December 04, 2003


An absolutely devastating report from the Conference of Defence Associations Institute out this week, on the future, or lack thereof, of Canada's armed forces. The whole document is here: long story short, at current levels of spending ($12 billion a year) the air force will have to effectively disband by 2013, and either the army or navy by 2018, due to the massive equipment and personnel shortfalls brought about by three decades of bad planning.

To just keep where we are now will require $18 billion a year, a 50% budgetary increase... $3 billion or more to replace the equipment now wearing out, and the remainder to reinforce the deeply decayed training system (few people know this, but regular force training in this country is basically moribund at this point due to our overseas commitments) and as a funding buffer for foreign operations (as the report rightly points out, every time the government makes a UN or NATO commitment, most of the funding for that comes out of the equipment budget, delaying vital purchases.)

Of course, that kind of funding increase isn't going to happen. So, while the report understandably doesn't want to address the defeatist question of what's got to go, it may merit some extended discussion here:

So far, we've seen three proposals for the Canadian Forces in the 21st century, two of which we've discussed before, and the third implied in this latest document. They are, with price tags:

1. The Canadian Alliance Platform ($22 billion a year): Basically, give the military everything they've always asked for. We derided this at length here. 'Nuff said.

2. The status quo ($18 billion): Basically doing everything we're attempting to do now: a medium-weight sustainable brigade-sized infantry force for UN/NATO deployment, plus a sustainable frigate squadron and a modern jet fighter squadron. This is the position of the CDAI, above. It is probably above Canadians' acceptable funding ceiling, as their report pessimistically concedes.

3. The Land Force-dominant concept ($15 billion): Expressed by wiser people elsewhere, I tried to outline what this would look like here. Basically, continuing the brigade-sized infantry force at all costs, and reorienting the air force and navy to the primary task of supporting its operations... probably at the cost of discontinuing the independent jet fighter and frigate squadron roles. Based on the assumption that if our armed services were to disappear tomorrow, the one that would be most missed in today's world would be the land force.

4. Living within our means ($12 billion): This is probably what we will end up with, one suspects. And because no one's going to say that, we will probably end up with a more inefficient version of this than we could have for the same funding.

So let's look at it another way. What if the Canadian people said tomorrow that that $12 billion, adjusted for inflation, is all the Forces are ever going to get? What would the optimal force structure be?

Well, it wouldn't be pretty. But I think you could still do something with it. The big problem on the Land Force side is that by 2008, the combat units due to regular recruiting/retention calculations, will be down to 50% strength. Foreign deployments are increasingly relying on reservists again (an organization that is also stagnating, but never mind that for a moment), forming 25-30% of some units now. At some point, the pendulum is going to swing back, with a majority of reservists even in foreign-deployed units? What would that look like? How could you make it sustainable?

It's not impossible. Finland and other countries rely on conscripts and reservists, with a small cadre of regular soldiers, for their UN deployments. A mostly part-time/short-service unit could never fight in even a medium-intensity conflict like Iraq or Rwanda, but it could still be useful in a place like Bosnia, or Cyprus, doing the traditional UN Green Line role.

Prior to World War Two, that was the role of Canada's professional forces, in fact: to act as a cadre for the vastly larger number of citizen soldiers that were expected to be called up in case of war. The regulars only expanded to their current dominant role in the early 1950s, as it became apparent that having forces ready to fight was more important in a nuclear world than depth. That, as this recent report points out, has changed... now countries need depth, because the number of brushfire conflicts is only growing.

So imagine what a sensible $12 billion army would look like. The regular forces culd be drawn down to three all-arms battalion groups, based on the three original single-battalion regiments. The groups would each have a Mobile Gun system squadron, a recce squadron, and a mortar/artillery battery, basically integral to them, with the regiments for those combat arms essentially stood down. The remaining strength of the sharp end units would be distributed as increased cadre to all those part-time army reserve units scattered across the country. The primary role of the professional army would then become to keep its own strength up, and support the much larger reserve component.

The political leadership would have to accept that short-notice or risky foreign deployments would be impossible... at most the country could contribute a battalion or two at a time of short-service soldiers to those kinds of extended UN deployments that seem never to end. Organization of these units would come out of the nine reserve brigade groups, and would require lengthy planning time. Units would deploy with a reduced equipment scale, suitable for light operations only.

Like I said, not very palatable, but it is what other countries do now. Building up the reserves would require compromises in all other kinds of places, too, though: undergraduate military education at Royal Military College would be unsustainable, leading to the conversion of that institution to graduate-only work, and regular force officers receiving their training through civilian universities; the cadet program would also be hard to sustain, as it would compete for armoury space, and would probably be spun off. Any funds released in this fashion would have to go towards increased pay incentives for reservists and their civilian employers, to encourage recruitment, retention, and foreign service.

You'd also have to see a shift in Canadian Forces recruiting practice. A professional force this size (about 6,000) would be largely self-sustaining, through transfers of reservists wanting to make this their career. Recruitment would have to focus on bringing in short-service volunteers, with some kind of enrolment incentive that would encourage a large number of them to consider "taking a year off" in their lives for foreign service.

The navy and air force in this model could continue their currently largely independent roles, as their support for rapid foreign deployments by the army would no longer be necessary... being the 20th rotation in Bosnia, you can get there by civilian airliner and have your ammunition FedExed... the air force, basically left by underfunding out of the new "Space Command" continental defence arrangements of the Americans anyway, and without aircraft modern enough to be useful for combat overseas, could focus on a more limited national air sovereignty and air transport role. The navy could focus on addressing the grievous deficiencies in maritime sovereignty that have recently been identified, largely foregoing its deep water role. A new continental maritime defence treaty would be more valuable to both Canadians and Americans, anyway, in a time when we fear merchant ships with nukes on board arriving in Baltimore, than the Cold War relic of NORAD.

A Canada with secure shores, with its military involved overseas in only the most peaceful of foreign assignments... a threat to no one and of little real help to few... it would be hard to argue that this isn't what Canadians, all along, have always wanted from their armed forces. It's certainly what they've historically been ready to pay for. It would, however, take an act of supreme political leadership to bring the ambitions of those who wish Canada to play some role on the world stage back in line with the undeniable fact that they have no demonstrable interest in the price of doing so. The more likely course is just the irrational and wasteful steady diminishment of our existing resources past the point of crisis, absent any clear vision, that I fear we're seeing now.

Posted by BruceR at 12:42 PM