A look into the state of the Canadian Armed Forces and what they need to do their duty for Canada and its citizens.
In the past decade and a half, military spending has fallen quite dramatically. The Canadian Forces manpower has fallen from almost 83,000 personnel during the 1980s to just under 60,000 today. Some of their equipment is so outdated it spends more time in the workshop than in the field. Is this entirely the Liberals fault? Not really. While there has been some prejudice against the military by recent Liberal governments, Canadians as a whole have had other priorities, like health care, the economy, unemployment, our ballooning national debt and deficits throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
In a 1995 Macleans/CBC poll, only 1% of Canadians thought defence spending was an issue. Unemployment (31%), the deficit (15%) and national unity (9%) were the top 3 issues. Americans weren’t the only people looking for a ‘peace dividend’ after the collapse of the USSR. The reality is that the Liberals gave Canadians what we asked for.
This wasn’t always the case. In the past, the Liberals have been strong proponents of military spending. In 1910, the Laurier government passed the Naval Service Act creating the Canadian Navy. This was in stark contrast to the Progressive Conservatives who felt our needs would be better served simply by handing money over to Britain to build two capital ships for the Royal Navy, which at the time was in an arms race with Germany.
After being re-elected in the 1935, Mackenzie King funded what was then the largest peacetime rearmament program ever, increasing the navy, air force and army substantially. During the 1950s, the St. Laurent government sent army and air force contingents to both Europe and Asia, and announced plans to expand the Navy to 60 frigates and destroyers. He also spent hundreds of millions of dollars (several billion in today’s dollars) on the development of the Avro Arrow, which ironically was cancelled by a Tory government. In 1956, Pearson, in a speech to the United Nations, helped to create peacekeeping as we know it today.
The real fall from grace happened with the election of Pierre Trudeau. His beliefs that the military was largely unnecessary led to spending cuts and the loss of personnel. Equipment was only grudgingly purchased, and then only to keep NATO allies happy, not out of any real sense that it was necessary. This continued through Brian Mulroney’s reign in mid-1980s when he promised big spending on defence, but waffled over the large price tag of items like a heavy icebreaker for the North and nuclear submarines.
It was only after the events of 9/11 that Canadians have shown a willingness to spend more on defence and sovereignty. And the Liberals did respond, increasing defence spending by almost 20% over the past five years. Had Martin’s Liberals stayed in office, by 2010, defence spending would have risen to almost $18 billion annually, a far cry from the Chrétien years, when it hovered near between nine and ten billion dollars annually. Of course, with the election of Harper and the Conservative party, defence spending will increase, especially in light of the almost $17 billion in new equipment tendered at the end of last month. This year’s budget brought the annual defence budget to just over $16 billion, which is very respectable and will go a long way to helping the CF carry out its duties.
We as Canadians need the Forces for a variety of purposes. These include protecting our sovereignty and homeland defence, peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, and assisting civil authorities in times of crisis. The question is obviously how to do this properly and affordably.
Realistically, Canada is not now, and likely will not be in the foreseeable future in threat of an attack on our nation by another nation’s armed forces. The few nations in the world other than the USA capable of true power projection are NATO allies. These include nations such as France and the UK. China may develop this ability in several decades, but for the moment it is a regional superpower.
With global warming affecting northern waters, especially the Northwest Passage, Canada needs a permanent presence in the Arctic other than that of our Canadian Rangers. We need to maintain our sovereignty, especially in the Arctic, which will be challenged by nations on a regular basis, especially if the ice in the Passage thins and melts by 2050, as is expected. Just recently, the Danish landed troops on Hans Island, claimed by Canada, and planted a flag there. Petulantly, Canada responded by doing the same the following spring.
Harper’s promise of three armed icebreakers is welcome news. The construction of a deep water port in Iqualuit as a forward base for these vessels will only enhance Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. At a cost of between $40 and $100 million, this port is an inexpensive addition to our defence infrastructure. Add to this a sensor network to allow the Canadian Forces to track both surface and subsurface vessels and Canada will have a strong footprint in the North. The addition of a squadron of long range and long endurance UAVs for aerial patrols would further enhance our Arctic presence.
When fighting broke out on Cyprus in 1963, Canadian troops were deployed in 24 hours and on the ground in less than 48. This was possible because Canada had an excellent fleet of transport aircraft.
Sadly, this is not the case today. When the decision was made to deploy the DART to Sri Lanka in January 2005, the public was told it would take four flights of the huge AN-124 Ruslan planes leased by the Canadian government. It then took DART almost a week to get to Sri Lanka. Granted, Sri Lanka is farther from Canada than Cyprus, and our planes in 1963 had the infrastructure of our bases in Germany to help in the deployment, but because we do not own the AN-124s our troops need to deploy, we can’t guarantee they will be available in a future crisis. We have also joined NATO’s Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS) which has two AN-124s under permanent lease, but again, if a crisis erupts, which nation will get priority for use of these airlift assets?
While they cost approximately $300 million dollars each, a fleet of 4 C-17 Globemasters would end up costing several billion dollars after the maintenance and support costs were added. This cost could be alleviated simply by leasing the aircraft from the manufacturer, as the British have already done. While in the long run, the fleet could wind up costing more than purchasing them outright, the lower annual costs would be much easier to fit into our existing defence budget. This would allow us to retire the older C-130E aircraft in the Hercules fleet, while maintaining excellent airlift capabilities.
The less expensive option of course is to simply buy 4-6 AN-124 Ruslan heavy lift aircraft. Each plane is roughly half the cost of the C-17 while possessing the ability to carry more 1/3 cargo over longer distances. The Conservatives though seem to have ruled out all but the Globemaster for our strategic airlift needs.
Whichever plane we buy, we need them as soon as possible as our C-130 Hercules fleet is rapidly aging and in large part, may need to be grounded for safety reasons. A fleet of heavy lift aircraft will mean we can deploy DART to any disaster scene worldwide very quickly and independently. It will also make supplying UN and NATO missions in places like Kosovo and Afghanistan much easier. Another big advantage is that the Americans themselves are in need of additional airlift and have stated they would be willing pay to use transports to alleviate that need.
The navy could be strengthened by the purchase of additional Kingston-class MCDVs. They are small, fast and multi-role. They would make a perfect addition to an enlarged naval reserve. Additionally, if it is decided we need extra punch, fast patrol craft similar to the Norwegian Skjold class could be built. They are well armed and can reach speeds of 100 km/h, faster than almost anything on the ocean right now. Because of their shallow draft, they could also be used in shallow water, such as along the eastern seaboard and Arctic archipelago. Maritime Command also is desperately short of trained personnel, so in many instances, ships stay in port, not due to lack of will or funding, but due to lack of people.
The army itself lacks one major item, personnel. The Liberals commitment to create a rapid reaction brigade will help, but ultimately, the best way to strengthen our ground forces is to dramatically increase the size of the Militia. The average reservist is paid for 35 days per year, while a regular Force soldier works on average for 250. This means for every regular Force soldier, theoretically, you can afford 7 reservists. Most reserve regiments can only muster two platoons on any given day. If we allow them to expand to four platoons, we can provide our soldiers with the necessary staying power to actually fulfill our commitments, both at home and abroad.
Of course this means that we would be in similar situation as the US armed forces, who deploy National Guard units to Iraq and Afghanistan on a regular basis. I wouldn’t expect this to be a permanent situation, but rather a stop-gap measure to fill the void in deployable troops until sufficient regular forces can be trained, which could be up to five years or more. It will take time and money to bring our personnel strength to 80,000 (as proposed by the Conservatives) from its current 56,000. It will be especially difficult, as the entire CF is suffering a shortage of trained personnel, due in part to Canada’s robust economy.
Once these issues are resolved, then Canada can look into replacing the Iroquois-class destroyers, which are nearing 40 years in service. One solution is the proposed Single Hull Transition program, whereby all future major combatants (destroyers and frigates) would have the same hull configuration (but may vary in size) and be outfitted with different weapons suites and capabilities. For example, the destroyer version would retain the air defence and task force command features, while the frigate version would stay a well-rounded platform capable of several missions, from coastal patrol to anti-submarine warfare.
Our CF-18 fighters are currently undergoing a refit and should maintain operational until about 2015, which is about the time we would receive new aircraft if we order them in the next couple of years. The only question is do we purchase the Joint Strike Fighter, which we have invested $150 million in, or do we go with the Eurofighter Typhoon? Both have advantages and disadvantages which will need to be examined and a decision made.
In short, Canada needs a robust military force so that it can meet Canada’s needs anytime anywhere, be it at home assisting in disaster relief or internationally as an instrument of our foreign policy. This is the absolute minimum the Canadian Forces need. These additions would add staying power to the Canadian Forces, capabilities to enforce sovereignty, and the ability to protect our citizens, both at home and abroad.
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