The case for a small, skilled fighting force

In this week’s defence policy review, the Liberals showed a nuanced understanding of Canada’s greatest military strength
Members of Canadian Forces Special Operations JTF2 unit storm a ship during Operation Nanook off the shores of Churchill, Man. Friday August 24, 2012. The Canadian military has been routinely deploying a counter-intelligence team to guard against possible spying, terrorism and sabotage during its annual Arctic exercise. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

If the Liberal government can pull off its promises, Canada’s defence capabilities should be much better off in a decade than they are today. That is the key takeaway from Wednesday’s ambitious defence policy review, despite some of its glaring shortcomings.

But in broad brushstrokes, it seems the Liberals have understood the complexities of 21st century global threats and where Canada can best contribute militarily to give the existing world order a fighting chance at survival.

Their understanding appears to be far more nuanced than the preceding Harper government’s, or the Manley Liberals before that, which placed national image ahead of substance when it agreed to deploy ill-equipped Canadian forces to Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province in 2005.

Not enough has been said about the failures then that led to 158 deaths and countless more young Canadians permanently scarred, physically and mentally, not to mention the dark cloud of the torture scandal that still looms over the military. But for the moment, let’s put aside the negatives. The Defence Policy Review, and the long-term military strategy it has produced, deserves credit where it is due.

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Clearly, the 100+ page report published by the Liberals on Wednesday remains a working paper insofar as it provides the details of how Canada’s military will be revamped over the next two decades, but fails to address where the money will come from or if the political will to see it through can be sustained.

The temptation to withdraw from the world will be powerful over the coming years, but Canada appears to have charted a course of resistance to the kind of insularity we’re witnessing south of the border. In theory at least, Canada’s new defence policy recognizes the central importance of international alliances and in doing so, acknowledges the need to operate within a greater whole, leveraging the strengths Canada brings to the table.

Those strengths are well established and recognized by our allies. In Afghanistan, military leaders from a variety of NATO nations told me, Canada’s soldiers were some of the best trained they had ever met. It was a numbers game, they said. The limited size of Canada’s army naturally places emphasis on fielding an agile force, capable of shifting roles quickly to meet the shifting demands of a large alliance like NATO. Canada’s special forces won the praise of their counterparts in the French, British, Turkish and even American militaries. They were smarter, with a more nuanced understanding of the terrain in which they were deployed, than most.

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Canadian reconnaissance teams also proved indispensable. In June 2005, I spent three days camped out in Afghanistan’s eastern mountains with a Canadian reconnaissance team, keeping tabs on a known Taliban arms smuggling route. Charlie patrol, one of a classified number of outfits in Canada’s reconnaissance squadron, were some of the unsung heroes of Canada’s deployment to Afghanistan. Details about what they did remained shrouded in mystery, but according to Lt.-Col. Jens Doeloer, at the time the Norwegian chief of operations for the Kabul Multi-National Brigade, the NATO force in charge of the Afghan capital, they offered capabilities no one else could provide.

“The Canadian recce [reconnaissance] squadron is primarily used to look for enemy activity in Kabul Province,” he told me in general terms. “But the role they play is so much more than that. They are the Brigade’s most important surveillance asset.”

And they were also Canada’s busiest soldiers, sometimes spending weeks on end monitoring Taliban-controlled villages, according to Maj. Ross Ermel, the reconnaissance squadron’s commanding officer in Kabul.

The defence policy review focuses attention on these key assets. Special forces, intelligence gathering, as well as surveillance and reconnaissance will receive a much needed boost, both in terms of equipment and person-power. Overall, Canada’s military forces will only be increased by about 5,000 personnel, with much of the increase spread over supporting roles. Canada will not, it appears, attempt to add battle axes to their arsenal.

That makes sense. Despite the intelligence and bravery Canadian soldiers are famous for, our armed forces as a whole will never be in a position to deliver blunt force trauma to our enemies in the way the world’s biggest armies can. We lack the size, both in terms of human and economic resources, to fill that role.

Canada’s strength, instead, lies in stealth and special forces. That’s where we can contribute militarily on the international stage and offer our allies much-needed expertise. And that, to the Liberal government’s credit, is where our focus will be.