Wednesday, 31 January 2018


Quoted at War on the Rocks Senator John McCain has written a paper entitled “WHAT AMERICA DESERVES FROM THE NATIONAL DEFENSE STRATEGY”. In it he argues that the US must adjust to a new era of great power competition. He contends that costly and persistent counter-terrorism operations have placed enormous burdens on their military establishment. He believes that, particularly in relation to Russia and China, America’s military advantage has eroded. He reports that David Ochmanek of the RAND Corporation, testifying last year to the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that “U.S. forces could, under plausible assumptions, lose the next war they are called upon to fight.”

Senator McCain’s response to these evolving circumstances is to point out that the US cannot simply “buy its way out” of the current predicament. Instead he suggests that the civilian and military leadership in the United States has a duty to prioritize and make difficult choices about the threats they face and the missions they assign to the military. “America” the Senator points out “no longer enjoys the wide margins of power it once had over its competitors and adversaries. The United States cannot do everything it wants everywhere. It must choose. It must prioritize.”

In other words, the United States of America must now confront some of the same limitations that other countries, such as Canada, have always faced.

For the United States, Senator McCain’s prescription is to prioritize the great power competition. He believes that his country finds itself in a period of competition with near peer powers with an increased possibility of war between major powers. He suggests that failure to deter and prepare adequately for such a war would have dire consequences for the United States, their allies, and the current global order.

At the same time the Senator writes that “In the foreseeable future, the U.S. military will remain engaged in a long-term effort to counter the terrorist threat across much of the Middle East, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. While America’s defense strategy and force development should prioritize great power competition and make informed decisions for managing risk in our other missions, it is clear the U.S. military also needs to be sized and shaped to address other ongoing regional threats and contingencies.”

He suggests that “A strategy focused on force development for great power competition would need to address priority mission sets, including offensive strike, defensive fires, sea control, air superiority, space, electronic warfare, cyber operations, and logistics in a contested environment. These are all areas in which Russia and China have made significant strides in the quantity and quality of their weapons” should be balanced with “a more sustainable approach to counter-terrorism and other military missions in largely permissive environments will require the rapid development and fielding of systems that our warfighters do not presently possess.” The Senator makes the point that continuing to use aircraft such as F-18s, F-22s, and F-35s to prosecute low-end counter-terrorism missions can only be described as overkill and that it consumes the readiness of these platforms.

The senator’s concerns can be illustrated by reports that the U.S. Airforce is using F-22 stealth fighters to bomb drug labs in Afghanistan.  Using a valuable yet finite resource such as the ‘useful life’ available in the airframes of the limited number of F-22’s to accomplish a mundane mission, in the most expensive way conceivable, is not a viable strategy for any power, no matter how great.  

If the United States of America is indeed confronting the same limitations that other countries, such as Canada, have always faced then some of Senator McCain’s recommendations must also apply to our country. Canada will have to make the difficult choices that prioritizing the threats and the missions we assign our military requires.

For Canada a strategy focused on force development for great power competition would need to address priority mission sets. In other words, what should be the core missions of the Canadian Armed Forces? 

The governments most recent policy statement on defence is, like most of its predecessors, replete with laundry lists of things that would be nice to do and short on specifics.  Perhaps the closest it comes is the following statement.

Canada’s defence policy presents a new strategic vision for defence: Strong, Secure, Engaged. This is a vision in which Canada is:

• Strong at home, its sovereignty well-defended by a Canadian Armed Forces also ready to assist in times of natural disaster, other emergencies, and search and rescue;
• Secure in North America, active in a renewed defence partnership in NORAD and with the United States;
• Engaged in the world, with the Canadian Armed Forces doing its part in Canada’s contributions to a more stable, peaceful world, including through peace support operations and peacekeeping.

At best these platitudes give us some rough guidelines on what Canada’s priorities are. They would be defence of the homeland, defence of North America in partnership with the United States and contributing to alliances and organizations in ways which promote Canadian security.

If these are indeed the ‘core missions’ of the Canadian Armed Forces they should drive spending priorities and procurement decisions. Specifically these priorities should drive the Future Fighter Capability Project.

As stated, the objective of this project is to provide a capability for the Canadian Armed Forces to conduct control of Canadian Airspace and contribute to Alliance/Coalition operations. The government requires that the systems acquired have the capability for precision Air-to-Air, Air-to-Ground and Air-to-Surface capabilities, as well as non-traditional Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance in defence of Canada, North America and expeditionary operations.

These multi-purpose capabilities are at odds with the goal of prioritizing responses to our most important threats. The aerial defence of Canada, North America and our overseas allies can be accomplished by aircraft and systems that give precedence to the Air-to-Air role. Control of Canadian Airspace does not require an Air-to-Ground or Surface capability. In a high threat environment it seems likely that the best support we can give to expeditionary operations is a robust air defence of our deployed forces or allies.

There is a place for Air-to-Ground, Air-to-Surface capabilities and non-traditional Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities when Canada encounters “ongoing regional threats and contingencies”, but it is not necessary or practical to provide these resources by using advanced, and expensive, jet fighters.

Canadian Defence Matters has long argued that a high-low mix of aircraft, and other systems, is most appropriate for Canada’s defence needs.  If we were to make our acquisition decisions based on military priorities in a world of finite resources then it would appear that the best fighter for Canada would be one which gave precedence in its design to the air defence mission.

If that aircraft were to be complemented with a lower cost aircraft for those missions deemed less essential then a future Canadian Air Force should consist of aircraft with characteristics similar to those of the Eurofighter Typhoon partnered with a smaller number of aircraft whose capabilities more closely matched those of the Textron Aviation Scorpion.

It has been said that ‘Strategy without money is not strategy’. While this is true it is also true that money spent without strategy is not strategy either. Contrary to popular opinion it is not the duty of the government to purchase the best equipment available for the Department of National Defence. It is in fact their responsibility to obtain the right capability for our armed forces.


The US Just Flew a Stealth Fighter to Bomb Drug Labs in Afghanistan

Strong, Secure, Engaged

Future Fighter Capability Project - Suppliers List Invitation

Eurofighter Typhoon | The world's most advanced combat aircraft

Scorpion - Textron Aviation