BUSINESS WATCH

About-face in defence strategy

Peter C. Newman January 12 1987
BUSINESS WATCH

About-face in defence strategy

Peter C. Newman January 12 1987

About-face in defence strategy

BUSINESS WATCH

Peter C. Newman

All the buzz at next week’s national Conference of Defence Associations will be about the white paper being drafted by Perrin Beatty, the third minister in charge of our military since the Mulroney government came to power in September, 1984.

The document, due out in March just after the next budget, will be the first long-term policy guide since “Defence in the 1970s” was written 16 years ago. Unlike most government reports and royal commissions, this one will have a strong influence on how the $10 billion we spend or waste annually in standing on guard for Canada is dispersed.

Last time round, the white paper was an international good scout declaration, pledging that we would fulfil our NATO commitments, be polite peacekeepers, defend North America in co-operation with the United States and, oh yes, protect our sovereignty. The new edition will turn these priorities on their head, placing the care and feeding of Canadian sovereignty at the top of the list. Because of the nature of the most immediate threat to that sovereignty—the intrusion of both Soviet and American submarines under our Arctic waters— the main effect of the white paper will be to strengthen our navy, turning it from a joke to a force at least having the capability of telling us what is going on under our own ice caps.

“Our procurement cycle means 10 years’ planning before we can take delivery of major weapons systems,” Beatty told me recently, “and 20 years of life after that—so we should be looking at the year 2000, and to a very great extent the status of our sovereignty at the end of the century will be judged by the contributions we make to our own defence. In the opinion of our military leadership, there is a growing threat in the Arctic. The Soviets are producing submarines at the rate of one a month; they are nuclear and carry atomic weapons. The three 20-year-old Oberon-class subs we have now can’t even get up there. We have to decide whether or not that threat justifies diverting resources into defence of the North —and, if so, whether that should be done by us or somebody else.”

Beatty will not officially commit himself until the white paper is ready to be published, but during conversation he makes it very clear that, pro-

viding the fiscal means are available, he has no intention of allowing the Americans to do it for us. “If a vacuum is left up there, if we can’t police our own territory, our allies will have to do it,” he concedes.

Beatty, who may well be the least warlike person ever in the portfolio— his only previous military experience having been a compulsory stint in the Upper Canada College Cadet Corps—is appalled by how little information Ca-

nadians have been given about the existing Soviet submarine threat. He points out, for example, that most Canadians were not aware Russian submarines regularly lurk off our three coasts until the recent sinking of a nuclear sub off Bermuda.

Apart from the obvious military threat, we do not at the moment have any military capability in our own North, so that if there were any incursion we could literally do nothing—except maybe send out a Mountie on a

Ski-Doo to dispense parking tickets. The Arctic voyages of the U.S. tanker S.S. Manhattan in 1969 and the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea in 1985, and the recent surfacing of three American attack submarines at the North Pole, amply demonstrated our inability to monitor traffic inside the Northwest Passage.

Only a combination of the government’s proposed Polar 8 icebreaker and half a dozen nuclear submarines of our own will give us the surveillance capability we need. The most likely option at the moment is the purchase of four Rubis-class undersea boats from France. These are tiny, nuclearpowered subs currently being built at a yard in Cherbourg, recently inspected by the minister.

To better monitor the Soviet Bear bombers regularly whizzing by our northern boundary, some of them armed with 20 AS-15 cruise missiles, the new North Warning System will have to be supplemented with new CF18 bases in the subarctic.

Beatty also intends to place much more emphasis on balancing what small naval capability we have between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Because the most cost-efficient way to increase manpower is through beefing up the reserves, this is where much of the future emphasis will come. The naval reserves are particularly underequipped. Any meaningful buildup will have to include the purchase of modern training vessels that can be switched to minesweepers in wartime.

Beatty’s hardest decision will be what existing commitments he can afford to surrender so that he can beef up the sovereignty functions. The most vulnerable NATO task we have right now is a 19-year-old pledge to send about 4,500 troops to defend Norway in the event of threatened hostilities. The fact is that even under ideal circumstances, it would take most of a month to get our brigade over there—and by that time they could not deter anything.

It will be a tough year for the freshly minted minister of national defence. In all that he does, Perrin Beatty must keep in mind the election promise made by Brian Mulroney, who firmly pledged to provide Canada’s Armed Forces with topflight equipment, training and pay. Mulroney added: “It is a package. God bless the force members for hanging in as long as they have.”