Liberals’ Defence Policy


By David Pugliese

From Volume 23 Issue 2 (March 2016)


The new Trudeau government has been in power for a little more than 100 days now and industry representatives as well as military analysts are still trying to figure out how the Liberals will proceed on defence.

The Liberal government is, for the moment, focused on moving forward with its new commitment to coalition efforts to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

But during the election campaign the Liberals also set out their defence platform in other areas. There were no real timelines to the promises, which were not only ambitious in some cases, but in others alternated between ambiguous and contradictory.

Here are details of what is happening at this point with some of the Liberals’ top defence priorities:



Under the Conservatives, the country had the Canada First Defence Strategy. When it was first released in 2008, defence analysts gushed over its contents and heralded what they claimed would be a commitment to long-term funding as well as a road map for the future military.

But it didn’t take long for the Canada First Defence Strategy — and its many promises — to collapse because of a lack of funding and the Conservative government’s desire to deal with the deficit.

The Liberal government says it will do better and has promised a new Defence White Paper.

They will “immediately begin an open and transparent review process” to create that policy. The Liberals have already outlined the key priorities in that policy, which, on the surface, do not appear that different than those of the Conservatives.

Those priorities include:

  • an effective, agile, responsive, and well-equipped military force that can appropriately respond to a spectrum of operations, both at home and abroad;
  • collaboration with the U.S. through NORAD to defend North America;
  • continued contributions within NATO.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has said that the defence policy review will be complete by the end of this year. He has already started consulting with allied defence ministers, including the United Kingdom’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, on how other countries developed future guidance for their militaries.

The area that tends to break the back of any strategy is the types of new equipment a country needs for its military and the cost of those procurements.

The Liberals may soon get a rude awakening in that area.



The Liberals have promised to fast-track and expand the capital renewal projects of the Royal Canadian Navy.

What is the government’s strategy? “Additional ship requirements” identified through its defence review will be funded by replacing the existing CF-18 fighter jets with a more affordable aircraft than the Lockheed Martin F-35, which the Conservatives originally wanted to purchase.

There is an obvious problem with this strategy. How do you fast-track shipbuilding when the money you are going to use to finance that rests on purchasing new fighter aircraft, in a procurement that is still likely years away?

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan addresses the crew of HMCS Winnipeg during her deployment as part of OP REASSURANCE. A cabinet committee will oversee the CSC project - the building of new warships to replace Canada's fleets of destroyers and frigates. (DND)

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan addresses the crew of HMCS Winnipeg during her deployment as part of OP REASSURANCE. A cabinet committee will oversee the CSC project - the building of new warships to replace Canada's fleets of destroyers and frigates. (DND)

The good news for industry is that Liberals have committed to the RCN’s new surface combatant fleet, although the government hasn’t provided details about numbers of ships it will buy.

The government has also promised to acquire “enhanced icebreakers.”

No one in DND knows what these vessels are or when they might be coming. Does this refer to a new fleet of icebreakers or purchasing additional Polar-class icebreakers, instead of the single vessel promised by the Conservative government?

There has been some confusion, as well, on the Liberal government’s level of commitment to the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS). In January, Public Services and Procurement Canada (formerly known as Public Works) confirmed that some of the smaller ships that could be supplied in the future to the Canadian Forces don’t have to be built in Canada.

The move appears to undercut the NSPS, which is designed to acquire new ships to replace Canada’s naval and Coast Guard fleets while creating jobs at home.

In a new response to companies, Public Services and Procurement Canada confirmed that the tugs and fireboats that might be provided to the Department of National Defence in the future don’t necessarily have to be built in Canada.

Under the NSPS, small Canadian shipyards were supposed to receive work constructing such support ships. That was seen by the government as ensuring contracts were spread around the domestic industry, since the two large yards, Irving on the east coast and Seaspan on the west coast, were to receive the lion’s share of the billions of dollars in projects.

But DND is now looking at privatizing its tug and fireboat fleets on both the east and west coasts.

DND spokesman Evan Koronewski noted the request about the tugs and fireboats is for information only at this point. “The intent is to identify the availability and budgetary costs for the provision of tug and fireboat services within the commercial market,” the information provided to companies added.



The Liberals, just like the Conservatives before them, have promised to deal with the delays that have plagued defence procurement.

The Trudeau government points out it will increase the capacity of National Defence’s acquisition branch to “ensure that major projects avoid the bottlenecks” that happened under the previous Conservative government. It will also ensure that all equipment acquisitions operate with “vastly improved timelines and vigorous parliamentary oversight,” while “providing the necessary, decisive, involved, and accountable Cabinet leadership to drive major programs to a timely and successful conclusion.”

How this will be done remains to be seen, but DND officials report that at this point there are no efforts underway to change the procurement system.

In addition, the two promises appear to be contradictory: the government is promising more oversight and parliamentary involvement in military procurements, while at the same time claiming it will speed up the process.

During the election campaign, Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray also pointed out in an article she wrote for Esprit de Corps that since 2007, the Conservatives let $10 billion in approved funding go unspent, including nearly $7 billion in DND’s capital budget.

The Liberals maintain that, unlike the Conservatives, they will not lapse military funding from year to year. No efforts, so far, have been done to address this issue, according to DND sources.

What the Liberals have done is create a special cabinet committee to oversee a number of high-profile procurements. The committee is made up of Procurement Minister Judy Foote, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, and Scott Brison, the president of the Treasury Board.

The special cabinet committee will keep tabs on the following:

  • the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) project, which will see the building of new warships to replace Canada’s destroyers and frigates;
  • the fixed-wing search and rescue (FWSAR) aircraft program;
  • the logistics vehicle modernization program, which will provide trucks for the Canadian Army; 
  • the replacement for the CF-18 fighter jets;
  • the acquisition of an Offshore Oceanographic Science Vessel.

The Liberal government has declined to discuss details about the committee. But Alan Williams, the Department of National Defence’s former procurement chief, said the list represents some of the key equipment purchases over the next five to ten years. Williams said while government attention is welcome in trying to fix problems with the procurement system, he questioned whether the committee would make matters worse.

Pablo Molina, head of Airbus Defence and Space Military Aircraft in Canada, was in Ottawa on January 11, 2016 after his company submitted its bid on the FWSAR project. The firm is teaming with Provincial Aerospace, forming AirPro SAR Services as a joint venture. Upon contract award, will be the Canadian in-service support integrator of the FWSAR C295 fleet for the life of its service. (RICHARD LAWRENCE)

Pablo Molina, head of Airbus Defence and Space Military Aircraft in Canada, was in Ottawa on January 11, 2016 after his company submitted its bid on the FWSAR project. The firm is teaming with Provincial Aerospace, forming AirPro SAR Services as a joint venture. Upon contract award, will be the Canadian in-service support integrator of the FWSAR C295 fleet for the life of its service. (RICHARD LAWRENCE)

“You have four ministers each bringing their own views to the table and each representing federal departments with their own agendas,” said Williams, the former assistant deputy minister for procurement. “They’re going to want studies. They’re going to want reviews. They will each want sign-offs. I can see this actually slowing down the process.”

Williams said if the Canadian government wants to ensure a smoother running procurement system it would have one minister in charge of military acquisitions who is responsible for the entire process. “Why not put one minister in charge, hold him or her accountable, get people in place who understand the process and get it right for all projects, not just four or five?”

Williams said there is also a need to make changes to the federal government staff involved in defence procurement as well as improvements in training. “It’s very clear from all of the chaos that still exists that people don’t understand the fundamental business of defence procurement,” he added.



The Liberals promised to take immediate action on ensuring the Canadian Armed Forces has the equipment it needs. The election platform mentioned fixed-wing search and rescue (FWSAR) aircraft, “long-range surveillance UAVs, and finalizing a variety of Army projects.”

The government will also renew focus on surveillance and control of Canadian territory and approaches, particularly in the Arctic.

Bids have gone in for the search and rescue planes, but that project was well advanced before the election. The Liberals have not provided any details on the specific army programs that it would fast-track.

Public Services and Procurement Canada has released another “request for information” to the defence industry for the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Targeting and Acquisition System (JUSTAS) project. But industry has been down this route before, with various Canadian Forces attempts over the last decade to purchase such unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

A contract for JUSTAS would be awarded — if the government decided to proceed — in the 2018–2019 time frame.

If that comes about — and that is a big if — then that latest schedule is a little bit ahead of past milestones. Last year, RCAF spokesman Capt. Alexandre Munoz said that long-range air force plans envisioned a JUSTAS contract awarded between 2019 and 2020.

Potential problems, however, loom on the horizon. One of the issues is the Liberal defence review. That is bound to delay movement on procurement. In addition, one of the review’s goals is to look at the funding for equipment and there is great potential for some of the more ambitious Canadian Armed Forces equipment projects to be delayed or abandoned.

Sajjan acknowledged the issue with capital funding. “Those numbers provide some challenges,” he acknowledged in an interview with Postmedia.



During the election Trudeau was very clear on his views about the F-35 and its potential role in replacing the RCAF’s fleet of CF-18s. “We will not purchase the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber,” he said.

The main mission for a new fighter jet is the defence of North America, he added.

The Liberals have promised to immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18s. It will be a process that will exclude requirements that do not reflect Canada’s interests, “such as first-strike stealth capabilities,” according to the government.

In addition, the competition will include guaranteed industrial benefits for Canadian companies.

But confusion is the order of the day on this aspect of the Liberal’s defence platform. The Trudeau government has promised a “truly open and transparent competition” but has already publicly excluded one aircraft from taking part.

Sajjan further contributed to the confusion with his ambiguous answers during a December teleconference with journalists. Asked repeatedly about the F-35 issue, Sajjan avoided answering directly. “My focus isn’t about F-35, or any other aircraft,” he responded. “We will open it up to an open process and, from that, a decision will be made for a replacement of the CF-18.”

That immediately prompted headlines such as “Sajjan refuses to rule out F-35” and “Defence minister backs off Liberals campaign promise of refusing to buy ‘expensive’ F-35 jets.”

So is the F-35 going to be allowed to compete in the completion?

Don’t jump to that conclusion.

Sajjan, before and after the December teleconference, has repeated the Liberal position: “The requirements we create (for a new fighter jet) will be those that are needed for Canada’s role,” he said.

The Liberals have already stated some of those requirements: stealth is not needed while guaranteed industrial benefits are; the aircraft must be cheaper than the F-35 deal proposed by the Conservatives; and the primary role for a fighter jet is the defence of North America.

The question now is whether those requirements will be written into any new statement of requirements. The F-35 may indeed be allowed to compete but can it win under those parameters?



The Liberal government has said it will maintain the Conservatives’ planned military spending levels. It will be known in April whether that promise will be kept as the Liberals reveal their first federal budget.



In Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, the value of working with the United Nations was highlighted. The Canadian Armed Forces, which played a significant role in United Nations peacekeeping operations in the 1990s, have an almost non-existent role today, said Walter Dorn, a professor at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.

Sajjan has been ordered to change that by working with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to renew Canada’s commitment to United Nations peace operations. That includes, according to the mandate letter, the following:

  • making Canada’s specialized capabilities — from mobile medical teams, to engineering support, to aircraft that can carry supplies and personnel — available on a case-by-case basis to the UN;
  • working with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to help the United Nations respond more quickly to emerging and escalating conflicts and providing well-trained personnel to international initiatives that can be quickly deployed, such as mission commanders, staff officers, and headquarters units;
  • leading an international effort to improve and expand the training of military and civilian personnel deployed on peace operations.

Canada will also increase the capacities of regional and local partners to prevent the spread of terrorism and radicalization by “vastly increased training assistance missions.”

Consultations have already begun on boosting Canada’s involvement in UN operations. Officials with the RCMP, DND and Global Affairs Canada (formerly Foreign Affairs) met January 29 to discuss further options. Dutch Major-General Patrick Cammaert (the UN Force Commander for its operation in the Congo, as well as a former military advisor to the UN secretary general) was also present.

The ultimate goal is to produce a Peace Operations Strategy.

Dorn says there are some senior officers ready to embrace such a strategy, but he expects resistance from others.



The Liberals have promised to implement the recommendations made in the Canadian Forces’ Report on Transformation 2011, known to some as the Leslie report after Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie who headed the team to examine future changes in the military. The plan is to reduce red tape and duplication so resources can be transferred to operations and priority items such as procurement.

But DND sources say it may be difficult to implement the Leslie report.

Some of the recommendations made by Leslie and his team are indeed being acted on. But other recommendations in the report have already been discarded as unworkable or because it has been determined they won’t result in any savings, DND sources say.

In addition, in June DND will roll out what it is calling its sustainment initiative, which will see improved ways to work with industry on equipment maintenance.