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While war rages in the Middle East and Europe, Canada’s military is less capable than ever

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From the MacDonald Laurier Institute

By Richard Shimooka

There are no good solutions to this problem, only less bad alternatives.

Over a decade ago, I had the opportunity to interview Jim Judd, the former deputy minister of national defence. After all these years, one quote still sticks out to me:

People assume because DND has 60,000 personnel and a budget of 12 billion dollars it should be able to do something, but there are quite severe practical limitations to its capability. In my view, it was not all that well understood outside of military circles.

Judd’s comment seems even more relevant today than it was eleven years ago. The ongoing Russian war in Ukraine, Chinese aggression in the West Pacific, and now the brutal incursion by Hamas into Israel from Gaza have stripped away any facade that the international system will be more peaceful or stable than in the 20th century. For most major liberal democracies, these events have shaken the complacency that has prevailed since the end of the Cold War: that is except for Canada. The recent announcement that the defence department will need to shoulder a $1 billion dollar budget cut over the next three years clearly illustrates the lack of awareness of this government on the international moment.

Yet, like Judd’s comment, there is little understanding amongst the public of how the military functions, and the consequences of these cuts are critical. While many may be dimly aware that the armed forces are facing a challenging situation, the actual details and the future outcome are only known to a precious few. This article will try to address that.

What will become apparent is that political decisions have simultaneously over-deployed the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) while neglecting to invest in its capabilities. This has upset the fragile sustainment system, leaving its actual operational capability in tatters. The military has become a token force abroad and is even unlikely to be able to provide for Canada’s own defence in the near future. What follows is not a worse-case scenario, but the most likely outcome given the present situation and future trends.

The first step is to understand the aims of the CAF and how it is structured to achieve them. With the exception of the CF-18’s tactical fighter fleet’s continental defence mission, much of the CAF’s active duty military is organized to undertake expeditionary operations abroad. This should not be surprising. Other than the airborne threat of Russian aircraft, there are very limited direct naval and land threats to Canada. Most operations are abroad. Yet units are not able to deploy indefinitely—personnel need rotation home for rest, while equipment needs time for maintenance and overhaul. Furthermore, they require time to undertake personal development training as well as building up their forces prior to deployment.

In order to sustain units in the field the CAF employs something known as the “managed readiness system.” Essentially the system rotates units between deployment, recuperation, and training. This usually means a 1/3 ratio: for every one unit deployed into the field, two are in the other phases of a cycle. This isn’t a universal ratio: the Army’s field units can operate between a 1/2 to 1/4 ratio, the Navy’s frigates cycle is closer to 1/3.5 in practice, and submarines are 1/4 (this is largely due to the greater maintenance requirements these vessels require in order to operate safely). This was a major consideration for acquiring the four Victoria class submarines from the United Kingdom in the 1990s as it would ensure in practice that one would always be available for operation.

Tactical fighters operate differently, but a 1/4 ratio roughly captures the size of the fleet required to keep a sizeable force available for operations. Furthermore, as equipment ages, they also require more time and effort to maintain and overhaul.

In practical terms, the CAF’s objectives since the end of the Cold War have been to sustain four frigates for deployment, 18 CF-18 fighter jets for peacetime operations (12 on alert in Canada and six abroad for NATO), and a half brigade’s worth of soldiers (2000-2500) with ancillary capabilities. Among Western states, this is a fairly small contribution. For example, the United Kingdom, with only 30 percent greater GDP than Canada, potentially can sustain three brigades, totalling over 10,000 soldiers in the field that are able to fight in very high-intensity environments.

As we’re about to see, Canada falls far short of even its modest objectives, with the gap widening for the foreseeable future.

In the eight years since the Trudeau Government assumed office, two broad trends have been discernible. The first is an expanded international vision for the CAF, with large deployments in Europe and the Middle East, as well as a more active naval and air presence in the Pacific. This, as well as increased maintenance requirements for an aging equipment base, are the major cost drivers for the CAF. At the same time, while Canada’s defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, promised a fully funded and structured recapitalization of the military, it has not been delivered—even within two years of the document’s promulgation, National Defence had already failed to spend $8 billion dollars budgeted to it. Thus, overuse tied with undercapitalization has resulted in the entire range of operational capabilities deteriorating over the past decade. Some modestly so, others much more drastically.

Navy

Let’s start with the Navy. For much of the 2000s, the twelve Halifax Class frigates were run hard to meet various commitments after 9/11. Now reaching thirty years of age, these vessels have undergone excessive levels of service and are showing their age. The foremost example is the HMCS Toronto, which has been undergoing refit since 2022. It has severe hull corrosion which has left her in a dilapidated state and may require hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs. The vastly increased maintenance requirements are visible across the class. In 2002 each Halifax class frigates’ docking work period (DWP) required around 200,000 man-hours to complete. Current DWPs now average 1.2 million hours, and will likely reach 1.5 million by the end of the decade. This translates into a significant cost increase and affects ship availability. With these constraints, the original objective of four vessels operational at any one time is completely unachievable: Canada at present effectively has only two frigates (with a third potentially available in some instances), which will become increasingly difficult to sustain in the coming years.

Canada’s submarines are in a similar shape. The grounding of the HMCS Corner Brook in 2011, and its subsequent dockyard accident in 2020, has effectively left the fleet with only three submarines in the managed readiness system, often leaving none available for operations. With fewer deployment opportunities, crew regeneration has suffered, damaging the remaining personnel morale and impacting the skill base that is critical for operating such a highly complex capability.

Army

The Army is not in much better shape, although its challenges are somewhat different from the other services. The expansion of the Latvia mission to approximately 2,000 soldiers will effectively utilize the vast majority of the units available at any given time through managed readiness. However the demands, like during the Afghanistan era, will stretch the system and have a number of negative consequences. The first is whether the mission can be sustained for more than two years—there simply are not enough soldiers available in the coming years given the ongoing personnel shortages.

Another almost certain consequence will be the curtailment of unit training across the Army, as there will be fewer personnel available. This places troops at greater risk even for a peacetime operation like in Latvia. Russia has continually targeted Canadian soldiers with active measures campaigns to discredit their presence in the country, something that requires training and vigilance to avoid. This also ignores that the CAF will not deploy to Latvia with many basic capabilities, such as ambulances and air defence systems that can defend against UAVs or mobile artillery, all of which are basic capabilities for operating in a war today.

These issues are compounded by the increasing number of domestic operations surrounding disaster relief the Army has been tasked with, such as helping to deal with the wildfires that raged this past summer. While these are generally handled by the reserves, the growing scale of these events, as well as the tendency to use the military as the force of first resort in these cases, is further straining its already weakened force generation system.

Air Force

Perhaps the most precipitous decline is with the RCAF’s tactical fighter fleet of CF-18s. Canada is currently in the process of shrinking its fleet to 37 aircraft while preparing for the transition to the F-35. The fleet size is sufficient only to sustain domestic NORAD operations, a reality underlined by the announcement last December that the RCAF would withdraw from NATO commitments for the foreseeable future. Even more problematic is the lack of pilots and support personnel, which may even lead to the Air Force being unable to fulfill the NORAD alert mission requirements in full. As the F-35 transition gets underway in the coming years, there are fears that there will be insufficient personnel to staff both aircraft types, which will likely result in fewer available CF-18s to meet the alert role.

The state of the tactical fighter fleet can be directly attributed to the Liberal government’s decision to scrap the acquisition of the F-35 in 2015. While some suggested the competition “built trust” and confidence for the decision, the process essentially wrecked the ability of the Air Force to provide even the most basic level of security for the country. Even more ironic was that the government tried to implement an end-run around a competition through the interim buy of 18 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, justified by the need to meet both the NORAD and NATO missions simultaneously. Now, seven years later, Canada has effectively ended one mission and faces the possibility that it will not even be able to meet its most basic mission of defending the country’s airspace.

Solutions

So, what can be done? Unfortunately, there are no good outcomes for the government, only less bad alternatives. Avoiding the worst-case scenario will require multiple lines of effort. Overall it requires the forces to reduce its overseas commitments while trying to revitalize its standing forces by accelerating modernization and recruitment.

The first step is to approach the United States and close allies and frankly acknowledge the situation the government has placed itself in. To some degree, they are already aware: recent moves like the exclusion of AUKUS and the U.K.’s offer to assist in arctic security implicitly recognize Canada’s weakness. However, to reconstitute the military effectively will require the CAF to withdraw from some of its long-standing commitments. For example, it is questionable whether the Latvia expansion is responsible given the state of the Army. There is a high probability that the mission’s demands are unsustainable in the long run, to the point where CAF will have to withdraw significant portions of its commitment to the Baltics or risk a collapse of its managed readiness system. Maintaining the operation’s present size and/or undertaking shorter periodic deployments of units are much more achievable alternatives given the current constraints.

Of primary importance, though, is that the personnel and procurement systems require reforms. Pouring more money and resources into the present systems is like pouring water into a bucket with holes. The holes must be plugged before anything else can proceed. Both systems must address the new realities in their respective areas, which will require substantial changes to how the government operates. Once this is accomplished, raising funding levels that meet the NATO two percent of GDP threshold will be critical—there are far too many deferred maintenance and procurements programs that need to be addressed immediately if the CAF wants to remain viable.

Finally, budget certainty is essential. Cutting a billion in funding and delaying implementation of Strong, Secure, Engaged further undercuts the military’s state. Unpredictable budget environments are a prime cause of delays and larger cost overruns, both on procurement projects and for operations—issues that the CAF and Canada cannot afford anymore.

The current situation was utterly predictable even seven years ago. Now that the country is in this quagmire, it will require a herculean effort to get out of it.

Richard Shimooka is a Hub contributing writer and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute who writes on defence policy.

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From swaggering to staggering – Canada’s decline into irrelevance

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From the MacDonald Laurier Institute

By Philip Cross

It’s remarkable how much our international reputation has faded over the past 10 years, both diplomatically and economically.

It is remarkable how much attitudes about Canada have shifted, both here and abroad, over the past 10 years. A decade ago, riding the wave of a booming economy, Canada was widely admired for a banking system that had got through the 2008-2009 global financial crisis without government bailouts. Today the country’s global stature is much diminished and Canadians are rapidly losing confidence in their economic prospects.

In the years leading up to 2016 Canadians grew accustomed to global accolades. In a 2003 cover story, The Economist touted the prospects for “cool Canada,” following up in 2006 that Canada’s relative economic performance made it a “superstar” as the “only country running both current-account and budget surpluses.” Steve Poloz, then chief economist at EDC, said in 2005 the stars were aligned for Canadian firms to achieve the “productivity miracle” already realized in the U.S. In 2012, the OECD secretariat forecast Canada’s economic growth would lead the G7 nations over the next 50 years. Our AAA credit rating, stable economy and resource riches prompted the IMF in 2012 to recommend central banks hold more currency reserves in Canadian dollars, leading to headlines about “loonie set to join global currency elite” as a safe haven in turbulent times.

A Maclean’s article reporting 2011 poll results proclaimed Canada was “on top of the world” and “Canadians have never felt so upbeat about the future.” A year later, Joe O’Connor could claim in this newspaper that “Canada’s got swagger.” This confidence was reinforced when Britain hired Mark Carney in 2012 as the first foreign-born governor of the Bank of England, calling him the “best central banker of his generation.” On the global stage, in 2016 U.S. President Barack Obama told Parliament: “the world needs more Canada.”

A stable banking system was not Canada’s only perceived financial advantage. Some analysts predicted Toronto would become a major trading centre for the North American cap-and-trade carbon market. Moody’s Analytics projected Toronto’s financial services industry would employ more people than London’s by 2017. Tiff Macklem, then dean of the Rotman School, wrote an op-ed in 2016 touting Toronto’s “potential to become the leading global fintech hub.”

That was then. Today Canada’s reality is much different than people were expecting before 2015. Its finance sector is known for being “an ATM and safe deposit box for money laundering,” according to Jonathan Manthorpe in his 2019 book,  Claws of the Panda. In 2018, The Economist noted that Canada “has long had a reputation as a place to snow-wash money.” Regulation is split between federal and provincial governments and there are almost no restrictions on lawyers involved in laundering.

Instead of buoyant economic growth, the OECD last year downgraded Canada’s prospects to 2060 to dead last out of 38 nations. In a 2019 feature, The Economist noted that the top Canadian firm on Fortune’s list of the world’s largest companies ranked 241st, concluding that our “economy and business culture will have to become more American.”

Nothing has damaged Canada’s economy and global stature more than the obstacles governments have deployed to hamper our energy industry. In 2011, the late Jim Prentice, then vice-chairman of CIBC, reviewed the slew of Canadian energy projects then underway, from hydro in Labrador to Alberta’s oil sands, and concluded “no one else is bringing on energy projects on the pace and scale of Canada.” Today, by contrast, British Columbia and Quebec are struggling to meet electricity demand, while the oil sands have slashed investment.

The harm from discouraging oil and gas development was fully revealed after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Canada was unable to answer Europe’s desperate need for oil and gas. When German Chancellor Scholz visited Canada to plead for more natural gas, our prime minister claimed there was “no business case” to support LNG exports to Europe. Meanwhile, since March 2022, American firms have signed now fewer than 57 supply agreements with Europe for 73 million metric tons of LNG annually, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal.

A recent Nanos poll found even fewer Canadians (just 13 per cent) thought our global reputation had improved than were satisfied with the state of our economy (23 per cent). The Wall Street Journal said last year that Canada’s paltry defence spending should disqualify us from G7 membership, while Spain is openly lobbying to take our place. We have become irrelevant to the geopolitics of our natural allies, whether the problem at hand is the growing rivalry between the U.S. on the one hand and Russia and China on the other or the EU’s fixation on rectifying its energy and defence deficits.

More broadly, Canada has failed in its traditional role of explaining the U.S. to the rest of the world. Though it’s strange to recall, immediately after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the hope was Trudeau would be the “Trump Whisperer,” establishing Canada as an “indispensable nation,” to quote Maclean’s Scott Gilmore. Instead, we have reverted to our traditional sense of moral superiority over Americans and now parrot the global chorus condemning the direction of U.S. politics. We have a plan for dealing with Trump, the prime minister assures us. Good luck to us with that.

Philip Cross is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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Canada used to punch above its weight, but our defence capacity now seems an impossible dream: Richard Fadden

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From the MacDonald Laurier Institute

By Richard Fadden

We are now in a period of crisis such that we must step up our efforts to bolster our national security and protect the international order that has served us so well.

“To dream the impossible dream.” These words, sung by Don Quixote in Man of LaMancha, reflect a sentiment often felt about the state of Canada’s national security. For decades, our positions on foreign policy, defence and security could only be evaluated as weak. And this is not a partisan perspective: since at least the end of the Cold War, successive federal governments have done as little as possible in these policy areas. Why does a G7 country – one of the richest in the world – systematically prioritize these sectors below virtually all others? We continue to do this while Canada benefits from the international order, which is now clearly at risk.

It was not always thus. Canada ended the Second World War with the fourth-largest air force among Allied countries and the third-largest navy in the world. At least once during his postwar term, Louis St. Laurent’s government spent 7 per cent of the GDP on national defence. Then, Lester B. Pearson essentially invented modern peacekeeping. In the months after 9/11, Jean Chrétien’s government spent an additional $7.7-billion on security while fundamentally updating our national security legislation. Stephen Harper’s government stepped up during our engagement in Afghanistan. But outside of these moments, often motivated by existential or critical events, national security has not rated much attention by either Liberal or Conservative governments, nor by any of the other parties in Parliament.

Why do Canadian politicians ignore it as much as they can? The simplest reason is that Canadians, generally, are not interested. Most of us are not currently asking our governments to take the rapidly deteriorating international environment as seriously as virtually all of our allies do. Despite living in an entirely globalized world, many Canadians seem to believe that Canada is not facing any particular threat – so why spend money on protecting ourselves?

It’s true that because of our location in North America, we are not about to be invaded. But this is not 1914. The determined efforts of China, Russia and others to alter the international system on which most of our peace and prosperity depend can ultimately harm us as much as the artillery or bombing attacks of previous wars. And this is without taking into account the dangers of cyberattacks against our society and economy. This is not warmongering: democratic governments around the world are strengthening their defence and security establishments while actively pursuing foreign policies that take this new environment into account. For a country that has long preached the value of globalization – and benefitted from it – Canada inexplicably seems to ignore that national security issues are also a consequence of globalization.

While we have promised NATO that we will spend 2 per cent of our GDP on defence, we have also planned to cut our defence spending. We have also failed to deal with systemic personnel and procurement issues besetting our defence establishment. The current government has pointed to a number of significant capital expenses as proof that we are hitting the 2-per-cent target, but most of this spending has merely been to replace aging vital equipment. This does not represent an adequate response to a deteriorating international order, nor does it bolster the capacity of the Canadian Forces.

On the security side, after months of all parties acknowledging the threat of foreign interference, we are finally holding a public inquiry on the matter which may well prove to be useful. But it will almost certainly release its report when it is too late for the current government to act on its recommendations. Indeed, the timing makes it easy to invoke the inquiry as a reason to avoid taking action to develop a foreign-agents registry, to update our national security legislation, or to deal with threats to our democratic institutions, civil society and the private sector.

For years, Canada punched above its weight internationally. We did so because we used the tools of diplomacy, defence, security and development to advance our interests and values. We recognized that, as a middle power, we needed to use every available tool of soft and hard power to effectively advance our interests and those of our allies. And, critically, we backed these efforts with the resources to make our proposals real. Much of the Western world seems to agree that we are now in a period of crisis such that we must step up our efforts to bolster our national security and protect the international order that has served us so well. While it is the duty of governments to act, opposition parties must also share in the responsibility to recognize the threats we face, and to advocate for responsible action. So far, no one gets a passing grade. We have been left, alongside our allies, to dream the impossible dream.

Richard Fadden is an MLI advisory council member, a former national security adviser to the prime minister, former deputy minister of national defence, and former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

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