Thinking About Strategic Posture Options: Dutch Lessons for Canada?

Thinking About Strategic Posture Options: Dutch Lessons for Canada?
11 Infanteriebataljon Garde and Royal Netherlands Air Force's AH-64.

The Trudeau government’s maiden budget pledged important new commitments, but defence spending was not one of them. One could argue that this is only logical: money should not be spent before the defence review is completed and Canada’s priorities in this policy area are set.

At the moment, the government is getting ready to kick-start a defence review public consultation process that will give Canadians the opportunity to have their say on what they think are the major threats, risks, and challenges to Canada’s security, the appropriate roles of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the types of capabilities these roles require, and so on. If done well, the process will help everyone — that is, military personnel, the defence industry, the academic and think tank communities, and the public — understand what is at stake. The last real defence policy consultation took place in 1994, which is also the year of Canada’s last Defence White Paper. Since then, the world has greatly changed, and the new White Paper will be judged in no small part by the way it considers these changes.

Some continuities must be considered as well, such as the persistent underfunding of the Canadian military. Phrases like “limited budget” and “narrow budgetary scope” tend to irk people in the CAF, but they reflect Canadian preferences today. Indeed, while many expect future budgets to be more generous to the Department of National Defence (DND) than Budget 2016, no one envisions Ottawa suddenly committing 2% of national income to defence. These preferences are not uniquely Canadian by the way. Within NATO, 2% may be a formal requirement for membership, but today only 5 of its 28 members meet it. The justification is always the same: size of the defence budget counts less than what one does with it, which is certainly logical.

The challenge for the defence review consultation process will be to bring these two conversations together: the abstract one about our nation’s place in a changing world and the practical one about the likely allocation of funds. For clues on how this can be done most effectively, Canadians might consider the experiences of their NATO allies. A good model comes from the Netherlands. In 2013, the Hague-based Clingendael (a.k.a. the Netherlands Institute of International Relations) provoked a nationwide debate on defence policy by releasing an imaginative think piece on the “future of the armed forces of the Netherlands.” The report, which the think tank also made available in English, was based on three sets of assumptions. The first was to treat budgetary constraints as a given. At the time the report was written, the Dutch government had not only cut defence spending, but also publicly acknowledged that maintaining near-full spectrum capabilities of all three armed services — army, navy, and air force — was no longer possible.

The report’s second working assumption was that the Netherlands would continue to maximize its comparative advantages within the collective security architecture in the transatlantic region and work closely with its friends and allies in NATO and the EU. The assumption was not heroic in light of the enduring consensus on what the Dutch armed forces are for: to defend the nation (territory, people, economy, infrastructure, etc.) and its allies; to contribute to the rules-based international order; and to support civil authorities, if and when needed.

The third assumption was that countries have multiple, not singular, defence interests. According to Clingendael, in 2013 the Netherlands had four key interests: 1) influence in the international community; 2) preservation of prosperity and economic development; 3) enhancing security and stability; and 4) promoting human rights. Although mutually inclusive, these interests imply very different types of armed forces:

1) An “influential” Netherlands implied an “air-based intervention force”

2) A “trading” Netherlands prioritized a strong “maritime force”

3) A “global stability” contributor called for a force capable of conducting “small but robust” overseas expeditions

4) A “human rights” promoter suggested investment in a military force capable of carrying out disaster relief operations and engaging in post-conflict state- and society-building

By all accounts, the report succeeded in getting the government, the media, and the public to think harder about the various trade-offs that arise in deciding what the main threats and risks are for the Netherlands, as well as determining which operational capabilities to prioritize in light of the available resources. Clingendael’s conclusion was that the sharp edges of these trade-offs would be blunted most effectively with Option 3, a.k.a., “robust stabilisation force.” The most controversial part was the argument that the acquisition of new F-35 fighter jets served fewer national interests than investment in other operational capabilities (The Dutch government ended up ignoring this particular recommendation).

Dutch and Canadian defence debates are obviously very different but, as Mark Collins of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute pointed out three years ago, parallels do exist. Clingendael’s working assumptions travel well. For one thing, much like their Dutch counterparts, the CAF are under-funded and coalition-oriented. For another, Canada’s core interests, too, are multiple, ranging from international influence seeking to peacekeeping. The fact that these interests, taken together, imply a continuing commitment to a multiservice defence force that can combine homeland defence with multilateral coalition operations overseas, does not negate the trade-offs. Some of Canada’s interests are best served with large troop numbers in the army, others with sound naval capabilities, and still others with an air force capable of carrying out day-one bombing missions. The Clingendael report offers one method for thinking more creatively about strategic posture options. For this reason alone, participants in the Canadian defence review and its public consultation process would to do well to read it and learn from it.

This article was originally published on the CDA Institute Blog: The Forum on 6 April 2016.

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