by Ray Dick
|Top: Retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire chairs a panel discussion on multilateralism and the Canadian Forces with (from left) analysts Sean Maloney, Ann Fitz-Gerald and David Malone. Below (from left): Defence Minister David Pratt speaks to the Conference of Defence Associations as the Legion’s National Defence Committee Chairman Lou Cuppens looks on; Canadian Press defence writer Stephen Thorne speaks on his coverage of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
The country’s top military leaders say the Canadian Forces have “turned the corner” after more than a decade of budget cuts, pointing to recent increases in funding, new purchases in armour and other equipment and an upcoming defence and foreign affairs policy review. It will be the first since the 1994 White Paper on Defence and should set the future roadmap for the Canadian military. But it was the long road ahead for the undermanned, underfunded and over-committed Canadian military after the corner that was the focus of discussions and concern among retired officers, politicians and academics and other interested observers attending a recent seminar of the Conference of Defence Associations.
Defence Minister David Pratt said that “while the forces have been through some lean years of late,” progress had been made in equipment acquisition, training and doctrine, quality of life in the service and additional funding for the defence budget. But it was “absolutely critical” that defence spending be looked at in the context of the policy review.
“I’m currently working on a plan with my officials from the department,” he said. “And my colleagues from foreign affairs, international trade and international development are working on theirs. We meet weekly to coordinate the review process—a process that will be completed this autumn. A parliamentary committee will then consider its results and offer Canadians the opportunity to make their views known.”
Pratt said the review will be an integrated look at Canada’s foreign and defence policies and will focus on four areas:
• The capability of forces to defend Canada, protect the continent and contribute to international peace and security.
• The ability to swiftly deploy personnel and equipment across the country or around the world.
• The means to support and sustain operations for as long as needed, without compromising quality-of-life issues for the servicemen and women.
• What kind of troops will be needed for operations in the future. A robust special forces capability had proven useful in current operations. Other capabilities, such as those not used in the last 10 years, would be questioned.
“We know we’re asking a lot of our men and women in uniform. In some cases too much,” said Pratt. That is why the defence budget was increased by $800 million last year and why the country was pulling back on overseas commitments to give its military time to regroup—withdrawing troops from Bosnia, cutting back its naval deployment to the Arabian Sea and cutting its peacemaking commitment in Afghanistan this year to about 500 troops from 2,100.
Pratt also said the new Liberal government has made better relations with the United States a priority and that talks are underway to discuss ballistic missile defence of North America. “I firmly believe that we, as a responsible government, must be prepared to look at a system designed to prevent a potential missile strike on North America and the unimaginable human tragedy that would result from such an attack.” Canadian interests could not be protected if this country was not at the table in discussions on the protection of the continent. A decision on whether Canada would participate in missile defence would be taken when discussions were complete.
Chief of Defence Staff General Ray Hénault also stressed the importance of being able to operate alongside allied forces, especially with the U.S. which he says is almost always going to be an ally or a component of a coalition-based operation. Transformation was a necessity in that the army, navy and air force units needed to increasingly learn how to operate and fight together in operations that will use scalpels rather than bludgeons, smaller amounts of resources and minimize both risks and collateral damage.” Examples of increased interoperability with allies were the CF-18 air operations in the Balkans and the naval units in the Arabian Sea. “And that means we’re connecting our people on the ground wherever they may be at sea or in the air with each other and we’re allowing decision makers, very often far removed from where the frontline is, to be able to influence the operations in an appropriate way,” he told the CDA seminar.
While Pratt and Hénault were upbeat in their assessments of the capability and future of the Canadian Forces, retired colonel Howie Marsh, now a senior defence analyst at the CDA, added a more pessimistic tone. He told the seminar that credibility, passion and clear speech are required when examining Canada’s military capability, its limitations and future.
“When a welfare mom has no food for her children she yells,‘I have no food; My kids are starving,’” he said. “A defence official in the same crisis would report, ‘Sometime in the near future the children are likely to adapt to a less robust diet.’ Who is the most credible in communicating the problem?”
In a panel discussion on the capabilities of the Canadian Forces chaired by the former chief of defence staff John de Chastelain, Marsh said the Canadian legacy of defence neglect will impose embarrassing limitations on military capability for this and the next decade. “Future capability depends on a defence restitution of about $70 billion over the next 15 years and/or a massive reallocation along with suspension of many non-defence objectives.”
The lack of trained soldiers after the force reduction programs of the 1990s and the lack of money to buy new equipment were two of the factors limiting the military’s capability, Marsh said. The forces had released thousands of experienced personnel, then started to replace them through surge recruiting starting in 2000. “The Canadian military demographic for the next seven years will resemble that of an African village ravaged by AIDS—few elders, with many young leaders supervising the new arrivals.” As for funding, the costs of military operations is eating away the money designated for new equipment. At that rate the forces could not replace equipment on operations, let alone transform the force. “The department is spending $1.8 billion a year to repair old equipment and is spending $800 million on new equipment,” he said. “Something is seriously wrong.”
In any case, said Marsh, funded change in military equipment would be 10-15 years away, and that militaries keep equipment for 30-40 years—in other words, future capabilities that are planned today won’t arrive much before 2020 and will be operated into the middle of this century in a world that many researchers believe will be more dangerous and uncertain.
Another panellist, Kim Richard Nossal of Queen’s University, said that in examining the way ahead in defence and foreign policy it would be useful to keep in mind the track record of the past.
There were great expectations for a new approach by a new prime minister and a new government, and that changes from the previous regime had been unmistakable and remarkable. He mentioned a visit to National Defence Headquarters by Prime Minister Paul Martin, something his predecessor had never done, and a speedy announcement of Canada’s willingness to negotiate with the U.S. on involvement with the missile defence initiative. But when looking at the past, there was much that should signal caution. There was a tendency towards meanness and tight-fistedness in foreign relations, and that Canadians historically have not been interested in having the state spend their wealth on international affairs.
“We are unlikely to see any change in the willingness of ministers in cabinet to change the spending habits that have been so entrenched in Canadian practice…,” he said. The prime minister knew from experience as finance minister just how much meat could be pared from the “international policy bone—primarily the areas of defence and development assistance—without having the wheels fall off.” The wheels may wobble, but they stayed on so everyone could muddle through. Development assistance was spread wide and thin, as was the poorly equipped Canadian Forces, mainly to ensure the Canadian flag is widely shown and that development agency contracts are spread across the country for domestic and political purposes.
“In short, vast sums of Canadian taxpayers’ money is spent each year spreading Canadian capabilities as widely and thinly as possible,” he said.
An outsider’s view of the Canadian military was given by panellist Stephen Thorne, an award-winning journalist with The Canadian Press
who was heavily involved in reporting on Canadian military activities in Afghanistan. He told the seminar there are two extreme views of Canada’s military—those who think all soldiers are killers and instruments of political power, and those who think Canadian soldiers are not soldiers at all but a glorified police force that spreads Canadian goodwill after the fighting is over. The truth was in between those extreme points of view.
He said in some ways the Canadian soldiers are ill-served by debate over funding, that Canadians wrongly tend to equate bad equipment with a bad military. The arguments for more equipment and the contention that the troops haven’t got the tools to do their jobs overlooks the fact that “our soldiers can hold their own with any in the world.” If there was a problem, it was because there are far too few of them and that they operate under restrictive rules of engagement—such as not patrolling with bullets in the barrels and giving ample warnings before using lethal force.
He gave an example of “the Canadian way:” In an operation with American troops on a mountain called The Whale the Canadians came across a donkey wandering up and down the hillsides, probably used to carry ammunition for al-Qaida fighters. Fearing for the donkey’s safety, they smeared reflective paint on the animal and released him. A short time later the donkey was dead, shredded by hundreds of rounds from the American troops.
Thorne has written articles for Legion Magazine on his experiences with the Canadian troops in Afghanistan and he has won several awards for his defence reporting, including the CDA’s Ross Munro Media Award.