What is it about Canada that makes it so dumb on issues of national defence? Sure, it’s a country the size of a continent and not easy to defend. But with the population it has and its wealth, you’d think the country would be up to making at least a respectable effort. There’s more than enough here worth defending. But no. Slowly and relentlessly, this generation of Canadians has been rendering their country defenceless. Even in the face of a clear and present new danger.
The facts. Canada has the longest saltwater coastline in the world and borders on three oceans, but its navy has lost its ability to control events at sea — which is where much of the trouble comes from. As the former commander of the Royal Canadian Navy told Parliament, the Navy “no longer has the ability to independently sustain deployed task group operations and not rely on others for at-sea refuelling and logistics support, even in home waters.” As these things are measured, the Royal Canadian Navy has slipped from a Rank 3 medium-sized global force projection navy to something like a Rank 8 constabulary navy. Okay, this is bad. But aren’t new warships being built? Yes, but it will be many years before the first one takes to sea — and naval experts say there won’t be enough of them to ensure adequate defence capability for both the Atlantic and Pacific.
The new warships will be capable, but that can’t be said of the “five or six” (it used to be six) new Arctic offshore patrol vessels planned. It staggers the imagination, but these ships won’t actually be able to operate in the Arctic except in summer. They will have very little armament and a top speed of just 17 knots. To put that in context, the BC ferries are faster at 19 knots. French and US patrol boats have a top speed of 28 and 35 knots. The drug cartels’ go-fast boats can do 50 knots even in choppy waters.
Meanwhile, not a thought has been given (officially anyway) to the Navy acquiring ships with Aegis missile defence systems. In addition to the US navy, the Australian, Japanese, South Korean and Norwegian navies all have them or are getting them. Nor will the Canadian Navy be any more capable in future to assist in peace support or humanitarian relief operations. Two years ago, Canada botched the opportunity to buy two superb French-built Mistral-class bâtiments de projection et de commandement; the support ships to be built in Canada will be more like floating Costcos with gas pumps.
How about air defence? Forty years ago, we staked it on a single high-performance fighter, the CF-18, and twenty years ago began planning for its replacement. We still haven’t made a decision. As a result, our original fleet of 138 CF-18s is down to 77. Since only half of them are operational at any one time because of routine maintenance, repairs and periodic upgrades, that translates into Canada having only 35 to 40 planes for the simultaneous defence of North America and for NATO-related operations in Europe and the Middle East. Think this doesn’t matter? We used to have 36 aircraft earmarked just for North American defence — and that was before the Royal Canadian Air Force had to assume new obligations post 9/11. For the First Gulf War, we sent 24 planes, for the Balkans 18, for Libya 7, for Iraq/Kuwait 6, as a show of support to NATO ally Slovenia two weeks ago 2.
In Canada, and only in Canada, a bogus debate continues over whether the F-35 is the right replacement for the CF-18. How many people know that allied countries are buying hundreds of F-35s (UK 138, Australia 72, Netherlands 37 etc.); that the cost has never gone up, only down; that Canada was an original member of the consortium of countries working on the Joint Strike Fighter which became the F-35, the only fifth-generation fighter being developed in the West; that three separate Canadian governments invested $710 million in it; and that the much-cited Auditor General report came to the absurd conclusion that DND had been “diligent” in developing the F-35 to replace the CF-18, but not “diligent” in choosing the F-35 to replace the CF-18.
The Army? Well, the Regular Force is half the size it used to be, down to three brigades (approximately 4,800 personnel), only one of which is maintained ready for deployment. The Army is not funded to replace its trucks, the heavy equipment it needs to build camps and roads, or defence systems to protect troops in combat zones against aircraft, missiles and artillery. The Reserve Force, which Canadians rely on for support in emergencies at home, can handle one major emergency at a time.
Before the current government issued its new defence plan this summer, the Minister of National Defence gave a speech in which he said the Canadian Armed Forces “are now in the troubling position where status quo spending on defence will not even maintain a status quo of capabilities”. The new defence plan vows to fix the situation — just not right away. As a Globe and Mail editorial concluded: “The aim of the current defence policy review is to allow the Canadian Forces, a decade from now, to be able to do roughly what the Canadian Forces were doing, a decade ago.”
This is national defence?
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Feature image: As part of Op REASSURANCE, Canada sent to two CF-18 fighters to Slovenia in September 2017 for a bilateral defence cooperation exercise. (pic.twitter)