By Robert Smol
Thirty years ago the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney (1984–1993) tabled what was then, and still remains, the most ambitious and expansive defence policy proposal in recent memory. For those serving at the time, the 1987 White Paper Challenge and Commitment: A Defence Policy for Canada signalled, at least for a few months, an apparent willingness by the government to genuinely reverse long-standing shortfalls in capability and equipment.
Still in the depths of the old Cold War with the Soviet Union, the White Paper sought to refocus Canada’s commitment to NATO’s European theatre to a level that the country could realistically meet. While it passively acknowledged recent procurements by the previous Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1980–1984), it nonetheless reminded Canadians of the need for robust expenditures to sustain both old and new equipment and prevent “rust out.” On a manning level, the White Paper proposed the then-controversial Total Force Concept that would see an expanded role for the Reserves, including integration at all levels with the Regular Force.
But by far the most innovative political strategic shift in the 1987 White Paper was the honest and unadulterated opinion, emphasized throughout the document, that Canada needs to do more to guarantee the defence and security of its own territory. In his forward to the document Prime Minister Mulroney wrote: “Canada must look to itself to safeguard its sovereignty and pursue its own interests” and that “only we as a nation should decide what must be done to protect our shores, our waters and our airspace.”
But as time went on and the geopolitical challenges shifted, the 1987 White Paper proved too much, too late for a country and military that, in spite of ongoing rhetoric, had come to lack the appetite for a strong expansive military in a made-in-Canada defence policy. Likewise, the ambitious plans of procurement, which included nuclear submarines and maritime helicopters, were eventually cancelled.
To fully understand the potential implications of the 1987 White paper we need to remind ourselves of just how much bigger, modern, and engaged our military was in the mid-1980s.
Although the stigma of “enemy of the military” remains perennially attached to Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals, the reality is that when the Progressive Conservatives took power in late 1984 they had already adopted a military that was significantly bigger and more engaged in the world than that of today.
According to data compiled by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the Canadian Armed Forces numbered 82,858 in 1984 — a full 16,000 more than today. Under the Progressive Conservatives this number increased to 84,600 by 1987. During the last four years of the Liberal government, GDP spending on defence increased until it reached 2 per cent in 1984.
When it came to NATO contributions, Canada had 6,700 military personnel deployed overseas in 1984. This included a mechanized brigade group as well as an air group. Additionally, Canada had over 700 military personnel deployed on United Nations peacekeeping missions, mostly in Cyprus and the Golan Heights.
The late 1970s and early 1980s also saw the government take serious and successful steps to procure modern equipment. In 1980 the Liberal government secured the purchase of 138 CF-18 Hornet fighter jets, 77 of which remain in service today. In the early 1980s the Air Force also put into operation the first of 18 CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft, which are also still in use today. In June of 1983 the contract and design for the new Halifax-class patrol frigates were put in place. In the late 1970s the Army acquired its first shipment of Leopard A1 main battle tanks.
But as Defence Minister Perrin Beatty made clear when he tabled the White Paper in June of 1987, this was not enough. Though acknowledging the recent funding increases, the White Paper reminded Canadians that “even this funding is insufficient to overcome the ‘bow wave’ of deferred equipment acquisition built up since the 1960s. If this condition was allowed to continue unaltered it would soon lead to ‘rust out’; the unplanned and pervasive deterioration in the military capabilities of the Canadian Forces.”
In order to address funding shortfalls leading to rust out Beatty, when explaining the objectives of the White Paper to the House of Commons, committed the government to “annual real growth in defence spending which, except in fiscal emergencies, will not fall below 2 per cent.” The new defence policy also made the commitment for “increased resources over those generated by this planned funding floor” in order to meet the costs of the newly proposed projects.
Arguably the single most ambitious dimension of the 1987 White Paper was in the area of maritime defence and security. What was needed to meet the evolving maritime security dimension was, in the words of Beatty, a “three-ocean Navy to protect our three-ocean country.” The evolution of Canada as a Pacific nation, combined with the known Soviet threat in the Arctic, demanded an effective force multiplier that could operate effectively on all three naval fronts.
In addressing the “way ahead” for the Canadian military the White Paper called for the purchase of 10 to 12 nuclear-powered submarines (SSN) by 2002. The justification for the new fleet of SSNs was based on the “vast distances in the three ocean areas in which Canada requires maritime forces and the SSNs unlimited endurance and flexibility.”
In a June 6, 1987 commentary written for the Globe and Mail on his nuclear submarine program, Beatty stated that the deterrence of “military intrusion effectively requires being able to detect an intruder and being able to react” and that a “submarine can detect and track intruders and advertise its presence, if desired.” He then went on to state that “the mere threat of a nuclear-powered submarine in an area inhibits an opponent and acts as a powerful deterrent.”
This new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines was to exist next to the Halifax-class patrol frigates already under construction, and the four Tribal-class destroyers already in operation. The Sea Kings, which 30 years ago were nearing the end of their usefulness, were to be replaced by 35 Augusta Westland EH-101 helicopters.
When it came to our NATO commitments to Europe, the focus of the 1987 White Paper was on rationalization. Apart from the Mechanized Brigade Group and Air Group already on the ground in West Germany, Canada had the 5th Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group in Valcartier earmarked to deploy to Norway in the event of war as part of CAST (Canadian Air-Sea Transportable Brigade Group). This brigade was to be supported by Rapid Reinforcement Air Squadrons consisting mainly of CF-5 Freedom Fighter aircraft, widely perceived to be a substandard aircraft.
The review leading up to the White Paper found this level of readiness to be beyond what the Canadian Armed Forces could realistically sustain. The dual-front wartime commitment to Europe was further complicated by the fact that Norway did not allow the stationing of foreign troops on its soil in peacetime. Therefore, a wartime deployment to Norway would present costly logistical challenges. In the words of the 1987 White Paper, the CAST Brigade Group would require “some weeks to reach Norway, making timely deployment questionable, and it cannot make an opposed landing. Moreover, once deployed it would be extremely difficult to reinforce and resupply, particularly after the start of hostilities.”
In response, the White Paper proposed that the two-brigade deployment commitment be consolidated to Central Europe where Canada already had its Forces committed “thus enabling the Canadian Army to field a division-sized force in a crisis.”
In terms of manning, the White Paper frankly admitted that it would be “both impractical and undesirable to try and meet all of our personnel requirements through the Regular Force.” To further deal with the inevitable manning and mobilization challenges that would arise in an emergency, the White Paper proposed a Total Force Concept being the greater integration of the Reserves within the training and operational structure of the Regular Forces. Though widely accepted today such integration, nonetheless, required back then a significant shift in mindset for a generation of Regular and Reserve personnel developed in a system that had come to accentuate perceived differences between the two components.
Invariably, White Papers on defence are products of the politics of their day. What neither the government nor the Armed Forces could have predicted in 1987 was the rapid rate at which the world order was to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It did not matter that much that the 1987 White Paper had an especially strong emphasis on the protection of Canada and its coastal waters. With the possible exception of the Total Force commitment, the bold new vision for the military was stifled once its promised funding and tools failed to materialize in the naïve assumption that some new era of permanent peace and stability had arrived.
Next month, Part 2: Alternate Universe — a look at some of the procurement programs that were promoted by the government in the wake of the 1987 White Paper that were subsequently cancelled.