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Warning: Neglect your military and lose your sovereignty

Last week, Canada’s Minister of National Defence told Canadians that the Canadian Armed Forces are no longer capable of performing fundamental military tasks on their own. This wasn’t just another warning from an old soldier or adjunct professor about the deterioration in Canadian defence capability — the warnings have been legion — but the considered opinion of the current minister of the Crown charged with the safety of the citizenry. What the Minister had to say was a welcome jolt to the complacency which afflicts most thinking in Canada about national defence. But it has had little impact. Canadians may rue the day.

First, let’s consider the circumstances the minister described:

  • The Army isn’t funded to do some of its most basic work in dealing with natural disasters at home and conducting military operations abroad. There is no funding to replace the trucks and trailers to transport equipment and supplies; or the forklifts, bulldozers, loaders, and excavators needed to build camps, shelters and roads; or the ground-based defence systems against aircraft, missiles, and artillery needed to protect troops deployed to combat zones like Iraq or potential combat zones like Latvia.
  • Canada’s naval capabilities are at a 40-year low. The number of operational ships has dropped by five in just the last two years and they won’t be replaced for years — because the program to build 15 new warships was started years late and still lacks full funding. Today, the Canadian Navy doesn’t have a single destroyer (let alone anything larger) or a single supply ship, meaning it has to reply on the US Navy and others’ for area air defence and replenishment at sea.
  • The Air Force isn’t funded for mid-life upgrades of its Cormorant search and rescue helicopters, or for extending the life of the versatile Griffon helicopters which can fit inside a C-17 Globemaster and be transported across the globe in support of humanitarian and combat missions. If their obsolete instrumentation isn’t upgraded, they can’t fly in North American airspace. In addition, the $9 billion earmarked for CF-18 jet replacements is “nowhere near enough” to cover the cost of the 65 F-35s proposed by the previous government, while 65 jets would “simply not be enough” to meet air defence requirements in North America and Europe. “It would only be a fleet for risk managing our requirements, not meeting them.”
  • The Reserves (who supply the bulk of the forces used in dealing with natural disasters in Canada and provide a significant proportion of the troops deployed during extended missions abroad like Bosnia and Afghanistan and like Latvia will be) lack both equipment and the training to use the equipment. Recruitment offices have been closed, making it harder to attract new recruits. And the number of procurement officers has been cut “making it difficult to buy, maintain and sustain all the tools and equipment we actually could afford for our military”.

Does this matter? Of course, if you have any sense of Canada. But there is such wilful ignorance about defence on the part of Canadian opinion leaders that even a two-by-four thwacking from a serving minister of national defence appears incapable of getting their attention. So instead of discussing the Minister’s speech (how much of the mainstream media even mentioned the problems he listed?), all the political class has wanted to do is make sport of the Minister’s apology for having exaggerated his role in planning a combat operation in Afghanistan more than ten years ago.

Yes, ten years ago. As if that has any relevance to the parlous state of Canada’s defences today. In remarks made during a recent trip abroad, Minister Harjit Sajjan, who is a combat veteran, said he had been the “architect” of Operation Medusa, the brutal but ultimately victorious Canadian military operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2006. As it turns out, Sajjan was not “the architect” just a key planner and executor described by his commanding general, BGen David Fraser, as “nothing short of brilliant” — which brought him to the attention of the Americans and an assignment in 2010 as a special assistant to MGen James Terry, the US general commanding RC-South comprising the five southern provinces of Afghanistan. But what the hell; it takes so much less effort to shout “liar” and propose a “no confidence” motion in the House of Commons than to learn about national defence, compare how poorly it is practised in Canada in contrast to Britain, France or Australia, explore the practicalities of how to fix the problem, and find the courage to do so.

Just for the record. Harjit Sajjan joined the Army reserves in 1989, was commissioned an officer in 1991, and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In 2012, he  was named commander of the British Columbia reserve regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own). In 1999, he joined the Vancouver Police Department where he spent 11 years including a period as a detective investigating gangs. On periodic leaves from the VPD, Sajjan did four tours of duty abroad, the first in Bosnia-Herzegovina where he was injured and three more in Afghanistan. A much decorated soldier, Sajjan’s awards include the Meritorious Service Medal, the Canadian Peacekeeping Service Medal, and the Order of Military Merit.

Three takeaways:

(1) If the Canadian Armed Forces are no longer capable of delivering military effects on their own and have to rely on others (read Americans) for basic military functions, Canadians have lost their sovereign ability to conduct their national defence.

(2) If Canadians do not heed the Minister’s warning that “We are now in the troubling position where status quo spending on defence will not even maintain a status quo of capabilities”, it won’t be long before Canadians’ loss of sovereignty translates into their country becoming an international afterthought. Who cares what Austria thinks?

(3) If the people who purport to run this country don’t soon start caring about national defence, they shouldn’t be surprised if the sandcastle they’re living in gets washed away by the same political tsunami which has hit so many other democracies — and they find themselves at sea without the S&R helicopters or offshore patrol vessels to rescue them.

Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. He was formerly director-general for international security at Foreign Affairs and Canada’s lead negotiator in the Canada-US talks on Canadian participation in BMD and revision of the NORAD agreement. He can be reached at pchapin@rogers.com.

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