Thursday, 15 August 2013

Striking the Balance – the strategic challenge of being a middling power.

Recently the Canadian Government was reshuffled, with a variety of posts changing hands as the Prime Minister conducted a mid-term reshuffle ahead of an election. One of the posts changing over was Defence, with Rob Nicholson coming into the Department of National Defence (DND) for the first time. The superb Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute blog (link HERE) had a number of articles about the possible challenges facing the new minister.

Humphrey makes no secret of being an enormous admirer of the Canadian military – having studied in Canada, and been fortunate enough to undertake a short attachment to the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, he has fond memories of being part of a very professional organisation, and to this day thinks warmly of the people and role. Later on, his career has regularly brought him into contact with members of the Canadian military, who have always been supremely professional. Therefore, he continues to follow developments in the Canadian military quite closely.

This article was prompted by thinking about an article by Prof Jack Granatstein (HERE) and the challenges facing Canada. As a nation it provides a superb example of the challenges facing what can be described as ‘middling powers’ – one only has to glance at the history of the last 70 years to see a country which emerged from a global war with the third largest navy in the world, to see its engagement across a global range of conflicts from Korea to the Middle East, while still playing a major role in NATO. At the same time, its more recent story is of a nation of declining budgets, old equipment and politics stopping acquisition of new materiel. To the author, the reshuffle is perhaps a greater sign of the challenges facing both Canada, and other nations which operate reasonably modern military equipment but which face difficult choices ahead of them. The aim of this piece is to try and consider what these challenges are, and whether any conclusions can be drawn from it.

A most confounding position
The biggest question arguably facing Canada today is how to address what is a three pronged axis of interest. As an Atlantic and Pacific power, with substantial economic interests in both areas, Canada has an inevitable interest in both regions, which have extremely different challenges. At the same time, the emerging interest in the Arctic, where global warming and climate change is seemingly allowing an opening of trade routes, means a previously neglected region suddenly takes on far more strategic role. Beyond this home position, Canada continues to play a major role overseas, providing troops, aircraft and ships to participate in operations across the globe from the Gulf to Afghanistan.

An excellent vessel, but is she needed in South Africa?

The old Cold War roles of defending the Atlantic from Russian submarines threatening convoys have long gone by the wayside, and the days of the Canadian Army and Air Force presence in Europe ended 20 years ago. Despite this, Canada remains a leading member of NATO, participating in a variety of Alliance operations, including Afghanistan. The Pacific has perhaps traditionally enjoyed a lower priority in terms of resource allocation, but the emerging US strategic shift to the region, coupled with growing its growing economic importance and rise of military power means that Canada has to take a natural interest in this area. Finally one must not forget the issue of its relationship with the USA – due to geography; it is inevitable that Canadian airspace would be breached in the event of any attacks on the US – no matter how remote this possibility seems today. Given the strong US interest in both Atlantic and Pacific theatres, Canada finds itself almost forced to pay attention to its Northern flank, perhaps for fear that if it does not, then the US would. 

Set against this complex three pronged axis of interest, Canada has historically chosen to focus on the procurement and retention of a high capability professional military. One only has to glance at the order of battle over time to see how there has been an emphasis on capabilities designed to fight on the Central Front and North Atlantic, such as F18 fighters, excellent ASW frigates like the Halifax class and other equipment. The problem has been a historical reluctance to heavily invest in new equipment in a regular pattern, instead equipment is pushed on long past its original out of service date in an effort to keep it going, whilst funds for replacements are pushed into studies, concepts and otherwise committed. A quick glance at the Canadian Forces today shows that much of their equipment remains fundamentally unchanged from the end of the Cold War – although there have been limited acquisitions (such as the C17), the bulk of the order of battle is today much as it was in the early 1990s – when even then many of the ships and aircraft were approaching the end of their lives.

The problem which looms is that Canada has deferred expenditure for so long on so many fronts that it is rapidly reaching the point where barring a major change of budget; something is going to have to give. As a nation Canada is a superb example of the many mid-tier powers, other examples being the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Australia to name but a few, who have historically been able to afford and operate armed forces capable of working across a wide range of areas, but where future budgets may constrain this over time. All of these nations are typified by having a lot of legacy equipment in service, and a willingness to employ their militaries overseas on operations. These nations all face a similar challenge – the cost of military equipment is so great that all face a problem – what has to be sacrificed in order to keep some form of capability, and what are they no longer willing to do militarily?

In simple terms the real terms decline of procurement budgets, the growing complexity of weapon systems (and cost), and the approaching obsolescence of so many systems means that Canada is likely to be faced with a very difficult series of decisions. One only has to consider what needs replacement within the next 10-15 years – the F18 fleet needs replacement, the Halifax and Tribal class destroyers will be life expired, the Victoria class diesel submarines will be extremely old, and the Army will need replacements for its armour and APCs.

Strategic Airlift almost unparalleled by most nations, yet for what purpose?

Considering the Navy alone, one sees a fleet which has been hard worked for many years, and which has not seen new surface ships enter service for nearly twenty years. The destroyers are so old that it is nearly fifty years since the design was approved, and forty years since they entered service. The decision to continually defer replacements means that no military shipbuilding capability exists in Canada any more. This means any replacement will be built at far greater cost on a shipbuilding industry which will be created from scratch. This issue alone highlights the real challenge for many medium powers – the inability for domestic political reasons to consider purchasing certain from overseas. Despite there being several designs (such as the Royal Navy's Type 26 / Global Combat Ship) entering service in the time-frame for replacement, the desire by Canada to retain a ‘made in Canada’ label on its surface warships means that the Canadian taxpayer will not get the best value for money. One only has to consider that most warship replacement programmes these days will only replace half to two thirds of the hulls in the preceding class due to cost, and it quickly becomes clear that Canada is going to be forced to establish a military shipbuilding capability for just 8-10 hulls.

Domestically there are many good reasons to build at home – creation of jobs in vulnerable constituencies, a sense of national control over a hugely visible symbol of national prestige, and an ability to support domestic industries (e.g. having far greater sovereignty over the weapons and equipment than may otherwise be the case with a foreign purchase). Additionally even with offsets, it is difficult to justify to taxpayers spending huge sums of money abroad, particularly for a capability traditionally built at home. There are several nations who have traditionally built their large warships at home, and who face a need to build replacement hulls in the next 10-15 years. It becomes increasingly difficult to see how they can afford to do this without making major cuts elsewhere to their procurement plans, or buying overseas.

Set against all of this is the reality that with the changing nature of warfare and military operations, it is becoming increasingly unrealistic to expect all nations to be able to participate in the latest military technology. One only has to look at the cost of new fighters, tanks, escorts, submarines to realise that the funding simply doesn't exist to buy in and support all of these capabilities. But there is very little in the way of common agreement between nations over burden sharing – e.g. while it is perhaps prudent to envisage Country A buying the fighter jets, Country B providing the tanks and Country C the warships and then all three pooling them and providing as required to operations, the real world simply doesn't work like this. Military hardware is a very visible manifestation of a country's independence, and ability to exert its will. Relying on agreements between states sounds great, but is probably a step to far – even in the Netherlands and Belgium, which essentially operate a shared Naval command structure, there are still two very separate fleets of warships, even if some of the training and support is shared.

So, as time passes it will be ever harder for many countries to remain at the forefront of military technology – the cost of having a first rate military is so great that soon few nations will be able to afford it. This raises the prospect of a large number of nations relying on ever small levels of military hardware, and perhaps specialising so much that it is ever more difficult to deploy a meaningful force on overseas operations. The only other solution is to perhaps purposely ‘step back’ and focus on using older generation equipment.

How do you defend this in a meaningful way?

Medium powers like Canada though struggle to balance their wider interests, desire to play  a role in global affairs against a small military and limited resources. The question for powers such as this is what do they wish to be? On the one hand there is perhaps the inevitable temptation for finance ministries to push for a gentle glide path into military obscurity – maintain the bare minimum, and replace high end capabilities like frigates or Main Battle Tanks with OPVS and wheeled vehicles – in other words abandon pretences of capability. At the same time there is a natural desire to want to play more of a role and be more than a bit player – it is perhaps noticeable how many leaders enjoy the attention and press coverage that comes from being seen as influential on the wider stage, and the plaudits that come from this. This perhaps explains the reluctance in some countries to pare down military expenditure. At the same time maintaining a reasonably sized military has wider industrial and economic benefits – the presence of a substantial defence industry is often linked to military capability – scaling this down reduces the ability to not only build and support equipment at home (with all the attendant benefits for the economy and sovereignty) but also reduces export orders which helps the economy. This is a challenge facing Canada now – invest at considerable cost in new Frigates, creating a shipbuilding programme to assure them of sovereignty, or buy overseas, saving money for wider capability, but reducing economic benefits to taxpayers – who would expect to see their tax dollars spent at home.

Meeting the Force Balance
The procurement challenge is just one facet of the challenge of being a medium power. With only a finite level of resources, tough decisions need to be made about the level of capability and operational commitment that the nation can undertake. On the one hand there is a natural desire to provide troops to help a nation play its part in overseas operations and achieve wider foreign policy and strategic goals – perhaps best typified by the deployment of Canadian Forces to Europe during the Cold War where a relatively balanced force was deployed to help serve as symbol of Canadian commitment to NATO. In today’s world, where there is seemingly no direct threat to Canada’s territorial integrity (with the arguable exception of Arctic waters) there is a question over whether to focus resources on a small and highly niche set of advanced capabilities, which help bind the Canadians into wider operations, and enable them to be seen as a partner of choice – in many ways a policy adopted by the UK Government to fund a smaller number of highly capable military forces which are keenly sought for international operations. This specialism comes at a real risk that the Canadian Forces are unable to meet the wider range of military tasks in the albeit unlikely requirement to defend the homeland – it also forces them to be reliant on other powers to provide key components to their defence. This is a major challenge – do you focus on building a military which is of value overseas, but only affordable in certain numbers, or do you provide a wider military which can meet home defence needs, but at the cost of lower utility to allies.

The question also becomes one of where funding priorities lie in terms of equipment procurement and what is considered sacrosanct. Arguably based on recent threats, the main areas of Canadian focus would seem to be the provision of a strong air defence capability to help secure their part in NORAD, and also a reasonable maritime presence to protect territorial waters. But, based on recent operational priorities, the priority could be seen as improved land equipment – as seen by the deployment of MBTs to Afghanistan, which were of significant value to ISAF, but which have a very limited value in protecting Canadian sovereignty. There is no right answer to this debate, but it serves to highlight the real challenges facing planners – plan for value overseas, or plan for home defence – arguably for a medium power the two are increasingly incompatible.
Invest in high intensity military equipment? 
Canada’s wider strategic position serves as a good example of the challenge facing planners for powers which take an interest in overseas deployments, but where resources are limited. On the one hand there is the natural draw of NATO and the old Atlantic allies – this requires deploying forces to areas where the military threat can be relatively slight, and where well established systems of interoperability mean Canada can quickly participate in deployments and rely on other nations for support. At the same time though the rise in interest in the Asia Pacific region, and the notable shift by the US military to focus their resources in the region, well away from traditional NATO areas raise questions about whether focus on the Pacific should be increased. This would help keep Canada as a player with the US, providing resources to support an increasingly stretched US military, but would mean drawing down NATO commitments. At the same time the increase in interest in the Arctic, and the desire to reaffirm sovereignty means a natural requirement for icebreakers and forces to focus on the upholding of Canada’s purely national interest – a policy which in the 1980s caused tension with the US when a previous Canadian Government sought to procure SSNs, in part to demonstrate sovereignty over their waters.

Each course of action has different requirements and leads to a very different set of equipment priorities – the problem facing the Canadian Government at present is that it probably doesn’t have enough resources to do all three, but to focus on one would have severe impact on their wider international relations.The challenge for medium powers is to identify how to juggle long standing interests, commitments, requirements and vested interests to produce a relatively balanced defence policy. Canada serves as a good example of just how difficult it is to be a medium power in the modern world – small nations with minor militaries and limited aspirations find it easy to focus resources on one or two key challenges – just look at most powers in Latin America or Africa, where their military is focused on local territorial defence and maybe some limited support to the UN or other regional peacekeeping missions. By contrast the UK , France and a few other nations with larger militaries have sufficient resources to provide a relatively balanced force able to not only meet the demands of territorial defence & integrity, but also deploy them overseas – for instance the UK is resourced to deploy around 10,000 troops on a permanently sustained basis overseas, while also meeting existing commitments across the world.

So, the challenge facing the middling powers is to identify what role they fill in the 21st century. On the one hand there is clearly an aspiration for nations like Canada to remain a player on the world stage, but yet it is hard to see how this is affordable or feasible without sacrificing capability to pay for it.The question which policy makers need to ask themselves is the extent to which they feel Canada (or any other nation) requires high end capabilities to be employed in a purely national operation. It is hard to see anything outside of very low key constabulary operations requiring a purely national response – this in turn leads to the deduction that the best balance of investment may be for specific roles (e.g. provision of niche areas like cyber warfare or strategic airlift and ASW) which can easily work with coalition partners. This in itself is not straightforward – there is a danger that one nation which emphasises provision of certain capabilities over all others may find its hand forced on participation in unpopular operations – if the demand is for tanking aircraft or logistics, then could a nation refuse to participate if it had spent years focusing on providing this capability to its allies? While it could, the danger of refusal could lead to collapse of local alliances and leave said nation not only isolated, but also struggling to fund large gaps in its defence where it has chosen to take risks in coverage as part of its alliance membership. Similarly, invest in too narrow a capability, and your alliance partners may feel that the associated challenge of providing support, logistics and force protection in order to bring just one or two specific assets to a deployment may simply not be worth the cost.This is perhaps the real worry for middling powers – how do you balance off the need to defend your nation, support your wider interests, work with alliance partners and still maintain a balanced budget?

Or invest in hearts and minds for 'soft power'?

This article has tried to explore some of the challenges facing the so-called middling power today as typified by Canada. What it has hopefully shown is that there is no easy way to meet these challenges - the combination of difficult strategic decisions, the increasing cost of first rate military equipment and the challenges of supporting it mean that most nations today in this category are likely to have to take extremely difficult decisions within the next 5-10 years about their strategic position.

There is no one right answer, but hopefully this piece has highlighted that planners have to take extremely difficult decisions on a regular basis which cannot easily be solved. The challenge is to try and balance resources, interests and equipment in such a manner that when the use of force is required, the right assets are in the right place to make a difference – this is perhaps the most difficult problem of all.


  1. Given the difficulties we have with keeping our own shipyards busy, you would think we would be offering Canada a T26 / T45 derivative (would they want SeaViper or 2087?) at cost without tax.

  2. I agree with Sir H on his statement "Finally one must not forget the issue of its relationship with the USA – due to geography; it is inevitable that Canadian airspace would be breached in the event of any attacks on the USA"
    If you go to the NORAD website: you will get full details of such incursions.

  3. Can't help wondering if BAE Defence Systems might do well to develop a distinct identity as the preferred UK and Old Commonwealth supplier...building on the Canberra Class work for Australia, and helping re-establish Canadian Naval Shipbuilding with T26/T45 variants constructed under license?

    I imagine I need to take more water with it!


  4. One of the key issues the Canadians will face is making sure they have the right amount of forces ready to deploy for operations of long duration. Although they fought relatively well in Afghanistan, it took every ounce of strength to deploy a single infantry battalion to Kandahar. That alone should speak volumes about how unprepared the Canadians were for the Afghanistan mission.

  5. An accurate overview Sir H,

    Having finished with the RCN last November after 27 years, most of my peers who are still in uniform feel the navy has seen it's post WWII heyday (the maritime component of Canada's involvement in the sandpit immediately after 9/11). This was an all out effort on the RCNs part with up to (IIRC) 5 ships deployed simultaneously out of a major combatant surface fleet of 18, including auxiliaries. This affectively broke the navy from which it is still struggling to recover whether it's personnel numbers or obsolescence. The highly mooted ship building strategy appears still borne with little action over the last two years since it was announced, not even considering the 10+ yrs spent on attempting to procure 2-3 AORs.

    The two current AORS stem from 1969/70, the 3 remaining destroyers from 1972/73 and the 12 Halifax frigates from 1992 with the last being delivered in 1997. The shipyard in New Brunswick that built them, which at the time was the world leader in modular construction, has since been paved over.

    I think we've seen the last major warship built in Canada, at least from an indigenous design.

  6. Canada faces quite a lots of challenges in replacing its 1990s era equipment. At least they tried with Leopard 2 tanks. CF-18 replacements is still the biggest worry--but igiven its role in NORAD, the US will probable force something down too.

    Let's not forget that defence reform is just one cog in a country's overall security agency. Look at the Canadian Foreign Ministry for example--axing CIDA (the aid department).

    1. CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, was NOT 'axed', but was rather subsumed into the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD). As aid/development is a core component of foreign policy, this would seem to make eminent sense. Let's avoid making hasty and factually incorrect assertions please.

  7. Surely this has T26 collaboration written all over it! With RN, Canada, Australia and Brazil all building/operating it could really be cost effective for all concerned.

  8. Cooperation with the T26 program provides an interesting opportunity. I imagine that when Canada eventually decides to replace its aging surface elements, officials in the Canadian MoD will be looking very hard across the Atlantic to Britain's shores. The general purpose version at present would seem to be perfect for the requirements of the RCN.

    I can't see them being at all interested in the T45 however. The RCN simply doesn't have a requirement for what is for all effects and purposes a ship built from the ground up to ward off airborne saturation attacks against a CBG. I also suspect that should they acquire an interest in such a platform they would prefer to look to their neighbours and the AEGIS system, being cheaper and more compatable with the US tech.

  9. Maintaining multipurpose combat-capable armed forces has been a long-standing policy of the Government of Canada, and I don't see any indication of a major shift away from this anytime soon. The risk of doing away with a capability is that you never know what might be needed in the future; in the late-90s, Canada was on the cusp of eliminating its heavy armour capability and adopting a mobile gun system (essentially a tank turret mounted on a light armoured vehicle chassis). Then the Afghanistan mission occurred, and suddenly tanks were back in fashion for providing heavy artillery support and protecting convoys against IEDs and suicide bombers--and so Canada reinvested in tanks and purchased surplus Leopard 2s from the Netherlands and Germany, which will be in service for years to come.

    This talk about specialising in certain capabilities is a recipe for being caught unprepared and unequipped for the vagaries of the future. Maintaining modest, but multipurpose forces is the best insurance for nations that wish to play an active role on the world stage. Even with its modest forces, Canada has been able to contribute disproportionately to many international missions--Libya is a great example, where middling power Canada provided CF-18 fighters, aerial tankers, and reconnaissance aircraft, not to mention NATO's mission commander, LGen Charles Bouchard.

    I believe the more important challenge facing Canadian defence planners is reforming the military procurement system to get it functioning more quickly and more efficiently, delivering capabiltiies to the men and women on the front lines in a timely manner and on budget. A greater focus on off-the-shelf solutions and multinational cooperative development programs rather than bespoke, Canadianised kit bought in small batches can go a long way to reducing the cost of procurement and finding the balance between limited budgets and the desire to maintain a broad range of military capabilities.

    As for shipbuilding, the Canadian government has been quite clear that ir wants Canada's future naval vessels constructed in Canada. For a country bordered by ocean on three sides and heavily dependent on maritime trade, maintaining a domestic shipbuilding capacity makes strategic sense. Of course, the commitment to build in Canada doesn't preclude building foreign designs, as we have seen recently with the decision to adopt Germany's Berlin-class AOR as the design for Canada's new replenishment ships. The money in naval shipbuilding is not in building the hulls but in supplying onboard systems and system integration services, and there are lots of Canadian and foreign companies with expertise in these fields.

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