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Eye On Defence: Testing The New Government

by David J. Bercuson

MP David Pratt places a wreath in Rouen, France, in 2002. He was named minister of National Defence in December.

In the first seven days after Paul Martin succeeded Jean Chrétien as prime minister of Canada (the time of the writing of this column) Martin did more to bolster the morale of the Canadian military than his predecessor did in his first seven years. In that one week Martin appointed Rob White as Canada’s first National Security advisor and MP David Price as parliamentary secretary to the minister of National Defence for Reserve Affairs. Price is a long-serving army reservist.

Martin also announced that major foreign and defence policy reviews were forthcoming, and—most important—appointed David Pratt as the new minister of National Defence.

That’s noteworthy because Pratt knows the Canadian Forces and the department well, having served three years as chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs, and is an outspoken advocate of a stronger military and better ties to the United States. At times Pratt was the sharpest and most persistent thorn in Chrétien’s side on defence matters. He even disagreed publicly with the PM’s decision on the Iraq war.

Martin’s first substantive act to shore up the nation’s defences within that week was to finally commit the government to spend $3 billion to complete the Maritime Helicopter Replacement Project that dragged on through the Chrétien years. Martin not only exempted the project from the temporary freeze he imposed on all other government capital spending, but he called for the contract to be in place by the summer of 2004. When one of the three competitors was dropped from the bidding shortly after the announcement—the one whose helicopter had always seemed more problematic to most observers—all doubt that the navy might be flying its new aircraft, possibly as early as 2008, disappeared.

It was a flying start in the right direction, but the hard part will begin to emerge by spring as Martin, Pratt and Finance Minister Ralph Goodale face the hard budget choices that will be necessary to put the Canadian military back into good order. Most of the decisions as to what direction the forces need to go in, and thus what they will look like 10 years from now, simply must await full reviews of Canadian foreign and defence policy.

It is easy enough to declare that Canada’s military exists to guard Canadian sovereignty at home and to be an instrument of Canadian foreign policy abroad. But either of these objectives can be considered in dozens of ways, and through a wide range of possibilities and probabilities. Since Canada is too small a country to build a military that aspires to be ready for anything, anywhere, and at any time, it is up to the government to make the hard choices that must be made to guide the Canadian military’s evolution.

If, for example, virtually all Canadians now realize as a result of the hard lessons of the past decade that the Canadian military has to be ready to actually fight someone sometime—whether terrorists at home or abroad, or al-Qaida in Afghanistan, or genocidal maniacs in the Balkans—that means they understand the need for a combat-capable force.

But what is combat capable? The Canadian military cannot ever be capable of fighting over the entire range of possible conflict. It never was, even in WW II, though it came close then. Choices have to be made and they must be made by the nation’s civilian leadership as the first step in the military transformation process.

Those choices should be made in accordance with Canadian national and strategic requirements and not just to copy what some other country is doing or to make friends in foreign capitals. Each nation’s strategic requirements are unique, and so are ours. Some are glaringly obvious even now.

The Canadian military, for example, is never likely to have to man the shore defences at home. But it will operate abroad as an instrument of foreign policy either to aid in striking at enemies before they can harm us or our allies such as in Afghanistan, or in bringing order and helping to establish conditions necessary for democracy as in the Balkans.

Such a military needs the capability to move abroad quickly with medium-weight but highly lethal forces, but that is not the kind of military Canada inherited from the long Cold War. Most independent defence experts already know this.

Thus the decision that former minister of National Defence John McCallum made last fall to move the army in the direction of acquiring the U.S. Stryker type of medium-weight mobile-gun system was the right decision. Whatever the outcome of the forthcoming foreign and defence reviews, it is a virtual certainty that Canada would not try to stay in the heavy tank business when just about everyone else in the world is getting out.

The U.S. is not developing a successor to the Abrams. Britain is converting one of its two armoured divisions to a medium-weight formation. Even the Israelis are thinking of ceasing production of their Merkava main battle tank.

Future ‘tanks’ will not be protected by thicker layers of armour. The battleship is gone because heavy armour is cumbersome, expensive, and eventually defeated by low-cost threat devices. Modern warships are guarded by pro-active defensive systems that neutralize all but a small range of threats. So will tomorrow’s tank.

The defence review will also affirm at least one other requirement: even medium-weight forces need to get there, wherever “there” is. Lift is the one capability that the Canadian Forces simply cannot do without (The Need To Lift Our Weight, May/June). Effective, ready, military transport—by sea or air—is the Canadian Forces’ greatest need today. It cannot be done on the cheap, as Canada has struggled to do over the past decade.

That is why after the foreign and defence reviews, the single most important indicator of how well Martin will be gauged as a prime minister who truly has defence on his mind may well prove to be the resolution of the lift question.


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