Our soldiers can't do it all. So what do we want them to do?

by Stéfanie von Hlatky

May 22, 2016

In April, the Department of National Defence (DND) launched a national conversation about the future of Canada’s defence policy. Following Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s announcement, an advisory panel was tasked with meeting stakeholders across the country, including parliamentarians, academics, and activists.

The review is articulated around three issues: identifying the most pressing security challenges, defining the role of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in meeting those challenges and finally, establishing the appropriate mix of capabilities needed by the CAF to accomplish their missions and tasks successfully.

The current government has, however, already set the broad parameters of what the CAF will be asked to do. In his new government’s throne speech, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that “the government will renew Canada’s commitment to the United Nations peacekeeping operations, and will continue to work with its allies in the fight against terrorism”.

This means the military will remain a multi-role, combat-capable force; the CAF will have to be ready for any contingency, anywhere in the world. If we assume that the defence budget will not increase significantly and that the size of the military will stay at around 68,000 regular force personnel, Canada will have to reposition its forces abroad.

Currently, the majority of soldiers who are deployed in international operations are sent to the Middle East and Europe, where Canada participates in a total of 12 operations. The most demanding one is Operation IMPACT, with over 800 troops deployed to counter the Islamic State as part of a U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq and Syria. Canada also has engaged in capacity-building and reassurance missions in Europe, in response to Russia’s increased belligerence since the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine.

In comparison, when we look at peacekeeping operations, there are only 29 military personnel deployed across all regions. Close to home in the Americas, only five soldiers are deployed as part of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. If Canada is to renew its commitment to UN peace operations, it will have to boost its peacekeeping presence and move some of its assets away from Europe and Iraq to instead support peace operations in Central and South America, or Africa.

The rationale for doing so is sound. Increasing Canada’s participation in peace operations can help improve Canada’s standing at the UN, after a decade of aloofness under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Moreover, given that UN peacekeeping operations have been plagued by sex abuse allegations, Canada could become a key player in peace support training in the Central African Republic and elsewhere. The demand for Canada’s training expertise will only grow.

Contrary to what the organization Canadem has claimed — that “the capacity of Canada’s military to conduct peacekeeping operations has largely disappeared after a decade of war-fighting in Afghanistan” — the CAF have the expertise to step up to the peacekeeping plate (understood here as UN-mandated operations under Chapter VI or VII). In Afghanistan, the CAF continued to develop a skill set that is relevant for peace operations. The interpersonal skills of soldiers, the flexibility of commanders in the field and their ability to rely on small-unit dismounted patrolling — these assets were just as important in Afghanistan as they are for certain peace operations. Troops can further tailor their tactical skills to fit new mission requirements through pre-deployment training.

If current force and resource levels are maintained, a renewed commitment to peacekeeping means that Canada’s operations in Europe and Iraq will have to be more modest.

Image:UN/Marie Frechon

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