What the Super Hornet Decision Reveals about Canadian Strategic Thinking

The Canadian government announced recently the decision to purchase 18 F-18E/Fs as an “interim fleet” of aircraft to replace its 30+ year old CF-18A/Bs. This will give the Liberals up to five years to conduct an “open and transparent” competition for an aircraft which the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has already indicated twice what it wants to buy, but is so politically controversial that even pro-military Conservatives did not want to spend their political capital purchasing it. The political games around military procurement in Canada are old and well established. At the turn of the twentieth century, Admiral Jellicoe berated Canadians in the Imperial Defence Committee for their stubborn unwillingness to pay for their own defence. There are signs that such games may be increasingly difficult, but few Canadians have yet to notice.

Canada is a very big place inhabited by very few people. To illustrate just how massive the country is, note that its geographic centre point, which is actually in the Northwest Territories, is over 1100 miles away from the US border directly south. Despite its size, Canada is populated by only 36 million people, most of whom huddle less than 100 miles from the US border; as a population distribution map, Canada looks more like Chile than Russia, its closest geographic competitor for size. Since 1976, it has been counted amongst the world’s largest economies, and yet its armed forces in total number roughly twice the size of the New York Police Department and can almost be fully seated in Toronto’s Roger’s Centre sports dome. Despite its geographic and relative economic size, to many, Canada is too small and too insignificant to warrant a “grand strategy.”

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (Wikimedia)

Geography is destiny, and in Canada’s case, it has shaped our strategic thinking in fundamental ways. Two metaphors have dominated Canadian strategy throughout the twentieth century, both of them coined by politicians. In 1924, Senator Raoul Dandurand, reflecting on the special advantages afforded by Canada’s distance from other continents and proximity to the United States observed, “We live in a fireproof house, far removed from inflammable materials.” This happy strategic circumstance is essentially a double-edged sword, however. In 1968, speaking to the Washington Press Club, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau remarked, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” These two metaphors sit at the base of popular Canadian perception of strategic reality: we live in the geographic equivalent of a gated community, but being a small power living next to a very large one, we need strong rules to fence in the powerful. The line-ups of traffic unable to cross the border after 9/11 was a vivid demonstration that the Canada/US relationship is the only one that can have a dramatic effect on our security.

Canada has cultivated a “peacekeeping” narrative, which resonates strongly nationally. Behind this humanitarian stance lies a steely realist calculation about the benefits of defence investments. For the vast majority of the country, our geography has made national defence a discretionary endeavour. Nils Orvik argued in the 1970s that all Canada had to do was ensure we had sufficient marginal military capability to handle our security so as to avoid American unilateral intervention: Defence against Help, in Orvik’s memorable phrase. But in any true national emergency, America would not stand “idly by” and was bound to come to our rescue. Geography, thus, removes the urgency in strategic calculation. Our contributions are principally symbolic in nature, based on values, not the strict calculation of interest. As such, we have been able to avoid many of the wars America has fought, whereas distant Australia, for example, twice abandoned by its strategic sponsor in the twentieth century, has no such assuredness in America’s commitments and has participated in every one of them. There is little political appetite amongst Canadians for large defence layouts because the marginal utility of spending more is so small in terms of our national security. Canadian governments, both from the left and the right, have chosen to invest scarce government resources into infrastructure and social programmes.

It is increasingly apparent that these comforting metaphors are dead ones, however. Globalisation has made our borders permeable to many flows of trade, ideas, and people. With all of these have come connections which now bring far away conflicts to Canada. Second, informationalism has had several pernicious effects, but the most obvious is the growing inability to resolve truth from fiction has made the articulation of consistent public policy and forge agreement around its central principles extremely difficult. While this effect has been dramatic in the UK as evident in the Brexit debate, and the recent election of Donald Trump in the US, we too have seen similar echoes in Canada with the debate over ”reasonable accommodation” of values in Quebec, and the growth of populist politics through the wild Rob Ford mayoralty.

S-400 Surface-to-air missile system (Air Power Australia)

The irrelevance of our security metaphors is also revealed in the growing activity of the Canadian Armed Forces globally. Air operations could be fitted into predictable categories of NORAD patrols over the north, and discretionary coalition commitments fought under the protective blanket of American general air capabilities. But deployments of Canadian military units to Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq in the past decade illustrate just how unpredictable our environment has become. Here too, informationalism has generated new threats to Canadian interests. Moore’s law has not only enabled increasingly sophisticated surface to air threats like Russia’s S-400 missile system, but also the growing diffusion of sophisticated military technology into small non-state actors’ arsenals.

Famous stand-off during the Oka Crisis between Pte. Patrick Cloutier, a 'Van Doo' perimeter sentry, and Anishinaabe warrior Brad "Freddy Krueger" Larocque (Wikimedia)

Canada used to be able to predict the likely combat conditions its military would confront. Domestic operations, the “home game” in hockey parlance, were safely confined to disaster relief and the occasional aid to civil power as in the Oka or Front de libération du Québec crises. The “away game” for which the majority of our equipment was purchased would be fought in Europe against a well-known opponent employing well understood tactics and doctrine. These commitments would be symbolic under the assumption that the war would be short and nuclear, and nations like Canada would not have the resources to generate a military contribution to make a significant difference in such conflicts. Canada no longer has such assurance in where its armed forces will be committed. Despite the current Trudeau government’s “Canada’s back” narrative on UN and peace support operations, it is clear that our policy in Africa is being driven by the larger “war on terror” narratives as it considers its options. Our policy will be increasingly structured by interests rather than values, which will make military deployments less and less discretionary: indeed surprise may frequently replace considered discretion.

The question that confronts Canada in this environment is not which is the right fighter for our interests. The question is, “Does Canada realise that the strategic environment is no longer what it was?” The elephant may choose to roll over on the mouse just to make a point. The house might be firebombed from within, again, just to make a point. Canada’s careful, cold-nosed policies on “how little is enough” have become decidedly more difficult. The government’s decision to buy Super Hornet illustrates that it recognizes this problem but still takes advantage of the fact that the vast majority of Canadians have not.

Paul T. Mitchell is the Director of Academics at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Canadian Forces College, the Canadian Armed Forces, or the Government of Canada.

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Header Image: Four F/A-18 Super hornets over the mountains of Afghanistan. (SSgt Andy M. Kin/U.S. Air Force Photo)