Op-ed

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Canada risks global irrelevance with smaller military

by George Petrolekas

The Globe and Mail
April 20, 2016

Trial balloons being floated around the defence policy review make one believe that the ultimate goal is to justify a greatly reduced armed forces; reduced in size, reduced in roles and reduced in reach.

There is a certain twisted logic underpinning these goals. In short, Canada is a fundamentally secure country, geographically immune from conventional military threats: Russian expansionism is a European problem; Mideast instability can be contained by others; China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea doesn’t affect Canada; and a host of other irritants can be addressed by minimal investments or alliances.

Paradoxically, the result would achieve the opposite of the “Canada is back” mantra the Prime Minister has been so fond of saying. We might be back only to find that no one pays much attention.

There are three roles for the Canadian Forces from which its missions, structure and equipment are derived, these being the defence of Canada and the security of our citizens, the defence of North America, and contributions to international peace and security.

The defence of Canada overlaps significantly with the defence of North America, but it imposes bare minimums of capability on land, air and sea. We must be able to detect whatever floats or flies near our 11,000 kilometre border (excluding the U.S. border). It is not simply about military threats but about illegal fishing vessels, illegal migration, polluting vessels, errant aircraft – to not discount those with malign intent, search and rescue and disaster response. That means aircraft and even drones to monitor our territory. Detection is not enough, hence fighters that can be dispatched, ships sent out to sea and an army that has to move anywhere inside the country.

Fighters or ships deploying to the Arctic means refuelling aircraft and replenishment vessels. To move soldiers requires transport aircraft, deployable shelters and the like. When it comes to the defence of Canada and the sheer distances involved, there is no doing less with less.

In assisting Canadians during the ice storm of 1998, around 14,000 soldiers were deployed from all parts of the country to Ontario and Quebec. In the same year, to find Swissair Flight 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia required a submarine and several ships. To host the Vancouver Olympics required more than 5,000 soldiers to provide security plus naval and air assets. To halt illegal fishing or to seize narcotics vessels requires a Navy with ships capable of intercepting, boarding and seizing vessels.

Beyond Canada, the defence of North America, means we must carry our share in relation to the United States. Canada cannot be perceived as a freeloader or the weak back door. Over 70 per cent of our trade is with the U.S., and any apprehensions about not carrying our weight would have dramatic repercussions on more than just our southern border. A Canadian Forces that is not interoperable with the U.S. would negatively affect perceptions of Canada as a full partner in North American defence; that also means being cognizant of U.S. concerns with missile defence.

These are not conceptual abstracts. They are simple realities and realpolitik.

Doing less with less seem aimed at our contributions to international peace and security. Discussions of niche roles are illusory at best. Canada’s disaster-assistance niche capability is empowered by hard-power assets – ships, planes, helicopters and superbly trained troops. Without the latter, the former is window dressing.

Yes, Canada can return to peacekeeping – but traditional peacekeeping no longer exists. Any forces we send have to be combat capable at the very least to protect themselves. Regardless, any overseas mission requires a Navy even better outfitted than today and an air force that not only moves our soldiers but protects them from the air.

Sunny ways will not alter impressions that Canada does not matter much anymore if Canada strives to do less with less – no matter how many times we repeat the opposite to ourselves. Words count for little with friends and allies – only deeds.

Photo Credit: Melanie Ferguson, Canadian Army Public Affairs 

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