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In The Media

We need to be careful about where, and how, we go to war

by David Bercuson

September 21, 2015

Since the late 1940s, Canada’s defence policy often has been described as having three main objectives: the defence of Canada itself; aiding the United States in defending North America, especially the northern approaches, and; international military missions to fulfill our treaty obligations to NATO, or to participate in operations that our government deems necessary for international order.

Every government since 1946 has accepted the first two obligations; different governments have interpreted the third imperative in different ways. Canada has generated several defence ‘white papers’ over the decades to lay out the means by which these three main objectives would be achieved. Officially, the last of these white papers was laid before Parliament in 1994, although both the Paul Martin Liberals and the Harper Conservatives did produce visions of what Canadian defence policy should be. The last one, the Canada First Defence Strategy, was produced some seven years ago.

Surely it’s time now for Canada’s next government to be far more specific about the missions it intends to tackle with Canada’s small military. Outside of national and continental defence, there are national interests the Canadian Armed Forces can serve. They’re already serving some of them. But the main thing a new Canadian defence strategy ought to do is to be as specific as possible about the sort of missions Canada’ army, navy and air force ought to be engaging in on a routine basis.

Since 1999, the Royal Canadian Air Force has been used in four separate situations to demonstrate the resolve of the Canadian government to join with either NATO allies or ‘coalitions of the willing’ in air campaigns: Kosovo, Libya, Syria/Iraq and the Baltic. The air force has developed an expeditionary capability for such operations — in some cases in a very limited way — and such operations ought to continue.

Because Canada’s air assets are small and highly dependent on allies — especially the United States — to enhance their effectiveness, the sharp edge of the RCAF should always consist of aircraft that are fully interoperable with those of the United States. Canada should never undertake air operations on its own, or even with allies which do not possess the full range of capabilities that the United States has.

The RCAF also must continue to contribute to the air defence of North America, especially in the far North. There is, at the moment, no credible threat of air attack across the Pole, but the protection of national sovereignty requires that any illegal incursion into Canadian airspace be met with Canadian fighter aircraft and that aircraft from Russia and other potentially unfriendly nations be monitored as they approach Canadian airspace.

In other words, the roughly six-decade-old NORAD agreement still serves Canada’s interests and Canada must still honour its obligations to it. In that regard, it is also past time to re-open discussions with the United States regarding ballistic missile defence of North America.

The Royal Canadian Navy is severely hampered at present due to a lack of air defence destroyers, command ships and naval supply vessels. As the navy recovers its capabilities, it should be prepared to take on a much larger role in guarding Canadian interests and maintaining friendships and alliances than it has in the recent past. Canada should continue to send ships to anti-piracy operations in the horn of Africa region and narcotics interdiction missions in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean it’s important for the RCN to constantly show the flag through these counter-trafficking operations to aid small navies, coast guards and local police, and also through port visits. The navy should maintain a permanent presence in the Gulf of Alaska and the approaches to the Atlantic provinces and Newfoundland.

One new imperative for a refurbished navy should be to maintain a permanent task group in Asia/Pacific waters. Its primary mission should be to demonstrate the determination of Canada to bolster the seaborne defences of allies and friends such as Singapore, South Korea, the Philippines and other nations now dealing with an increasingly aggressive People’s Liberation Army Navy and Chinese ambitions in the East and South China Seas. Such a presence would support our efforts to build stronger trade ties in the region.

There is little chance that the Canadian Army will be called upon to conduct kinetic operations any time soon. The army should continue to maintain a battle group at high readiness for possible NATO operations, to bulk up its special operations forces, and to both continue and enhance its training missions in different parts of the world to support allies and potential trading partners. Peacekeeping operations could be considered, but only those with a simplified command structure that answers to National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa — not the United Nations in New York — and those conducted alongside, or supported by, major G7 countries, especially the United States.

Canada has allowed its military capabilities to deteriorate significantly since the early 1990s, but there are still key roles for our military to play in protecting and advancing the interests of Canada and Canadians.

David Bercuson is program director and a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs institute.

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