to look at what the capability and the role of the reserves will be for the future,” Mr. Sajjan said. “In some areas, as much as we want to grow, the population can’t support that growth.”
Ultimately, funding will play a big role in how the department will evolve. The Liberals committed to maintaining the current defence budget escalator—a three per cent increase to the budget annually, as of the 2015 federal budget.
The minister wouldn’t specify whether the government is thinking of increasing funding any more than that, but he said it’s his goal to make sure funding is “consistent and predictable” to better plan for the future.
“And as the economy improves, we can look at adjusting things as well,” he added.