By: Scott Taylor
For political junkies and military pundits alike, Justin Trudeau’s pick of Harjit Singh Sajjan as the new defence minister came as a bit of a shock.
All of the obvious bets had been on retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie. After all, this former army commander was not only a special adviser to Trudeau on foreign affairs and defence, he was also considered a star Liberal candidate throughout the election.
In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I consider Leslie to be a personal friend and, as such, I am actually thankful that he was not handed the defence portfolio right off the bat. As a recently retired senior general, Leslie remains a contemporary of the top brass and any friction could easily escalate into a messy and unproductive bloodletting.
As a soon-to-be-retired lieutenant-colonel, Sajjan will bring an entirely different perspective to the minister’s office. His impressive resume includes a tour of duty in Bosnia and three full tours in Afghanistan. As a reserve intelligence officer, he was highly regarded by the Canadian task force commanders who sought out his expertise as a liaison with local Afghan tribal leaders and politicians.
Among those who commanded Sajjan in Kandahar was none other than Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada’s chief of defence staff. This will obviously make for a unique dynamic when Sajjan walks into the next meeting with Vance and the boss role has been reversed.
In his civilian occupation, Sajjan was a veteran Vancouver police officer assigned to the gangs unit. His policing experience dealing with ruthless thugs certainly would have been a valuable asset when he found himself in Afghanistan dealing with the local authorities and warlords.
That said, despite our best intentions and all of Sajjan’s widely praised efforts to do so, Canada, and by extraction NATO, never did fully pacify the Taliban insurgents or curb the wanton corruption of those Afghans whom we placed in power. It is also true that criminal gangs still enjoy the rewards of their vast criminal enterprises in Vancouver.
Now, Sajjan faces the prospect of dealing with a much more subtle, much more clever and certainly equally ruthless cast of characters in his new post.
Unlike in the past, where it was Sajjan offering the intelligence reports to his superior, this time it will be necessary for him to find the right guides and advisers to alert him to the multitude of dangers that might trip up a novice MP in such a high-level portfolio. The stakes in many cases are huge.
Something as simple as Trudeau’s campaign promise to end Canada’s contribution to the combat air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq cannot be implemented without conducting delicate negotiations with our allies. The six-pack of CF-18 Hornets that we now have deployed in Kuwait will not leave any gaping hole in the alliance’s anti-ISIS defences, but as comrades-in-arms we should not just bug out in the middle of the night.
A far more sensitive issue for Sajjan to deal with will be Trudeau’s mid-election promise to remove the F-35 joint strike fighter from the list of possible contenders to replace the RCAF’s aging fleet of CF-18s. Under the Harper government, the F-35 was the sole choice for Canada’s next-generation fighter jet and this had generated a wave of strident criticism from competing aircraft manufacturers and military pundits, all of whom advocated for a fair and transparent competition to choose the CF-18 replacement. Trudeau went one step beyond this with his pledge to take the F-35 off the table in pursuit of a cheaper alternative.
As it is now structured, major defence procurements start with a requirement drafted by the military that is then put out to tender to industry. If politicians begin intervening in the determination of military requirements in order to please the electorate, we are definitely embarking on a slippery slope. Minister Sajjan should push for a fair and transparent competition that includes all fighter jet options — including the F-35. There is nothing to be gained by excluding the F-35 simply for the sake of exclusion.