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CDR ONE-ON-ONE – James Bezan, Conservative Defence Critic

CDR ONE-ON-ONE – James Bezan, Conservative Defence Critic

BY JOETEY ATTARIWALA

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JAMES BEZAN

SHADOW MINISTER FOR NATIONAL DEFENCE

CDR recently sent Senior Staff Writer, Joetey Attariwala, to conduct an in-depth interview with the Honourable James Bezan, Conservative Shadow Minister for National Defence. Here is that discussion. 

CDR: Mr. Bezan, thank you for taking the time to speak with CDR. It’s generally accepted that the global security situation is the worst it’s been since World War II. Can you provide a snapshot assessment of the global security situation today and how Canadians feel regarding these uncertain times?

James Bezan: We’re at a very precarious moment in history. This is where we’re going to either enter back into a full-blown Cold War, which we thought was behind us, or worse, that we’re going to see great power rivalries actually fighting head to head, and that’s something that we all want to avoid at all costs. I don’t think most Canadians have been paying attention. They see it as a war in Ukraine, they see it as a regional dispute over control of the island of Taiwan, and they aren’t even thinking about Hong Kong anymore, and the devolution of democracy and basic human rights that have been taken away by the communist regime in Beijing.

I don’t know if it’s resonating what’s happening in the northern part of India and China and the skirmishes there; or the ongoing situation where both North Korea and Iran are trying to achieve nuclear weaponization. It was disgusting to see Iran’s election as rapporteur for the UN General Assembly’s Committee on Disarmament and International Security, also known as the First Committee, on June 1, 2023. Talk about being completely tone deaf — somebody in the UN should have said something and opposed this. This is a government that is violating the rights of its citizens, and imprisoning, executing and publicly beating them — people like Mahsa Amini and 200 other protesters who were just standing up for women’s rights and freedoms. Then you turn around and witness Iran supplying arms to Russia to be used against civilians in Ukraine. This type of thought process at the international level is unfortunately not resonating in Canada as we continue to be dominated by domestic issues.

DEFENCE NOT A PRIORITY FOR THE LIBERALS

CDR: The Liberal government makes many announcements on its defence strategy but the Conservative party claims that the government doesn’t prioritize defence. Please help explain that.

James Bezan: If defence was a priority to this government, we’d already be on track to 2%, and as we saw from the Discord leaks, Prime Minister Trudeau has said that Canada will never meet the 2% metric. Canada will be heading to Vilnius, Lithuania this summer for a NATO summit and there’s going to be expectations — the allies are going to expect Canada, as well as other laggards, to hit the 2% mark. It was something we signed on to in 2014 in Wales. We had 10 years to get there and here we are nine years later — are we going to get there? So that is, I think, proof positive that this government doesn’t care about standing by our word and living up to expectations of being a trusted partner in both NORAD and NATO.

If you look at how they have taken so long to get some procurement projects complete, like the F-35 which took them eight years, and that is in addition to the time that we had started and stopped and started again. We are in a situation where we are less capable of defending ourselves and less capable of working alongside our allies. At the end of the day, it puts us in a more precarious situation where we could potentially be attacked and not be able to defend our own sovereignty, so we’d have to rely on our allies. That’s not the way national defence is supposed to work.

Another point to look at is how the government has spent. There was $2.5 billion dollars lapsed in the last budget, so that’s almost a record high. Over $10 billion has lapsed, not even spent, and that shows that they don’t have a plan to buy the military equipment and material in a serious way. They’ve known for years that our troops, which are situated at the NATO EFP in Latvia, need better body armor, more modern helmets with proper hearing protection, as well as communications capabilities to empower each individual soldier and better enable them to fight and protect themselves and work as a cohesive unit. It’s embarrassing that they’re there with the Danes who are using Canadian made equipment and are in a lot better situation with new helmets, new sidearms, new machine guns, new sniper rifles, which are all Canadian made. It just makes you shake your head. Here again is a Liberal government that hasn’t prioritized our soldiers over process.

Canada requires new submarines to properly surveil the Arctic Credit Cplc Blake Rodgers, Combat Camera

CAPABILITY GAPS 

CDR: As the Shadow Minister your task is to keep tabs on all aspects of defence. In what areas of defence do you feel Canada has capability gaps?

James Bezan: I’m really concerned that as we stand today, our Navy is literally rusting out in front of our eyes. We’ve already lost our destroyers and our supply ships. We’re lucky that we have the Asterix to enable us to project power, but at same time the Halifax class frigates are nearing their end of life and they’re trying to keep them going until the surface combatants arrive, which are still six to seven years away from receiving the first hybrid surface combatant. These have to get built faster. We need them now — war isn’t waiting for us, we have to be prepared for war if it happens and be able to defend our maritime approaches.

The same can be said for submarines. In the last budget I think there was only $32 million to study a replacement for our Victoria class submarines. Last year, the total time in the water of all four subs was less than 45 days so that doesn’t maintain capability and it doesn’t maintain skill set with our submariners. How are we going to be able to fight as a Navy when we can’t even deploy our subs, our frigates and our supply ships as a blue water fleet? We always sail with our allies, but at the end of the day, we used to be able to put out an armada on our own.

I think air defence for our forces on the ground is another gap. We’re buying HIMARS and NASAMS for Ukraine, but we still haven’t got any for our own troops, and we’ve got them sitting in harm’s way in Latvia, Poland and elsewhere — we need to get ground-to-air defence for our forces, so that has to happen.

CDR: The defence policy update has been expected for some time. What do you anticipate from it?

James Bezan: I’ve been told that what the government is hearing is fairly consistent among stakeholders, that we need to grow the size of the force, we need to be better prepared to deal with conflict, both in the Pacific and the Atlantic. We have to modernize NORAD at a faster pace and provide more technology than just over the horizon radar systems. Why we’re building the first one in Trenton and not in the Arctic is beyond me. Perhaps it’s supply chains, but I don’t know, and I haven’t been given a good explanation of that one. One thing that I hope they do, if you look at their first defence policy, SSE, they talk about people first. But I think before we even talk about people first, we have to look at the threat environment and Canada’s role in deterrence and in our alliances and protecting Canada. So, first and foremost, we need to determine the people we require, the equipment we need, and the missions we’re going to be on. The last time around, foreign policy did not inform defence policy, so I’m hoping to see a more robust update coming up.

Finally, we’ve seen the Indo-Pacific strategy, but what’s the rest of the foreign policy look like? Are they going to write that on the back of a napkin the day before the defence policy comes out, like we witnessed last time around? I would hope that they are going to take the threat environment seriously. I would hope that they see where our shortfalls are. For example, if we have to go out there and double, triple, quadruple the size of our cyber force, that then determines what type of people we are going to be hiring and does universality of service have to be part of that discussion? I think that should come out of the defence policy update, but we’ll have to see how that looks.

Canada has donated Leopard II main battle tanks to Ukraine, yet no plans have been announced for their replacements Credit: Corporal Djalma Vuong-De Ramos

SUPPORTING UKRAINE 

CDR: Do you feel the Liberal government is doing all it can to assist Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s illegal invasion?

James Bezan: I would say up until this last budget, that I’ve supported everything the government’s done. There’s more that can be done. Case in point: we’re about to retire a bunch of our old Bisons, Coyotes and Tracked LAVs. We asked the question last year and got an answer in June from the government in a written response that there was at least 62 LAVs that are about to be declared surplus that they could have bought parts as well as do maintenance overhaul and send them off to Ukraine. It would have taken them 220 days, but that’s over 400 days ago. Why didn’t we do it? We asked the government to send over our Role 3 hospitals — we bought 12 new ones for the pandemic — they’re still sitting in the containers. Why didn’t we send them over to save lives right now? We asked them to send over some of our older armored ambulances that are getting replaced now with new LAVs coming out of GDLS in London. Again, they weren’t sent. I’m glad to see that we sent over some of our Leopards, but where’s the replacements for our Canadian Armed Forces? So, there’s things that are about to be decommissioned — they’re actually going to award a contract to scrap our old Bisons and Coyotes and Tracked LAVs rather than just donate them. There’s 550 total vehicles that are going to be declared surplus and decommissioned. Why not just donate them?

Ukrainians are industrious — they’ll fight with what they can fight with and the rest they’ll cannibalize and use for parts. It’s not a novel idea. We bought a bunch of old F-18 fighter jets from Australia, and on top of the ones that we bought for our forces, which we don’t have pilots to fly by-the-way, they bought 18 and another seven for parts. So, if it’s good enough for the Royal Canadian Air Force, why isn’t that good enough for the Ukrainian forces who are in the middle of a war against Russia and Putin’s imperialistic ambition? It makes no sense to me why we aren’t maximizing what we have and what is about to be declared surplus.

This last budget though, was a huge disappointment. Only $200 million in the budget to go to the forces to compensate for the loss of the eight leopard tanks. I’m hoping that’s going to be used to buy new Leopard tanks. It better be used to do repair and overhaul on the 40+ Leopards that are sitting around in garages and haven’t been used in years. Let’s get them up into fighting condition so at least we’re on the ready, and that we can do the proper training on them because what we’re witnessing in Ukraine is that this is a tank war so we better keep that skill set in place here, and we better start looking at a next generation main battle tank for our Canadian Armed Forces as well, and that way we can donate more Leopards as we get new tanks delivered.

And what about the capabilities here in Canada? We’re hearing that the guys in Latvia are looking at the Danes walking around wearing Canadian made equipment in better condition than what our own guys have in Latvia. It’s just beyond the pale that that’s how we treat our service members. So, we better get defence procurement right.

INDUSTRY ON A WAR FOOTING

CDR: We’ve delivered NASAMS pretty quickly to Ukraine, but we don’t have that capability for our own forces. So, what do you make of equipment being procured at speed for Ukraine, for understandable reasons, yet at a snail’s pace for the Canadian Armed Forces itself?

James Bezan: We need to look at making sure we’re following Treasury Board guidelines and do the fiduciary duty that we have to protect taxpayer dollars and respect the taxpayer. But we need to also expedite the process. We have too many bosses and too many levels of accountability without actually having any accountability. So that’s part of the problem. We also haven’t mobilized the defence production act to actually go out there and tell industry this is what we need. We had that speech about a year and a half ago, both from Anand and General Eyre saying we need industry to be on a war footing, and then crickets. So, if we are going to be going onto a war footing, and we have our allies asking us to produce more, then we better take the situation seriously. I think the inventory has already been done — we know what domestic industry capabilities we have, so let’s start building stuff because the Canadian Forces need it, our allies need it, and Ukraine definitely needs it. I’m looking to the government to show leadership here, but under Justin Trudeau, it’s just not happening. He doesn’t care enough to make it happen and I don’t think he understands that the stronger we make Ukraine, the safer we are.

CANADA LEFT OUT OF AUKUS

CDR: What do you make about Canada being left out of the AUKUS partnership, which many people think is just a nuclear submarine pact, but in fact is much more than just submarines.

James Bezan: My greatest fear is Five Eyes has become Three Eyes, and we’re on the outside looking in. I think the greatest value of this relationship is the intelligence sharing — the leading edge defence technologies that are part 2 of AUKUS. I know Canada is trying to get involved in it, but I think we’re late to the table and we weren’t invited to start with. We weren’t invited because we have refused to be serious from the standpoint of collective defence and deterrence. We’re not even going to be considered until we get to 2%, so if we are serious about security in the Indo-Pacific as a Pacific nation, as a member of Five Eyes, we better be at the table.

It’s embarrassing and disappointing that Canada was not invited to the table. I don’t blame Australia, or the Americans or the Brits. It’s our current Liberal government that has refused to step up to the table and do the things that our allies expect us to do. Of all the nations that need subs that can stay under the water a long time, it’s us. We have to have under-ice capabilities to properly surveil the Arctic, so we definitely need to look at new submarines. By not being at the table, we’re not even in the discussion about the future of submarines and how they can best serve us.

NAVAL SHORTFALLS

CDR: Are you concerned about the cost and timeline of CSC?

James Bezan: Definitely, the cost of these ships continues to go higher and higher according to the PBO, and the timeline continues to slide to the right. We need the ships now. There is no question in my mind the faster we build them, the more money we’ll save long term because of the inflationary impacts, especially on defence contracts, is higher than Canadian inflationary numbers which are already on the high side. The sooner we can get them in the water, the more money we save. But we have to look at the production cycle itself and the engineering and the redrawing and the ongoing changes that continue to slow down these projects and add costs. Decisions have to be made, finalized, and ships built, period! We don’t have the luxury of sitting around to design the next best thing because by the time we need the ships it could be too late.

CDR: Should Canada acquire the Asterix supply ship to bolster the support capacity for the Navy?

James Bezan: I’m a big supporter of the JSS, although we did pick that design back in 2008 and we still haven’t delivered the first ship, but at least steel is cut, and ships will be delivered over the next couple of years. But with the coastline that we have — the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic — we need to have more supply ships, not less. Knowing that we are always going to have a cycle of deployment and deep maintenance to just maintain our two main coasts, having a third ship in that rotation would be an asset. Having three ships would provide our AOPS greater opportunity for further deep deployment in the Arctic. It’s a big space to cover so you have to be able to have that ability to project and protect our sovereignty. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

The area is of interest to the Russian Federation; and the PRC also has great interest in our Arctic as they see themselves as a near-Arctic nation, and they have as part of their Belt and Road Initiative, the Polar Silk Road, so we had better be up there protecting the entrances into the northwest passage and the Arctic archipelagos. That is to say, a lease is great, but I think owning the asset is something that needs to be further looked at and potentially actioned.

CDR: Thank you.

 

Joetey Attariwala is CDR’s Senior Staff Writer

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