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Eye On Defence: A Lighter And More Lethal Army

by David J. Bercuson

Canadian Forces members equipped with Coyote armoured vehicles on patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

In the 1994 White Paper on Defence, the current government made a key decision regarding Canadian defence policy when it undertook to maintain a military that would be combat capable, multi-purpose and globally deployable. Indeed, in making that decision the government made a deliberate choice between those Canadians who urged that Canada’s post-Cold War military be reorganized into a sort of international constabulary best suited for peacekeeping operations and those who advocated that the Canadian Forces retain a full range of military response capabilities.

It is now eight years since the White Paper was issued and it is increasingly apparent that there is no longer a simple definition of “combat capable, multi-purpose and globally deployable” especially for Canada’s small military. Currently, all of the world’s major military powers are taking a serious look at just what “combat capable, multi-purpose, and globally deployable” means to them.

In the early 1990s, a number of defence experts, military technologists and forward-thinking military leaders–especially in the United States–began to speak and write of a Revolution in Military Affairs. They referred primarily to changes they believed were occurring in war fighting due to the appearance of communications satellites, the Global Positioning System, miniaturization, digital communications, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

There is still debate within defence circles about how revolutionary the RMA really is, but there is no debate that the end of the Cold War dramatically decreased the potential for intense air-land battle on a broad and sustained scale, and the global dominance of the United States has dramatically decreased the chances of a major global war.

Virtually all the current major weapons systems operation by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the former Warsaw Pact are, at best, 20 years from irrelevance. In the United States, for example, the Department of Defense is pushing the army to eventually relegate its Abrams Main Battle Tanks and Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles to the status of “legacy force” based in the U.S. and at a limited number of forward deployment areas, while the army develops core competencies in medium brigades and light battalions. In Britain a spokesman for Vickers Industries was quoted as saying that the Challenger II Main Battle Tank would likely be the last of its type ever acquired by the British Army. The recent cancellation of the proposed Crusader artillery system in the U.S. was a dramatic illustration of the direction the Department of Defense wants the U.S. Army to go.

There are three reasons why the U.S. and just about everybody else who matters is moving in this direction.

First, only in science fiction does the capability exist to project significant heavy military forces anywhere outside the continental United States in any “nick of time” scenario. Main Battle Tanks and heavy tracked armoured personnel carriers cannot be moved by air in numbers large enough to matter quickly enough to count.

Second, conventional light forces such as the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, or the Rapid Reaction Force Canada is obligated to keep ready for possible NATO use, would constitute a mere speed bump for a determined and well armed enemy who strikes quickly at some distant-to-us but close-to-him asset that is strategically important for the west.

Third, new technologies such as Globally Positioning System-guided artillery shells and tank-killing “smart” missiles are rapidly being developed which will substantially increase the lethality of light and medium forces, especially in conjunction with air power so that heavy forces may never have to be resorted to except in such unlikely cases as a major war between coalitions of opposing, technologically advanced, states.

The new direction in American thinking about the future role of ground forces has brought the U.S. Army to focus on the General Motors chassis for the LAV III and the Coyote as the basis for an entire family of wheeled fighting vehicles that will even include a vehicle mounting a 105-millimetre direct-fire gun as a sort of fast-moving, but highly lethal, wheeled tank. The main stipulation for all these new vehicles is that they must fit into the stolid but still highly adaptable C-130 Hercules transport. The U.S. aim is to create entire medium-weight brigades that will be capable of being deployed by air, at long distances in mere days.

These developments form the backdrop of the Canadian Army’s new direction as outlined in Advancing With Purpose: The Army Strategy, One Army, One Team, One Vision, issued this past May. This document is refreshing in both its candour and its future vision. Its start point is a frank acknowledgement of the many difficulties the army has faced in the past few years, from underfunding to an increased and unsustainable operational tempo. It also puts to rest the pretence that Canada can continue to sustain a three-brigade army structure with each brigade trained and equipped to the same high standard, with anything like the current defence budget.

In effect, Advancing With Purpose acknowledges that an army can remain combat capable without trying to maintain a full range of combat power. It does so by proposing that one of the current three brigades be developed and trained as a medium-weight mechanized force while the other two are transformed into lighter-weight formations with the possibility that one become a special operations unit of some sort. The document also proposes a far more realistic training scenario than in the past, not focusing primarily on open or manoeuvre warfare but also on fighting in complex terrain and in built-up areas. In other words, real training for a real war all the time.

There will be mixed reaction to Advancing With Purpose within the army. Some will accuse the army of buckling under to the government’s continued strangulation of the defence budget and cutting the army suit to meet the Finance minister’s cloth.

There is no doubt an element of truth to such suspicions. But it is also true that the Canadian army cannot pretend that major doctrinal and equipment changes are not taking place in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere as land forces finally face the reality that the future is unlikely to bring new all-out confrontation scenarios. The heavy armoured division is no longer the only, nor even the primary, measures of combat capability. The key to victory on tomorrow’s battlefield is lethality not weight.

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