PHOTO: ADAM DAY
The Conference of Defence Associations held its annual seminar in Ottawa this year against a backdrop of major activity in the world of Canadian defence and foreign affairs.
Just days before the March 3-4 conference Prime Minister Paul Martin announced that Canada wouldn’t be participating in the American ballistic missile defence initiative. A new budget had also just been tabled, allocating large increases in defence spending. There was a newly appointed chief of defence staff, General Rick Hillier. There was also discusion on the soon-to-be-released International Policy Statement with its promise of the first defence policy revision since 1994.
Though the topic of the seminar was After the Elections: Canada-U.S. Security Relationships and the Role of the Canadian Forces, the participants ranged across the entire territory of Canadian defence and security. While some speakers lamented past mistakes, many more staked out arguments about Canada’s role in shaping the future.
Over the course of the two-day conference the assembled speakers and panelists developed a detailed picture of an emerging Canadian power in an unstable world. Arguments about why Canada needs to reassert itself and how to do it diverged across the spectrum, but on one thing everybody agreed, if we want to have a say in the world, we have to be ready to do something about it.
Though this message of engagement may not be new, the context has changed significantly. There was a sense of hope among many attendees that maybe now good things were starting to come together.
The CDA has been holding an annual seminar on issues in Canadian defence since 1932. With its long list of notable speakers—including U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci and Hillier—the CDA seminar is a central intellectual event in the world of Canadian defence policy. Among the hundreds of attendees who gathered for the seminar in the ornate ballroom at the Chateau Laurier were many serving and retired CF members, dozens of foreign military and diplomats, academics and, clad in their distinctive red uniforms, row upon row of Royal Military College officer cadets.
The BMD initiative was clearly a major issue of contention at the seminar because of its obvious implications for the United States-Canada defence relationship. Most speakers felt the Martin government made a mistake by choosing not to join BMD, and even those who defended the decision in principle had reservations about the way it was made and announced.
James Fergusson, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, was incensed by the decision not to participate in BMD. Fergusson said it was an “almost infantile state of thinking in the government” that led to “the worst military decision in Canadian government history.”
But not everyone felt our BMD aversion was such an error, or that it would have any long-term ramifications. John Noble, director of research and communications at the Centre for Trade Policy and Law, doesn’t think “it’s necessarily as bad as people portray it. It’s not the first time a Canadian prime minister has said no to the Americans on the issue of ballistic missile defence. Brian Mulroney did it in 1985.”
Noble also had reservations about the utility of ballistic missile defence in this new era of warfare. “For 15 years I’ve regarded BMD as a high-tech Maginot Line because anyone wanting to attack the United States with a nuclear weapon would not resort to delivering it with a missile which can be readily detectable and identified. Furthermore, it’s like waving a red flag in front of the biggest bull in the world. (North American Aerospace Defence Command’s) long-standing tracking capability and the American retaliatory capability is all that is required to deter any state from using a missile.”
Though U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci obviously disagreed with our BMD decision, his speech was quite clearly focused on prospects for future co-operation. Cellucci has a record of being openly critical of Canadian defence policy, arguing the CF is too small, underfunded and underutilized. “Whatever our differences, the U.S. and Canada share common goals and threats,” he said.
Cellucci outlined three ways that Canada could transform its military to “punch above its weight.” First, since Canada already excels in the high technology field of command and control, it would be a natural step to expand our expertise in digitized communications, intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The second way Canada could improve is by creating a special operations force equivalent to the U.S. Army’s fabled Green Berets. Though Cellucci said the elite JTF2 is highly valuable in an assault role, it isn’t suited for other ‘softer’ areas of special operations like civil-military relations and indigenous force training. “A small, lean, highly deployable and highly trained unit with the latest communications and technologies would seem to make a lot of sense for Canada. These forces are in high demand in NATO and peacekeeping operations worldwide.”
The third capability Canada should invest in is strategic airlift. Cellucci argues that renting is problematic because the available planes are getting older and demand for their services is getting higher. “To respond to future crises, it is likely that Canadian Forces will require their own aircraft. I can think of nothing that would contribute more to Canada’s 3D (defence, diplomacy, development) foreign policy approach than the steady flow of Canadian airlifters with Maple Leafs on their side delivering humanitarian aid.”
Though Hillier would probably agree with all three of Cellucci’s requests in principle, he believes Canada probably doesn’t need to own the strategic lift, arguing that “if there is any way that we can assure ourselves of the lift and responsiveness that we need without owning it, than that’s the route I would recommend that we take.”
Like Cellucci, Hillier believes surveillance and intelligence collection is absolutely vital for success in missions like Afghanistan. Unlike Cellucci, Hillier doesn’t believe high technology is necessarily the answer. Hillier says digitized command and control is useful in high-intensity fighting, but wasn’t very useful in Afghanistan, where he was commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. “When you’re in the middle of a fight, a stabilization effort and humanitarian assistance, living amongst a population of four million—most of whom want you there, some of whom need your help, and then some that are trying to kill you—a digitized command and control system actually has minimal value.”
Hillier argues that much of the CF’s previous transformation agenda was focused, like the concept of a digitized battlefield, on a traditional high-intensity conflict against a theoretical or historical situation, instead of the situation we actually face, which is the need to perform three distinct missions—combat, nation building and humanitarian assistance. “We’ve recognized that since 9/11, in failed and failing states around the world that the only solution is to be able to do all three of those at the same time. The three block war. Our transformation has got to lead us to a military that is not focused on the last threat, but is focused on the present threats.”
No longer are we fighting the traditional enemy like the Russian bear, said Hillier, “the threat now is a ball of snakes that sometimes manifests itself as a smaller portion of the high-intensity warfare but also spans the spectrum right through terrorism, organized crime and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
“Our default setting in the CF often still is that we set up against the bear. We go off and do all the missions we’ve been focused on over the past 10 years but then as soon as we can we get back to real soldiering back here in Canada. It’s actually time that we change that dynamic. We’ve got to shape ourselves against that ball of snakes.”
Though many commentators at the seminar were suspicious of the government’s budget announcement, Hillier does not. The government, he says, used exactly the budget numbers he gave them, and he is looking at this budget for what it is—a promise from the government and from the people of Canada to allocate resources to the CF.
“They’ve made a commitment,” he said, “But a lot of people that refuse to accept that things are changing for the better. But this will be seen, looking backwards, as a place where we started turning the corner.”
Transforming the structure of the CF, with the inevitable divestiture of some capabilities like the Leopard battle tank, is bound to be contentious. But Hillier argues it’s necessary because it’s simply what we have to do to meet the new threat. “I really do believe that we deploy men and women around the world because it is in our interest to do so…. If we are not part of the package that helps bring stability to places that are inherently unstable then that instability will be brought home to Canada.”
The divisions in priorities and desires between the various factions in the defence and foreign affairs views were apparent throughout the seminar. After Cellucci’s speech outlining three new roles for Canada, one man stood up to complain that these roles were an affront to Canada’s history of courageous action at places like Vimy Ridge and Juno Beach, that “Canadians have always been at the forefront and you’re suggesting that we now retire to the rear area and take on some technical and logistics functions.”
Cellucci appeared to be mystified by the comment, because the roles he was suggesting for Canada—special forces and surveillance/intelligence collection —actually are on the front lines of a modern battlefield like Kabul, where there aren’t any beaches to land on and precious few ridgelines to take.
Hillier provided a good concrete solution for easing opposition to the military’s transformation. “I just remind all of you in this room that have an affinity for the military that we don’t have an age limit. So if you feel like you want to come down and apply, we’d be glad to consider you for what is going to be an exciting time for the Canadian Forces.”
Michael Jeffery, chief of land staff from 2000-2003, argues that before the military transformation will have any purpose “there needs to evolve a national will to fulfil a greater role in the world. In short, Canadians need to be convinced.” And at the heart of this effort is a question: “What would Canadians fight for? It’s easy to default to the skeptical view that says Canadians are not prepared to sacrifice. But few Canadians will embrace a world role without understanding the why. But if the cause is just our history says the nation will respond.”
Despite all the expertise at the CDA seminar, these were questions that defied easy answers: What would Canadians fight for? What role do we want to play in the world? One thing’s for sure, this debate is at the front line in the legendary Canadian crisis of identity.
The decision to export stability—justice and the rule of law, security, a functional economy—to the chaotic parts of the world is a major step, and though a lot of speakers agreed on this course of action it’s not yet clear if Canada will be able to complete its transformation from a hesitant and withdrawn country to one that actively struggles for the future. Many hope the International Policy Statement will provide some direction on how to proceed, but even that may not be enough.
“As I ponder all of this I have to tell you my skepticism remains for one can’t help but question our will to face up to these issues, and indeed to commit for the long term,” said Jeffrey. “But my heart is hopeful, for I truly do believe the will of the nation can make a difference. My head also says that I think we must, for only in this way can we make this world a safer place for our children.”