In The Media

No, but yes, military intervention in the new era: implications for Canadian Armed Forces

by Bernd Horn

The Hill Times
April 13, 2015

KINGSTON, ONT.—The complexity, ambiguity, and chaos in the contemporary operating environment creates, for the Canadian government and its military, difficulty in adequately understanding, coping and responding to the myriad of security concerns. Adding to the challenge is the fact that both the Government and the Canadian public are war-weary from over a decade of savage insurgency in Afghanistan. Further, the dire international economic situation has necessitated fiscal austerity measures that have had a significant impact on the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Therefore, the government is reluctant, if not down-right opposed, to any form of military intervention that can entangle the nation in another long, drawn-out, costly conflict involving the commitment of ground forces.

As a result, the normal default is to attempt to avoid military intervention. Yet, for the government to maintain its influence with Allies, it cannot be so naïve. It must do its share of “heavy lifting” with regard to ensuring world stability and security. The CAF will soon find itself squeezed by the fiscal necessity of the times, yet simultaneously pulled to deliver relevant, strategic expeditionary capabilities that can quickly deploy and that will allow the Canadian government to maintain its credibility as a reliable ally and global partner. 

For the CAF, the challenge is not insignificant. Unquestionably, it must meet the requirements of its defence mission as assigned through the Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS). The bottom line is that the CAF must maintain a number of generic combat capabilities to meet the remits of the CFDS. Yet, to maintain a sharp operational edge the CAF may need to shed some of its legacy “baggage” that represents sunk costs that have little strategic return. For instance, the existence of large fleets of ships, aircraft, armoured vehicles, huge garrison footprints, etc., all mortgage readiness and deployability for quantity and generic capability.

The challenge for the CAF is to identify specific capabilities and tasks that no longer respond to the actual threat environment and requirements demanded of the CAF. Rather than maintain the ability to potentially respond to every imaginable employment scenario, particularly those that resonate with an innate desire to maintain a traditional Cold War force posture, an emphasis should be placed on responsive, effects-based capabilities.

Clearly, the risk of getting it wrong is daunting and can have dire national consequences and understandably the allure of generic combat capability is reassuring. But, does the traditional mind-frame serve the best interests of the Government and the CAF? Clearly, the three Services must possess modern platforms that can fulfill their domestic remits in supporting national defence and security, as well as contribute to international operations. The art and science becomes knowing how much is just enough and exactly what support infrastructure is required to maintain it.

It is the Canadian Army (CA) that is perhaps in the most need of reflection. Traditionally, firepower and manoeuvre has been the heart and soul of the CA. The notion of armoured all-arms combat teams and battle groups has never died. The cost of maintaining these large units with their heavy bill of equipment, infrastructure, personnel and training has come at the cost of training and readiness. However, the CA must objectively re-examine its function and move towards a model that may niche some capabilities, shed others, and determine a definition of generic combat capability that meets the necessity of responding to domestic national disasters and manpower-intensive security operations, as well as international deployments, but that does not default to a requirement to meet the worst case high intensity Cold War era understanding of conflict. Moreover, the CA must focus on capabilities that can respond quickly to crisis.

In the end, the government will continue in its attempts to say no to costly military interventions but will, out of necessity, look for a limited, but substantive way to maintain its influence and “seat at the table.” To achieve this, the CAF must focus on capability that is rapidly deployable and seen as a valued, relevant contribution to its friends and allies.

Dr. Bernd Horn is an adjunct professor of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, University of Calgary, as well as an adjunct professor of history at the Royal Military College and Norwich University. He is also a Fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute. Dr. Horn retired at the rank of Colonel from the Canadian Armed Forces.

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On today's Global Exchange Podcast, we continue our series on the state of Canadian trade in a world of growing populism and protectionism. Today's episode, recorded during our February 13th State of Trade conference in Ottawa, features Bruce Borrows, Jennifer Fox, and David Miller in conversation with the Wilson Center's Laura Dawson about getting Canadian goods to international markets.


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