Strategic scenarios for the future must be the starting point when discussing what to buy for the military.

Governments have infinitely scalable options for the defence capabilities they choose to acquire and maintain for their nations, ranging from fully combat-capable forces across the air-land, maritime, cyber and space environments to domestic constabulary forces, or even no defence forces at all. They get plenty of advice on the choices they should make, and it comes from widely divergent internal and external sources with similarly diverse points of view.

Clearly, National Defence needs to be a major provider of advice to government on the military capability needs of the nation. In preparing this advice, planners have to apply great rigour in evaluating equipment requirements. All Western defence institutions face the same challenge and they have collectively put considerable effort into strengthening the way they do the job. Defence budgets are finite, and defence systems have very long service lives and are expensive to maintain and use. No one can afford to buy equipment that is only marginally useful.

Consistently getting it right, however, is difficult because the process requires making many assumptions about the future over planning horizons that extend out two or more decades. The first and arguably most critical step in defining requirements is therefore creating a rational, well-considered view of the future to guide force development activities. In Canada, National Defence uses a very comprehensive internal publication called The Future Security Environment 2008-2030, developed by the chief of force development with broad input from scientific, policy, academic, military and other experts. In addition to this primary source of guidance, other internal and external analyses such as the Conference of Defence Associations Institute’s annual Strategic Outlook for Canada may also be consulted.

Anyone making a case for a particular capability must show clearly how it will contribute to meeting the future defence and security needs of the country. It can take a decade or more to establish or substantially change a military capability, so bad decisions take a very long time and a lot of money to correct. Also, careful consideration has to be given to the risks of either underor over-investing, and of investing in the wrong capabilities. Both governments and their critics have equal obligations in this regard, and it should be a matter of some concern to Canadians that much of the external critical commentary one sees in the popular media lacks evidence of this essential foundational thinking.

A second level of examination involves a deeper look at how the capability would be used. Canada’s armed forces are relatively small but are regularly called upon by governments to undertake a very diverse range of missions, and it seems unlikely that this will change much going forward. Decisions on equipping the military therefore have to carefully consider a broad spectrum of mission types.

National Defence uses a capability-based planning framework that includes a number of mission scenarios developed in consultation with a broad range of experts. The scenarios represent the most likely range of tasks the government can reasonably be expected to assign to the Canadian Armed Forces over the planning period, ranging from humanitarian assistance to large peace enforcement missions such as have been undertaken previously in the Balkans and Afghanistan. These allow the relative value of potential capabilities or types of equipment to be evaluated across a range of mission types. Given the high cost of operating and maintaining any fleet of complex military systems, multi-role platforms that provide value across multiple mission scenarios often emerge as the most cost-effective solutions for Canada.

This analysis, especially for major platforms, is supported by sophisticated and continuously improving advanced simulation technology. Among other benefits, this technology helps ensure objectivity in the analysis since the software embeds a broad international base of military professional experience and expertise, engineering discipline and scientific rigour. The process is further scrutinized in National Defence by a strengthened central force development management framework put in place over a number of years and, more recently, an external third-party challenge function established by the Conservative government as part of its Defence Procurement Strategy.

It is very much in the interest of National Defence to have this high level of rigour in the requirements development process. Canadian defence planners operate in a resource environment that is more constrained than most other Western nations for the capabilities they are required to sustain. In fact, the two are currently in serious imbalance, and so National Defence is forced to stretch the available money as far as it possibly can. It cannot tolerate expensive “gold-plating” of requirements and goes to considerable lengths to prevent it.

This is not to say that defining requirements has become an efficient and precise science. Far from it. Complex trade-offs on operational, technical, financial, public policy and other objectives are inherent in all large government expenditures, and not everything can be comprehensively modelled in a simulation environment, at least not yet. Also, predicting future need is by definition a highly speculative process open to much debate. Adding to the complication is the fact that that there are seldom one or more “perfect” solutions on the market that fully meet the needs of the Canadian Armed Forces, so suboptimal ones may need to be considered, or funding may need to be found to make modifications.

In this environment, difficult compromises have to be worked out at multiple levels: within the project team, within National Defence, between National Defence and the other departments involved in the procurement process, and within the cabinet. Often, only someone who has been part of the process of reaching those compromises will readily see the logic of the resulting solution. Rationally and coherently communicating their recommendations to decision-makers at all levels and supporting them in reaching a decision are therefore critical tasks for planners, but this is also where they typically lose control of the process. Senior-level interdepartmental negotiations and deliberations between ministers take place on a very different plane from the technical work, as complex public policy, political, economic, diplomatic and other considerations come into play — often accompanied by some level of public and political debate that may not be consistently well-informed. Depending on the circumstances, this public discussion can sometimes develop a political dynamic of its own and lead political parties into rash, ill-considered positions with very serious consequences for the Canadian Armed Forces and the nation.

To conclude, defining military equipment requirements can be a complex and challenging task and is sometimes done in a highly charged political environment. Governments rightfully have the ultimate say in what equipment will be acquired for the Canadian Armed Forces, and in making their decisions they are fully entitled to seek advice from many different sources. The advice they receive from National Defence is rigorously developed, but requirements determination remains an inexact science because the process requires many assumptions about the future, and there are many opinions about what it will bring. Among all the stakeholders, observers and critics, National Defence has the strongest obligation, and need, to consistently do this work well, but this does not diminish the value to governments of well-studied and thoughtfully analyzed external perspectives. Unfortunately, however, too many critics rest their arguments on poor foundations, and this is not helpful to government or the nation. A particularly common weakness is an overly shallow analysis of the future security environment and the military options that future governments are likely to need. Canadians have an interest in seeing governments make good decisions on defence capability investments, and those who wish to positively influence those decisions need to support their arguments with well-articulated analyses of the nation’s defence needs looking ahead several decades.

This article is part of the Equipping the Military special feature.

Photo credit: Canadian Forces Combat Camera, DND / Crown Copyright