Since the office was created in 1923 there have been some forty Ministers of National Defence. This averages out to tenure of something like two and a half years for each incumbent. Two and a half years seems like barely enough time to understand, let alone control, such a large organization.
Currently the National Defence Act gives the Minister of National Defence authority to manage and direct all matters relating to national defence and the Canadian Forces. He is responsible for the entire Defence Portfolio comprising several organizations, including the Canadian Forces, the Communications Security Establishment, Defence Research and Development Canada, and the Department of National Defence.
The Department of National Defence is the largest department of the Government of Canada in terms of budget as well as staff. Across Canada there are over 28,000 civilians working in various roles at DND. The Department is headed by the Deputy Minister of National Defence, who is the Department’s senior civil servant, and reports directly to the Minister of National Defence. The Department of National Defence exists to aide the minister in carrying out his responsibilities, and acts as the civilian support system for the Canadian Forces
The Canadian Forces is the unified armed force of Canada, as constituted by the National Defence Act. This unified institution consists of the Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army, and Royal Canadian Air Force. It has roughly 94,000 personal and a budget of some 20 billion dollars. The Canadian Forces are overseen by the Armed Forces Council, chaired by the Chief of the Defence Staff. The Armed Forces Council in turn consists of the CDS, the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, and the heads of each of the three service environments of the CF as well as other senior officers.
The relationship between the new minister and the Department of National Defence is of particular importance. It can not be said often enough; the department's relationship with the Canadian Forces is that of a support system. However, even though he is in charge of the Department, the Minister does not function as a part of the support system for the Canadian Forces, rather, by statute and by tradition, he is in charge of the Armed Forces as well.
Just as the incoming Minister of Defence is the recipient of a good deal of unsolicited advice, so Peter Mackay will also be gifted with a wide ranging selection of postmortems on his time at Defence. Some of them will suggest that he was a ‘prisoner of the generals”, meaning that he was not seen to disagree publicly with the leadership of the Armed Forces on a sufficient number of occasions.
In truth Peter Mackay was the beneficiary of a period of increased budgets for his ministry. He was also fortunate enough to be allowed to spend long enough with the department to learn something about it, a luxury granted to few of his predecessors.
It is easy for an onlooker, one not burdened by having to balance budgets or take responsibility for decisions to come up with a laundry list of recommendations that would solve all the departments’ problems.
· Don’t buy F-35’s, or if you must, purchase as few as possible
· End the Fixed Wing Search & Rescue debacle, either move directly to a purchase of C-27’s or if that is not politically acceptable, Bombardier Dash-8’s.
· Debacle-2, maritime helicopters, tell Sikorsky you are willing to trade all the unfinished frames and all the money you’ve given them for thirty MH-60R Seahawk helicopters. Dicker from there.
· The Navy needs replenishment ships, the Coastguard needs icebreakers, the only yard you are allowed to buy them from can’t build both at the same time, lease used ones from the US, then quietly buy them in a few years.
· The Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS) Project, lean more toward the patrol part less towards the Arctic capable bit, support Coastguard icebreaker procurement.
· For the Army, smaller brigades, more of them with a wider geographic footprint.
· Try to find out why our Armed Forces can’t function without vast numbers of Generals and Admirals.
· Cancel the Close Combat Vehicle program.
· When in doubt, stay out of helicopters.
What is more difficult is coming up with some useful advice for our newly minted Minister of National Defence. It is to be hoped that he will be left in the portfolio long enough to come to grips with a department that has the largest discretionary budget of any department of government while at the same time being arguably the most complex department of government
During whatever time at Defence that he is granted it is likely that Rob Nicholson will have to deal with declining budgets and, with luck, a lowering of the high profile that armed conflict brought to the department. He will have to forge new relationships with The Minister of Public Works and Government Services as well as the Treasury Board which, in the final analysis, has the authority to approve all expenditures of funds.
Most important of all, the new Minister of National Defence will have to work out his relationships with the Deputy Minister of National Defence as well as the Chief of Defence Staff and the Armed Forces Council. It will be his ability to work with, but not for, these elements of his department that will determine the “success” of his tenure at Defence, and the future of this most important of departments.