May 14, 2003


Okay, if you talk amongst people who more or less share the assumptions about Canada's military below, you find they basically at this point split into two camps. One argues that we should beef up our maritime deployment and littoral combat capability in a unified force framework... their model of course being the US Marine Corps. The other camp argues that we should be looking at the air-deployable brigade experiments that the US Army under Shinseki has been working on... particularly because all the LAV variants that arm the "Interim Brigade Combat Team" are more or less coming off an assembly line in London, Ont.

Both sides have been better argued in scholarly papers elsewhere. So just to be different, I'm going to propose a variation that I haven't seen written up before, yet. Why not do BOTH?

Think about it. Canada has two coasts, more or less, and its army has for years been structured into three regionally based brigades: 1 Brigade in the west, 2 in Ontario, and 5 in Quebec (there are also some brigade-less assets in the Maritimes, more or less centred on the major training centre at Gagetown, New Brunswick). Each brigade can, if it uses reservists extensively, keep the equivalent of a reinforced infantry battalion overseas, more or less indefinitely if it has to. The trick is to find a way to get them overseas that doesn't involve the heavy use of American or civilian-leased transport aircraft, and civilian cargo vessels for the vehicles, as it does now.

So imagine a best-case model, where the navy had enough assets that it could, when needed, move one brigade's ready battalion and its equipment, from a base, on each coast. 1 Brigade gets the Pacific, 5 Brigade gets the Atlantic. 2 Brigade, meanwhile, being in the middle, invests heavily in the air-portable model, being able to land with its kit out of C-130s anywhere in the world. No matter where in the world the problem was, in other words, a Canadian battalion could be headed there.

The comparator in this case on the naval side is Australia. Using 2 8,500-ton ex-US LSTs and a 5,800 ton roll-on roll-off ship, the Australians can currently land 900 troops (a battalion-plus) and a squadron of Leopard tanks anywhere, even on a hostile shore. We don't even need to be that good... we could assume, as there almost always is, that there is a friendly port within driving distance, and focus instead on the ro-ro capabilities, and optimize for landing roughly the same size force in a neutral or friendly port (obviously some secondary shore landing capability would be helpful, but we don't necessarily need all our ships to be "beachable"... in Iraq the ability to launch helicopter operations seemed far more important). You could probably do it with 2-3 Aussie-type ships per coast, plus a fleet replenishment ship, with the follow-on kit transported in civilian vessels. Such a force could be integrated in British, Australian or US Marine littoral operations, or provide troops for the land operations of those or any other armies. (The British RN currently uses three much larger ships to transport its commando brigade, capable of collectively carrying around 1600 men and a dozen heavy tanks).

While 2 brigades started working with the navy, the central Canada brigade would be working with the Air Force (the primary logistical "airhead" for CF operations abroad is actually Trenton, Ont.). Using enhanced transport assets (the Americans are chucking a lot of their C-130s for firesale prices at the moment) and an equipment restriction that it either has to fit in a Herc or it goes to one of the other two brigades, this brigade would focus on getting its ready battalion into a plane, off the tarmac, and landing down anywhere else in the world with a clear runway, and then sustaining them there.

(This obviously doesn't mean that Western troops would all be called Marines and Ontario troops "airborne". The units within the brigades could switch around, and some deployments (those with lots of leadtime) could head out in the usual, more leisurely ways, leaving the "ready battalion" still, well, ready. But the brigade staffs would be trained in their area's particular specialty, with direct liaison with their naval or air counterparts, procurement decisions would be guided by the inherent limitations, and the mission of the army as a whole would refocus on the difficult task of providing two battalions for sea deployment and one for air deployment within hours of the Government needing them).

Okay, so what's got to get lost or be added, in each service?

The army, if it were ever fully manned, would be more or less ready to go already. The new LAV APCs are C-130 portable, and even have some limited amphibious capability. The assets that could only go by sea, the Leopard 1s and 155 mm howitzers, are already all with 1 Brigade out west... some could be moved to Quebec, or it could just be assumed they'd entrain from there to the east if heavy assets were deemed necessary and plugged into the 5 Brigade orbat after they came east. There is a residual paratroop and airmobile capability... more opportunities for training (which would come when we had our own boat) would bring us up to speed on the Marine stuff pretty quickly... and again, in the Brits, U.S., and Australians, we have good models. The rest of their kit is, pound for pound, as good as those other nations'.

The navy would naturally see a change of role, but not a huge one. The difference between escorting and protecting a big landing ship loaded with helicopters and an aircraft carrier is only one of degree. The 12 Canadian frigates are purpose-built for this task, are highly rated worldwide, and have a lot of life in them. There would still no doubt be roles in American task forces, too, but that wouldn't be the naval arm's entire reason for being anymore... occasionally they'd need to support Canadian troops. The purchases of new transport ships would force some tough choices, though... most obviously the 4 soon-to-be-retired destroyers could not, at the same time, be replaced by new ships of the same class, as the navy hopes they will. Going from 16 surface combatants down to 12 (the same as Australia) would be a blow. The other problem would be the fact that Canadian ships aren't really configured at the moment to provide fire support... they were never designed with that in mind. The frigates can provide air, surface, and subsurface cover, but they can't provide naval gunfire in any real sense.

The options would seem to be, when the current frigates start need replacing them, replacing them with something like a coastal operations frigate, like the German MEKO 200 class, rather than more fleet frigates; or, possibly, tearing the destroyers down to the hull and rebuilding them as naval gunfire support vessels, perhaps with a couple 5-inch guns, one in place of the helicopter hangar possibly, and a vertical launch system with Harpoon missiles. They might even be able to continue to serve in their current role as squadron flagships. Even if the redesign was made-in-Canada, which it would pretty much have to be, it still might be cheaper than purchasing new vessels and might bridge the gap until the frigate force can be reconfigured.

One thing it would be a shame to lose, regardless, would be the remaining limited submarine capability. Canada has had a submarine arm since 1914. Like carrier operations, it's a skill set that once lost, is almost impossible to regain. Currently, however, the 4 ex-British conventional subs coming on line are by necessity confined to one base on the Atlantic, and only capable of basically coastal operations... if they were to be kept, in line with our idea of maximum deployability, some kind of submarine tender capability might be helpful. They're not needed for coastal defence... they're needed abroad.

The air force would be the service that really suffers in this model, simply because something would have to give, somewhere. What is desperately needed for any forward movement in the CF right now is a renewed commitment to transport aircraft and helicopters, both for combat and for transport. The naval transport ships would need to be flush with helicopters... other helicopters would be needed to provide fire support for the airmobile brigade, which would also need a significant increase in our heavy airlift and air-to-air refueling capability. Even if the lion's share of the new money went to the air force to support these new role (which it would have to) there would never be additional funds to refurbish or rearm the CF-18s, or as so many in the air force now hope, replace them in a few years with the new F-35s.

Getting out of fixed-wing air operations is the tradeoff, but it's hard to see how it isn't necessary. Buying the F-35, in most estimates, would be the ONLY major CF procurement program for a decade if it went through, under the current budget. Everything else would have to wait. The question Canadians have to ask is which gives them more influence in the circles they want to be in... a couple squadrons of attack jets, or a couple battalions of peacekeepers. Because the choice is really coming down to an either/or at this point... modern aircraft just cost too much. I think it's clear I think the latter gives our political leaders more flexibility for changing circumstances than the former. But not everyone agrees, obviously.

The comparator in this case to my mind is New Zealand, who realized a few years ago that, situated as we are, far from the action, replacing their fleet of obsolescent Skyhawks, and the distortion that purchase would make to the rest of their defence budget, was simply not cost-effective. The RNZAF now has no combat aircraft at all. They realized, as even defenders of the CF-18 must concede, that they can never comprise much more than a few extra airframes and trained pilots for some other, larger air effort by a superpower, relying on others for basing, weapons loadouts, fighter and early warning cover, reconnaissance, etc. etc., and even collectively capable of little more damage by themselves than a single B-1 bomber. In any conceivable circumstance, Canada's fighters can only be something of a flag-waving exercise. In 5-10 years, our CF-18s will be as obsolete as those Skyhawks were, so maybe it's time to close this chapter of our history.

(History's always tough to leave behind, of course, but the Kiwis managed to do it. Their Collin Gray scored 28 kills in combat in World War 2, only three less than Canada's "Screwball" Beurling, but they've moved on. Anyway, while one loves the Canadian Spitfire pilot stories, there were a lot of Canadians flying Typhoons and other aircraft in the ground-attack role, too... I wonder if that legacy isn't better translated into what the Apaches and Cobras do on the battlefield today. If there had been attack helicopters back then, they'd be part of our legend, too, to be sure.)

It's all back-of-the-envelope stuff, but I really think you could get there from here for $15 billion a year. It's hard to imagine, with the possible exception of the Kosovo air campaign, where the military described above couldn't have been of more and more visible use to our allies than the current one was, and done more good on the ground. And that should surely be the implicit promise if the military hopes to draw any more support than it gets out of the Canadian taxpayer.

PS: The F-35, it should be added, is supposed to have short takeoff and vertical landing capability... that's why the Marines and Brits are planning to replace their Harriers with it. (In the USAF it will replace the F-16 and A-10). A couple might even be able to operate off something like the Australians' LSTs, or their Canadian equivalents in this scenario. Yet no one really knows how many an export version of the F-35B to Canada will end up costing, but no one thinks the sticker price to Canadians is going to be less than $4 billion for the 50-60 planes needed.

PPS: I think the wildest ideas of mine above are actually the reusing the destroyers as ad hoc coastal frigates, because the fleet frigates don't have a big gun. Naval gunfire just doesn't have the importance to high-intensity battle it once did, however... actual shells from the ships in the Persian Gulf in this last war were few and far between (and, it should be added, despite zero naval resistance, complete air superiority, and no ground defenses to speak of, there was no real interest in amphibious landings other than by special ops either, which is why actual beachable Landing Ships per se may not be necessary if what you used instead has got a good helideck). A vessel capable of providing naval gunfire support could, however, be of more use if the Canadians were operating in a low-intensity operation free of the Americans. So that's a capability we do not at present possess, but I'm arguing may ideally be worth bringing back.

Posted by BruceR at 02:48 PM


One way to envision military change is not to talk in terms of what to cut or what to add, but to talk about an ideal vision. The Alliance vision makes no tough choices at all, is focussed on a mission Canadians frankly aren't interested in, and costs more than is ever conceivably going to be available. So let's propose an alternate one. I'm not saying it's the only possibility, or even MY only possibility. But it's one alternative.

I'm assuming throughout a $15 billion (in 2003 Cdn dollars) absolute ceiling on military expenditures, or 1.5% of GDP (equivalent to Germany or Belgium in per capita terms). About $3 billion more to play with than now. I'm also assuming a continuing Canadian ambivalence (call it triangulation if you want) between supporting U.S. efforts and seeking other multilateral solutions for the world's problems as well. An ideal armed force would have to support a wide range of different policy stances, to avoid limiting the government's options... collaborating with the U.S. on a local issue, working as part of a western coalition, NATO or non, or working even as a UN partner, depending on the situation.

I'm also assuming that the theatre of operations for Canada will, as it has been for the last 50 years, almost exclusively be Southern Europe, Africa, or Southern Asia, and in a more or less unipolar world framework in which we can basically assume the tolerance, if not the support of America, for our aims, if only because our aims will in large part be seen as contributing to a the kind of political stability that favours other Western interests just as much as our own (we won't ever go abroad for plunder or conquest, for instance). This means that, for instance, the most advanced military capabilities (like satellite imagery, or stealth aircraft, or carrier battle groups, or strategic bombers), if not actually available to us, will not be available to our opponents, either.

I'm also assuming that any proven domestic needs, will, as they always have been through Canadian military history, be served just as ably by trained soldiers whose primary focus of training and procurement is actually overseas service. Canada is a huge country, and any capability we have to move our troops to trouble spots abroad positively improves our ability to move troops within the country as well. Likewise with anti-terrorism, or intelligence... the capabilities that make your special forces or NBC units useful in foreign settings can only improve your domestic response ability as well. It is backwards, therefore, to fully man the "homeland defence" apparatus, and use the leftovers for foreign commitments... our defence in North America is always going to be a forward, interventionist defence, that hopefully puts the majority of the battles in someone else's country.

Oh, one more thing... I'm going to assume that in future, both coasts of Canada assume equal importance. We've always been a bit player, navally, in the Pacific... the only reason for this was the larger demands put on us by the NATO alliance. There is an opportunity, or perhaps even a requirement, now to move closer to parity in this regard.

If one looks back on the primary limiting factor in the last 15 years on Canadian military operations (and hence on foreign policy planners as well), it has been rapid, independent, sustainable deployability. It prevented us from even considering many missions where we could have done some good (Congo, Rwanda, reinforcing our own troops in Yugoslavia when it was still a UN mandate, the most recent Gulf War, etc., etc.) It has also prevented us from doing as much as we could or wanted to in the missions we did accept (Afghanistan, Gulf War 1, Kosovo, East Timor, etc., etc.) In all cases there was a will, but no way: it stands to reason that if the military of the future is to be any better than it is today, if that $3 billion in spending is going to make a difference, then it has to be with this as its focus.

Of course, the troops that are most often needed were to be ground troops. Not because you need "boots on the ground," necessarily, but because ground deployment is basically the only kind that is useful regardless of the level of allied support, and across the spectrum of operational intensity. High, middle or low, with allies or without, soldiers are still useful... combat air power and naval assets less so. A destroyer can't peacekeep. A CF-18 can't defend a no-fire zone. An infantry company can. Yes, other assets can be useful too, but they inevitably must be one piece in larger allied operations. Canada could someday have the best attack helicopters in the world (for instance); it arguably has the best armoured recce unit or the best disaster assistance teams in the world now, but those are capabilities that, if Canada doesn't also provide the foot soldiers, someone else has to for us. It's good to have a few nichey, specialized tasks your country is very very good at... but for flexibility's sake you always want to have that one capability that always comes in handy, for us or any other army, in any circumstance. And that's trained and well-equipped combat soldiers.

So if we want to make things better, we need to be able to project ground power overseas. How?

Posted by BruceR at 01:41 PM


Okay, so the Alliance paper was silly. What do you suggest, Bruce? Well, I have no monopoly on vision, for sure. Every lettered soldier I've ever talked to has their own idea of what a sound Canadian military should look like. Every one of those visions has a soundness and realism that the Alliance plan lacks. But I think it's fair to say that any plan that has any resonating appeal contains a few similar assumptions.

Assumption number one is always that Canada has never really retooled since the Cold War ended, and that's a big part of the problem. This, I'm afraid, is a big part of the current stasis. In the 1990s, the size of the military shrank dramatically, its foreign bases were withdrawn, but there was never really any attempt to kit out for new challenges.

The navy, which had focussed almost exclusively for 40 years on the question of how best to protect Atlantic shipping headed for a war with the Soviets, managed to find itself a new role for the same light escort ships... carrier escorts for the Americans. This they, by all accounts, do quite well. It makes them our most noticed service abroad, in constant demand (you can never have too many carrier escorts), and also almost completely incapable of operating outside of the carrier battle group framework. Lacking any modern logistical ships, without the maritime helicopters essential to independent surface operations, and without much surface-to-shore weaponry, they are, for instance, completely useless in any conceivable peacekeeping support role. They, along with the excellent Naval Reserve (a world-leading example of how to matching mission to capability using part-time soldiers) can do shore patrols, of course, but while this is an essential role, it doesn't require ultra-modern kit, as there hasn't been a serious naval sovereignty challenge to speak of on this continent since 1945.

The combat wing of the air force has, too, entered into a period of existing for the purpose of existing to placate the Americans, more for budget-cutting reasons than anything else in its case. Coming at the end of the Cold War, the CF-18 was an excellent purchase in its day, and has led Canadian participation in the First Gulf and Kosovo Wars. They obviously have no peacekeeping utility to speak of. And while our contribution of a couple squadrons to continental defence more than anything else has secured our place in NORAD for 50 years, it's also fair to say there hasn't been a single challenge in those 50 years that actually required Canadian airspace to be defended. Nor, with the long range bomber now a tool exclusively in the hands of Americans for the foreseeable future, will there ever be. As was shown on Sept. 11, the kinds of asymmetrical warfare challenges faced by the airspace are not fightable with Sidewinder missiles.

That leaves the combat wing of the air force purely as our major potential contribution to any high-intensity conflict. It's our trading card, for something like a Gulf War 2 (the Navy, as we saw, is now so tightly a part of the American naval force mix it's likely going to be integrated into any American operations anyway... as Chretien found the trick with them is not getting them into the force mix, but keeping them OUT.) But the value of that card has starkly diminished in the last 15 years. These planes need the latest communications systems, and stockpiles of guided weapons, things Canada struggles to afford... they also need bases close to the action, which we don't have, which inevitably means becoming the second, lodger squadron at an existing U.S. or NATO base. With our air-to-air refueling assets still being slowly rebuilt, they're not even capable of rapid deployment without American assistance. Plus the value of the jet fighter seems to be diminishing... attempts to bring American-backed forces into air-to-air combat are widely recognized to be futile, and once air dominance is assured, the B-1s and B-52s are far more effective, per dollar, per sortie and per life, in bringing ordnance down on target in the era of GPS.

Keeping the air force in the game has had its rewards, to be sure. But at what cost? The rotary-wing arm has languished... Canada has never had anything like an attack helicopter. The transport wing does manful service, but its Hercs are getting old. We have perhaps the world's largest group of highly trained airspace controllers, without any early warning or battlespace control assets of our own. And we have no UAVs. As far as the army is concerned, the air force has had no tactical utility to them whatsoever: there's no interoperability to speak of, and they frankly work in almost entirely separate worlds. Keeping the CF-18s flying, keeping that option open to send a few to help NATO if we had to, has cost us a lot in other places.

That leaves the army, the most neglected of the services in many ways, but also the one with the most potential. If Canada takes any kind of U.S.-independent, or even independently sustainable course in the world, be it UN peacekeeping or what have you, other than the air force's transports and scout helicopters, the rest of the services essentially have nothing to contribute. The army has to, by necessity, continue to train for the possibility of warfare at all intensities... while its kit is not world-leading, it's not too bad for the tasks given. Assuming there had been a national will, it wasn't actually kit deficiencies that kept the army out of the Iraq war... an integrable battalion, at least as good as some of the British battalions sent, could have been there. No, the real problem there would have been the complete lack of any ability to project Canadian force in any timely or self-sustainable fashion. The Canadian troops going to Afghanistan in the next few months will do so on leased civilian air transport, with their gear sent by civilian ship. Any Canadian army commitment assumes by necessity the existence of a secure communications zone beforehand, and American airlift to boot... as Chretien found out in contemplating a UN-Canadian Congo mission, that basically means the U.S. has a veto power over any low-intensity operations, and is too busy fighting its own war to drag us along in high-intensity ones. If we did have the sustainment apparatus, the most we'll ever have in my lifetime is the equivalent of at one brigade, in total, to contribute to someone else's foreign operations. Fortunately, one brigade of well-trained troops, as the Americans just showed, can go a long way these days.

That more or less sums up the Canadian strategic situation, I'd say. The question then becomes, given your own chosen foreign policy objectives, and an absolute cap of around $3 billion Cdn. more a year, and the simple fact that all equipment gets old sooner or later and the stuff we have now needs to start getting replaced now, what capabilities do you discard, which do you keep, and which do you add? Forget the old canards, always signs of the unsound plans out there, of roles for reservists, special forces, or anything that refers to "the Revolution in Military Affairs".* That's all icing. The central question is, given your beliefs about the future of world conflicts, what is our overriding national goal at this point and for the next generation, and how do all three services need to be reconfigured to collectively support it?

*I believe in the RMA. I just don't think it's relevant to this debate, at least until some overriding questions about roles and strategic priorities are settled first.

Posted by BruceR at 11:14 AM