It will come as a surprise to some that the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are to this day regarded as a qualitatively good military by our allies. In 10 years of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, Canada successfully managed to contain the Taliban threat in the Kandahar province, one of the more troubled provinces in Afghanistan’s volatile south. However, such success happened despite governmental mismanagement which had our troops insert themselves within a desert theatre of operations wearing green camouflage and without adequate heavy equipment. It would be a truism to state that our forces have now made a science of doing more with less given the government’s propensity towards a slash and burn approach when it comes to the military.
One might also note, not without a hint of sadness, that the incessant round of cuts turned a once respectable pillar of the allies – that could go toe-to-toe with Waffen SS divisions – into a bit player, capable of bringing nothing more than a few good men to the table. It wouldn’t be altogether cynical, as we mentioned in an earlier article, to also assume that the debasement of the Canadian Armed Forces as a pillar of Canadian culture and tradition was a wholly deliberate move by the progressive forces in Canada incarnated in the Liberal Party.
The sad fact of the matter is a few excellent troops might make for a few good soundbites for the CBC when a Prime Minister decides to gloat about the excellence of our fighting men, but it says very little about our country’s ability to defend itself or its interests abroad. It also glosses over the fact that our vehicle fleets are rusting out, that our navy is without supply ships or destroyers and that we are flying 40-year-old jet fighters. In this second part of our series on the Canadian Armed Forces, we will examine the current state and posture of our forces by analysing the Canadian government’s stated policy as well as the current international situation.
An instructor of mine once noted with some melancholy that Canada’s problem with the military is cultural. I respectfully disagree. I am of the belief that Canada’s problem with its military is pathological. Notwithstanding the fact that pacifism is not particularly rooted in our national history (anybody making such an assertion would quickly be confronted with the reality that our colonial forbearers subjugated a continent), a “cultural” aversion to military spending would have a basis in necessity (or lack thereof). The fact is that Canada has almost systematically gained and gained big from military endeavors and has, on the upside, never suffered from the devastation of modern conflict on its soil. The very same instructor also told me that Canadians perceive no realistic threat and cannot, as such, fathom that so many resources be poured into the military.
I find this notion to be fanciful in the extreme. The fact is that this so-called “peace of mind” has been bought by the monstrous amount of funding that is poured into US defence by its own taxpayers who understand, at least on the unconscious level, that a strong military is preferable to a weak one or more accurately, that a strong military is an absolute necessity for the US to remain dominant. While Canadians loathe to admit it, much of their good fortune is intimately tied into the success of the USA. As such, said good fortunes are also tied to the military dominance of the USA, which ensures the security of the oceanic shipping lanes and has acted as a global-level guarantor of political stability. At the very least, our foreign policy has acknowledged that idea, as much emphasis is placed on the fact that Canada “owes” a contribution to our allies. In fact, it is likely the only argument that keep us image obsessed Canadians from disbanding our military wholesale. To be openly derided as laggards and freeloaders would be unbearable for our inordinately proud people.
Our current defence policy, “Strong, Secure, Engaged. Canada’s Defence Policy” is built around three principles that we’ll call axiomatic for the purpose of this analysis:
- Strong at home. Translation: keeping the homeland well defended.
- Secure in North America. Translation: Contributing to the defence of North America through our NORAD commitments.
- Engaged in the world. Translation: fulfilling our international obligations with NATO and other partner nations.
If this sounds familiar it is because the core principles of the Liberal government’s defence policy were essentially lifted from the Conservative Canada first defence strategy which had the following three goals:
- Defending Canada.
- Defending North America.
- Contributing to international peace and security.
The fundamentals having remained the same, the Liberal defence policy thus proceeds to distinguish itself by emphasizing such known military principles like gender-based analysis and diversity. All the while, it further promises to fix funding and equipment issues. In other words, nothing new under the sun – except perhaps for the usual moral disorder that we’ve come to expect.
To give credit where it is due, this policy is not outrageously bad and certainly is in no way comparable to the highly damaging Force Reduction Program of the early 90s or the hated unification of ’68. Still, it fails to fundamentally address the endemic issues of under-funding, under-manning and the overall small size of our armed forces.
To the militarily illiterate, the three axioms might seem innocuous and reasonable objectives. But that much cannot even be said, given the state in which our military has been allowed to fall and fester in. Worse yet, they are a smokescreen that serves to adroitly hide the fact that our government does not understand, or refuses to acknowledge, the key role of militaries in the modern world: the defence and enforcement of our interests domestically and abroad.
If we begin by the first – defending Canada – the facade already begins to crack. Defending the country should indeed always be the first and main goal of an armed force, even to the detriment of any international obligation. However, our forces could likely not manage it, even if we abandoned the other two objectives. Our armed forces have a strength of close to 100,000 personnel on paper; about 30,000 of those are reservists, leaving us with close to 70,000 personnel in total. Most of these are not fighting men, but support personnel, technicians and medical personnel and the like. If we look at Canada’s actual fighting strength, it consists in nine under-strength infantry battalions and perhaps a bit more than half as many armored regiments, along with artillery and engineer support. In all, we have three partially mechanized brigades. I say partially because some of our infantry battalions are designated as light (which is to say, operating primarily on foot) and also because of our ghastly Vehicle Off Road rate, due to inadequate numbers of vehicles and endemic maintenance budgets.
In comparison, Russia has over 60 brigades and China has over 40 divisions in addition to some 40 brigades. The fact is that even with three oceans and one of the largest landmasses, the Canadian military is utterly dwarfed by the large militaries of this world; it is a non-entity in a scenario in which Canada has to defend itself alone or even with US support. In fact, one would not be wrong in assuming that any defence of Canada would be almost entirely mounted by our neighbours to the south.
Even if one removes the possibility of a land war, our ability to defend our airspace or territorial waters is debatable at best. Our offensive and defensive power in the air is centered around 80 fast aging F-18 jets with no significant electronic warfare capabilities. Crucially absent are any dedicated area air defence platforms. In other words, no missiles or guns to defend the skies. At sea, the same gap exists as our air defence destroyers have long ago been scrapped; while our 12 frigates are excellent sub hunters, they are unable to operate in arctic waters where a conceivable threat would exist coming from Russian subs.
Even if one was to entirely discount a conventional threat, and only focus on the dreaded nuclear menace (one that is quite in vogue given the temperament of North Korea’s current dictator), Canada’s anti-ballistic capabilities are lacking. Though in its infancy, the US, Russia and China are all fast at work in perfecting theirs, a sure sign of its coming viability. Canada has exactly none.
For the purposes of defending our country, our military is essentially too small and too ill equipped to be a force to be reckoned with. This fact answers the second point incisively too. Since our military would be unable to mount more than a token defence effort of the mainland, it also completely lacks the ability to meaningfully contribute to the defence of North America. Our membership in NORAD should, as such, be considered more as an act of politeness by the US, as well as a treaty allowing it to operate freely in our airspace if the situation demands it. The fact of the matter is that it is the US and the US alone that guarantees the safety of the North American continent and, by extension, Canada.
As far as our international commitments go, Canada performs somewhat better. Certainly, we outperform many international laggards who simply refuse to involve themselves militarily in international operations (Germany comes to mind). But beyond our willingness (which has cooled significantly with the election of Justin Trudeau), Canada has scant few capabilities to bring to the table could not easily be provided by the US alone. Certainly, our efforts in Afghanistan were commendable – especially in comparison to Germany and France (though the latter could at least claim to have ongoing operations elsewhere in the world) – but their effects were essentially marginal. Marginal is also the word that can be used to describe our contribution to NATO. Canada was recently singled out by the US for being one of the countries that are not pulling their weight when it comes to defence spending by failing to spend at least 2% of their GDPs. We can note that very few NATO countries meet this goal, but Canada is particularly far down the totem pole on this one with a laughable 1%.
For all intents and purpose, Canada’s armed forces are custodial in nature; existing for the sole purpose of retaining a basic level of proficiency and corporate knowledge in military matters in case an actual mobilization needs to take place. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a state of affairs, but I should add that such a policy has historically been the province of third rate powers and client states. Our media and political elite often harp about Canada’s so called leading middle power status yet have refused to actually furnish the country with a military apparatus to match these lofty aspirations. Until Canada is led by people who take our defence seriously, we shall remain an American protectorate whose main distinguishing characteristic is our inflated sense of our own relevance in international affairs.
The final part of this series will submit a few proposals. It will outline what could be done to equip and rearm Canada’s military in order to stand strong and free in the coming century.