Elliot Cohen and the Canadian Forces

After the today’s core seminar, I went to a Changing Character of War presentation given by Professor Elliot Cohen. Focused on examining the American military, especially with regards to counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, if offered a familiar but well expressed perspective. All the standard big issues came up: public opinion, the differences between the branches of the military with regards to the conflict, current controversies, military relations with allies, private military firms, and the rest. I asked him afterwards about the perspective he has seen on the Canadian armed forces, among those serving in the United States. His response was a typical one: that they are good people profoundly hamstrung and sapped by a lack of financial and material support. The operational tempo of the Canadian Forces has never been higher relative to its capabilities. As Allen Sens so effectively conveys in his Canadian Foreign Policy lectures at UBC: by almost any measure, both long-term procurement and short-term funding are grossly inadequate.

Right now, Canada has about 62,300 active forces personnel (the 60th largest army in the world) and it is funded at the level of $12.9 billion per year. That is 1.1% of Canadian GDP. We have 114 tanks (obsolete, in Germany), about 300 infantry fighting vehicles, and about 1000 armoured personnel carriers. The Maritime Command has four Victoria Class submarines (diesel, obsolete), three Iroquois Class destroyers, and 12 Halifax Class frigates (the backbone of the navy) – all hampered by completely inadequate helicopter support. We also has 12 Kingston Class coastal patrol vessels, used for things like search and rescue and fisheries enforcement. That is one boat per 16,840km of coastline: the equivalent of 2.38 boats to patrol the entire circumference of the earth.

In terms of airlift capability, the best we have is 32 CC-130 Lockheed ‘Hercules’ combat transports. Stripped of all other cargo, they can carry two Light Support Vehicles (ie. jeeps). We entitled the 2005 International Policy Statement: A Role of Pride and Influence in the World, but when we sent the Disaster Assistance Response Team to Asia after the tsunami, we had to rely primarily on private chartered airlift to deliver the bulk of their equipment to the theatre of operations. We do have five CC-150 Polaris aircraft, but they are incapable of carrying large equipment and lack any defensive capability. One of the five was converted into a VIP transport during the 1990s and two more are slated to be converted into air-to-air refuelling vehicles.

At present, more than 1400 Canadians are deployed overseas: more than 1000 of them in Afghanistan as part of Operation Archer. To field a force of that size, about another 8000 individuals need to be in the process of preparing for deployment or returning from one. The next largest commitment is 190 troops serving in the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights. The next largest operations are 32 people each in the Sinai and Sudan. Of the 15 missions ongoing, five involve ten or fewer people. Eleven involve fewer than 20, according to the Canadian Forces webpage. We may have opted to put Canadian peacekeepers onto some of the new pieces of currency, but we haven’t opted to put terrible many out there in the world. In those places we have, they are often equipped at an inadequate level: the lack of armoured jeeps in Afghanistan being a notorious example.

Canada likes to maintain an international image as a helpful fixer and a leader in peacekeeping. We expect to be treated as an equal by our allies and generally considered a contributing member of the internatioal community. We take pride in backing things like the worldwide land mines ban through the Ottawa Process and the concept of the Responsibility to Protect. If that’s a role we want to play – or at least an image we want to maintain – we’re going to need to commit the necessary resources.

While it’s not particularly clear that any of the political parties running in the present electoral campaign is serious about making that commitment, it’s something that Canadians should be asking about. Whether you support the military or not, whether you support peacekeeping and other forms of international military engagement or not, it seems clear that trying to do these things on the cheap is the worst of all strategies. It endangers the lives of those serving while not producing the security which is the object of the mission. Looking at the numbers above certainly makes Stephen Harper’s plan to militarize the Arctic seem particularly wasteful of scarce resources.

6 thoughts on “Elliot Cohen and the Canadian Forces”

  1. It’s also worth noting that the Ukrainian An-124 aircraft used to deploy DART after the tsunami were cold war relics. Because of questions surrounding The An-124’s reliability, it is not NATO-certified to carry passengers.

  2. “the equivalent of 2.38 boats to patrol the entire circumference of the earth”

    Not entirely fair: the equator is straight and Canada is crinkled up.

    Still, I take your point.

  3. Comments on the same topic from the Austin Bay Blog:

    “I think the decline of the Canadian military has weakened Canada as a
    global political player. As the Canadian military declined, the Liberals’
    game of “we aren’t America” (which is a fair fame to play, and one that
    can actually strategically benefit the cause of freedom) declined into rank, adolescent anti-Americanism. Is there a connection between increasingly
    strident rhetoric and the loss of military capability? I think the answer is probably “yes.”

    The decline in military capability means Canada cannot act with a full spectrum of foreign policy options— a wonkese way of saying Canada’s lack of military prowess creates weakness. Internationally, strident rhetoric usually indicates one of two conditions: a bully, attempting to intimidate (Iran) or it’s an attempt to mask weakness. I think Canada suffers (obviously) from the second condition.

    Perhaps this is a minor issue among Canadians. It shouldn’t be.”

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