How Good Was Harper for Defence?

By Kim Richard Nossal

FOR STEPHEN HARPER, changing the trajectory of defence policy was an integral part of the much broader project of transforming the political landscape to ensure that the Conservative Party would replace the Liberal Party as the country’s “natural governing party” in the 21st century. Just as Harper’s foreign policy initiatives were designed to wean Canadians from a liberal internationalism that over the course of the 20th century had become essentially Liberal internationalism, so too was defence policy seen as a way to change the narrative about Canada’s place in the world. No longer would defence policy be dominated by the idea that Canada was a peacekeeping country. Rather, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) would be deployed in very different ways under a Conservative government. An unambiguous booster of the armed forces, Harper was committed to ensuring that Canadians would change the way that they regarded their military.

Harper brought a particular vision for national defence to office in 2006. While defence was not an important issue during the election campaign in 2005-06 — the CPC’s 47-page platform heavily skewed to domestic issues devoted just 246 words to defence — Harper did outline a vision for defence policy.

Most importantly, defence was henceforth to be more explicitly about Canada. What the Conservatives called (without any elaboration) a “Canada First” defence policy was going to be aimed primarily at defending “our vast territory and three ocean areas.” The size of the CAF was going to increase — by 13,000 to 75,000 regular forces and by 10,000 reservists to 30,000. Trenton was going to become a hub for a new strategic lift fleet the Conservatives promised to acquire; the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), already based at CFB Trenton, was to be doubled.

The Arctic played a particularly important role in the Conservative vision. A new deep-water port was promised for the Iqaluit region, where 500 CAF members would be deployed. The Canadian Rangers, the community-based defence force in remote Arctic communities, would be expanded. A 650-person Arctic airborne battalion would be stood up. An army training centre would be established in Cambridge Bay. A new sensor system for monitoring ship and submarine traffic in Arctic waters would be installed. New fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft would be acquired and based in Yellowknife. The fleet of Aurora long-range patrol aircraft would be upgraded, and their Arctic surveillance capability would be augmented by new remotely piloted aircraft squadrons. The capstone was a promise to acquire three heavy naval troop-carrying ice-breakers to assert Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

To pay for these expansive promises, the Conservatives pledged to increase defence spending by $5.3 billion over five years — and this sum was to be over and above the $12.8 billion increase that had been already committed by the Liberal government of Paul Martin for the same period.

How effective was Harper in implementing this bold new vision, and what has been the longer-term legacy of the Conservative era in defence policy? There are some areas where legacies of the Harper years live on. The rebranding of the services with their traditional names — the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force — constitutes an important and enduring symbolic legacy. Likewise, the purchase of five Boeing CF-177 Globemaster III aircraft will give Canada an important global heavy airlift capability in the 2020s and 2030s. And the promise of the Conservative government to increase the size of the Reserve Force, finally formalized in 2015, has been implemented under the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau, with a commitment to increase the size of the Primary Reserve to 30,000.

But in most other areas of defence, Harper failed to realize the vision he brought with him to office in 2006. Consider that broadest measure of defence performance: how much national treasure is devoted to defence. Despite the promises to invest more, the Conservatives spent nine years in power without shifting the dial on defence spending. In 2005, the defence budget was $16 billion, or approximately 1.1% of gross domestic product. But by 2015, Canada was spending $19 billion — which, when adjusted for inflation, amounted to $16.1 billion, or 1% of GDP.

In between, it is true, the Conservatives had to confront an issue unforeseen in 2005: the costs of waging a war in Afghanistan. As the Harper government took office in February 2006, a Canadian battle group had just taken up position in Kandahar, the result of a decision by the Liberal government of Paul Martin earlier in 2005. At the same time, the Taliban was beginning a major offensive against the international forces deployed in southern Afghanistan. The CAF battle group was woefully under-equipped and under-resourced for the combat mission that was about to unfold. The Canadians lacked medium-lift helicopters, helicopter gunships, heavy armour, and heavy artillery, even though the Canadians were responsible for maintaining a significant presence “outside the wire” throughout the Kandahar region. Because the CAF had sold off its medium-lift helicopters in the 1990s, Canadian bases in Kandahar had to be supplied by road, exposing supply convoys to improvised explosive devices (IEDs). As a consequence Canadians began to take large numbers of casualties — 36 fatalities in 2006 alone. The Conservatives responded by acquiring Leopard tanks, medium-lift Chinook helicopters, and Griffon utility helicopters armed with Gatling guns.

There is little doubt that spending on the Afghanistan mission was a key reason why so many facets of the defence vision of 2005-06 were abandoned so quickly. For without significant new investment, the Conservative plans for a different kind of defence policy were, simply put, unsustainable.

The Arctic promises were the first to be abandoned. While Harper himself remained deeply attached to the Arctic — no prime minister before (or after) has spent so much time there — his government back-pedalled on the expensive promises embraced in 2005. By 2007, the three naval icebreakers had quietly given way to a plan for much smaller vessels. But because these ships did not have the power to break multiyear ice, they had to be given another role for those months when they had to be kept out of the Arctic. While the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships are described by the CAF as “ice-capable,” they were immediately tagged as “slush breakers” that would not add anything to Canadian ice-breaking capability.

Likewise, the plans for a major military presence in the Arctic foundered on the rocks of costliness. Delays and difficulties plagued the naval base anticipated for Nanisivik, a former mining port on the northern coast of Baffin Island. Eventually it was downgraded to a refuelling station with unheated tanks that would be open only during the summer months.

The broader Conservative effort to get Canadians to think differently about the Canadian Armed Forces and Canadian hard power in global politics was also less than successful. While there are some critics who have claimed that Harper and the Conservatives “rebranded” Canada as a “warrior nation,” in reality, the rebranding exercise was a failure. Harper’s efforts to get Canadians to think differently about the War of 1812, for example, proved to have little resonance. Indeed, one measure of Harper’s failure to change attitudes about the military was the ease with which the Liberals under Trudeau were able to appeal to traditional (and mythological) ideas of Canada as a peacekeeper by promising that a Liberal government would “return” Canada to its peacekeeping past.


IF THERE ARE defence policy areas where Harper’s legacy is thin, there is one area in which the Harper years left an entirely negative legacy, one that will not only cost Canadians hundreds of millions of dollars in treasure over the next decade, but will also cost the country considerable capability in hard power in the 2020s. That is the failure of the Conservative government to keep the CAF supplied with up-to-date weapons systems. While there were a few successes — the C-17 Globemasters, for example — in general the list of delayed or over-budget military procurement projects during the Harper era is embarrassingly long, affecting the navy and the air force in particular.

While Harper’s Arctic enthusiasms gave the Royal Canadian Navy new offshore patrol ships for the 2020s, his government spent nine years presiding over a massive diminution in Canada’s blue-water naval capability. By 2015 the navy’s last destroyer had so many maintenance problems that it spent much of that year tied up in Halifax (before being finally paid off in 2017). While the government’s 2008 defence policy, Canada First Defence Strategy, promised that replacement of the destroyers and frigates would begin to come into service starting in 2015, by the time the Conservatives left office so little progress had been made that the first deliveries of the new “Canadian surface combatant” ships — as the common hull is called — will not occur until the mid- to late-2020s.

An effective blue-water navy requires supply ships. During the Conservative era, the RCN’s two auxiliary oiler replenishment ships had to be paid off early when one suffered a devastating fire and the other had to be pulled from service because of unfixable corrosion and electrical problems. Even though replacement discussions for these ships had begun in 2004, so little progress had been made by 2015 that DND had to engage in short-term lease arrangements with the Spanish and Chilean navies to supply the RCN’s ageing frigates. It is true that towards the end of their time in power, the Conservatives did embrace an effective and imaginative “fix” for this problem — by contracting with Davie Shipbuilding, a Quebec shipyard, to convert a commercial container ship, the MV Asterix, into a supply ship for the RCN. Unfortunately, this highly successful procurement model died with the Conservatives, since the Trudeau government chose not to replicate it for a second supply vessel.

The air force was also affected by procurement failures. Replacing the Hercules and Buffalo fixed-wing search and rescue fleets had been announced as a priority as early as 2003, well before the Conservatives took office; by 2015, a contract had not even been signed. A similar fate befell the CP-140 Aurora long-range patrol aircraft, which had entered service in the early 1980s. In 2007, the Harper government cancelled a program to extend the life of the Auroras, announcing instead that a new maritime patrol aircraft would take its place by 2020. But after a series of fits and starts, the government abandoned that plan in favour of returning to a life extension, with all the costs that delays bring. Likewise, Conservative efforts to acquire remotely piloted aircraft — known in DND-speak as the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) — were marked by delay and dithering.

The most serious air force procurement project bungled by the Conservatives was the replacement of the CF-18 Hornet fighters that had been acquired by the Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1980. Because the Conservatives did not look back and examine how Trudeau organized that procurement, the Harper cabinet blundered into precisely the same defence procurement swamp that had ensnared the Trudeau government in the mid-1970s when it had replaced its long-range patrol aircraft fleet. In that procurement, the Department of National Defence, which had a strong preference for one contender, understated to cabinet the funds needed, resulting in a minister of the Crown openly accusing a senior civil servant of misinforming him (and being sued for libel in return). But the Trudeau government learned from this ugly episode: when it came time to acquire a new fighter fleet, the cabinet structured the competition so that DND could not do what it had done in the LRPA procurement. Indeed, the New Fighter Aircraft program, which resulted in the acquisition of the CF-18 Hornet, has been widely acclaimed as a case study in how to run a successful defence procurement.


SUCH LESSONS AS there might have been from the NFA program were ignored by the Harper government, however. Instead, cabinet simply decided to go with the policy preferences of the RCAF and DND. In July 2010, the cabinet announced that Canada would buy the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, the fighter preferred by the RCAF and DND. Rather than running an open competition, the F-35 was purchased on an untendered sole-source, at a cost of $9 billion.

But the $9 billion figure used by the Conservatives was a purposely misleading number, designed to make the expensive F-35 more palatable: it referred to just the cost of the aircraft themselves, the so-called “fly-away cost,” and not the full life-cycle costs — in other words, every penny that would be spent on the aircraft from acquisition to disposal. Faced with this bit of political manipulation, the Liberal Party under Michael Ignatieff decided to politicize the F-35 decision. The Liberals asked the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, to investigate the procurement. Page concluded that the “real” cost of the program had been understated: in addition to the fly-away cost of $9 billion, full life-cycle costs should be added. Using a 30-year life cycle, the real cost would be $29.3 billion.

In 2011, Michael Ferguson, the Auditor General of Canada, also investigated the way in which the F-35 decision had been made. His report, issued in April 2012, revealed the number of corners in the decision process that had been cut by the military and the bureaucrats. But he also concluded that the life-cycle costs should be calculated on a life cycle of thirty-six years, not thirty years; the real cost of the F-35, he suggested, would be closer to $36 billion.

The Harper government’s response to the Auditor General’s report was to freeze the acquisition, to take the management of the program away from DND, and to call in KPMG for an audit. That audit was released in December 2012. Noting that the CF-18s would be in service for over forty years, KPMG concluded that a 42-year life-cycle should be used, boosting the cost of the fleet to $45.8 billion. In short, in just two and a half years, the figure that Canadians had been hearing for the F-35 had jumped from $9 billion, first to $29 billion, then to $36 billion, and then to $45.8 billion. Needless to say, what seemed like massive increases in price created a huge credibility problem.

Now, the Harper government could have stuck with its July 2010 decision. It could have admitted to Canadians that using the fly-away price rather than the full life-cycle cost was both misleading and manipulative, and it could have apologized for having done so. But at the same time, the Conservatives could have nonetheless encouraged Canadians to recognize that the PBO, the Auditor General, and KPMG were all saying the same thing: that whether the life-cycle was twenty years or forty-two years, the actual cost remained unchanged: the F-35 would cost Canadians $1 billion per year.

The government could also have reminded Canadians that there were good military reasons to acquire the F-35. It was the only fifth-generation aircraft available; it was the fighter that the United States and numerous other Canadian allies would be flying in the 2020s and 2030s; it was the fighter most suitable for North American air defence given that the US Air Force would be flying it. The government could also have stressed the technological/economic reasons: since 1997 Canada had been a partner in the multinational consortium building the F-35, and that Canadian aerospace firms would be the primary beneficiaries of being part of Lockheed Martin’s global supply chains (a benefit that would immediately disappear if Canada chose not to purchase the F-35).

Unfortunately for the future of Canadian defence, however, the Harper government did none of this. It just “reset” the fighter replacement program, and then spent the remaining two years in office doing nothing substantial to move the replacement forward. Indeed, Harper’s de facto abandonment of the program in 2012 allowed the Liberals to continue to play politics with the fighter replacement. In the middle of the election campaign in 2015, Trudeau announced that a Liberal government would not buy the F-35. That promise has, not surprisingly, driven the course of the fighter replacement program since 2015, with the Liberal government finding different and creative ways to ensure that the leader’s promise in 2015 is kept, regardless of the huge cost to the taxpayer and the highly negative impact on Canada’s military capabilities that these games will have into the 2020s.


THE SAD STORY of the F-35 is emblematic of Harper’s legacy in defence policy. Harper and the Conservatives came to power in 2006 seemingly having given little thought to defence policy — other than to embrace the simplistic Pablum idea that the Canadian Armed Forces are wonderful and should be supported and celebrated. No one on the Conservative front bench appears to have thought much about defence procurement, one of the most problematic and difficult policy issues facing governments. Certainly, no one on the Conservative front bench appears to have read any history about how previous governments grappled with thorny defence issues. Their thinking appears to have been that neither the Pierre Trudeau Liberals nor those wet Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney have anything to teach us, thanks very much.

But the failure to learn from history ended up dooming Harper’s vision for national defence. The embrace of an expansive and bold vision for defence without a comparable willingness to defy the broad historical reluctance of Canadians to spend on defence in peacetime meant that there would always be a yawning gap between dreams and reality. Without a keen appreciation of the deeply dysfunctional nature of the defence procurement system in Canada — and a plan to fix that system — the Harper government was sure to run into the same snags that have always bedevilled defence policy in Canada.


KIM RICHARD NOSSAL is director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy, Queen’s University, and author of Charlie Foxtrot: Fixing Defence Procurement in Canada (2016) and, with Jean-Christophe Boucher, The Politics of War: Canada’s Afghanistan Mission, 2001-14 (2017). This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 print edition of The Dorchester Review.

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  • Karl Hungus on

    Harper growled at Putin on stage, vared his teeth like a dog and all, but he was too big of a STUFFY OLD PUSSY to sit down and talk., since he knew his interventionist mindset was built of lies.
    Harper set conservatism back years in this country, though. Why is LPC and CPC foreign policy essentially the same? We need a non-warmonger conservative PM, not another neocon / neolib.

  • Keith Lawson on

    Must say a most thorough and non bias accounting of failed plan by the Harper government to address long time festering diminishing of Canadian Forces. Harper’s to do (planning list) coming in I think identified the most important areas that required addressing on DND file. The great tragedy is most of identified needs in the plan never got off the ground. True, the Afghanistan event would have knocked any plans slightly off track, but that alone doesn’t give Harper’s government any free pass on not following through on at least parts of the original plan. It appears that the road was paved with the best of intentions but there was certainly no roadmap or plan on how to get there. Really have to ask though, that as dangerous and unfortunate as it is in today’s dangerous world, many or most Canadians couldn’t really give a damn about DND spending or resources they don’t have. It is too bad that DND planning and spending has over time become so politicized. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s Libs or Conservatives, politicians have for the most part, have no idea how to effectively on any reasonable time frame a clue how to ensure Canada can defend it’s own shores and respond to NATO’s commitments. We have become military and defence laggards that are in a state of rot and Canada really is no longer relevant in any conversations around projections of military might to lend a helping hand to anyone including ourselves.

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