The Iraq Campaign

WHY THE CANADIAN MILITARY ISN’T READY FOR A WAR

reports on the sorry state of the country’s armed forces. Years of neglect have created a climate of dysfunction.

JONATHON GATEHOUSE September 30 2002
The Iraq Campaign

WHY THE CANADIAN MILITARY ISN’T READY FOR A WAR

reports on the sorry state of the country’s armed forces. Years of neglect have created a climate of dysfunction.

JONATHON GATEHOUSE September 30 2002

WHY THE CANADIAN MILITARY ISN’T READY FOR A WAR

The Iraq Campaign

reports on the sorry state of the country’s armed forces. Years of neglect have created a climate of dysfunction.

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

AS A NATION, we sent about 650,000 to fight the First World War, enlisted more than a million men and women to battle Fascism, and committed almost 27,000 troops to a “police action” in Korea. Today, it’s a struggle to keep a few hundred soldiers on the battlefield. The submarines leak, the helicopters are antiquated, and the infantry can’t get the right colour of camouflage. Canada’s once proud military appears to have reached the breaking point.

This year, Ottawa will spend $11.8 billion on a defence force that numbers just 60,000 people. Over the next five years, the military will also have an additional $5.1 billion to spend. But as the United States again beats the drums of war, Canada is quietly serving notice that our forces might not be in a position to join an attack on Iraq, even if we wanted to. “If we were really, really pushed, we could muster the soldiers,” John McCallum, the minister of defence, told Maclean’s. “How long they would stay— that’s another matter.”

Ottawa has so far shown little interest in signing on for phase two of George W. Bush’s war on terror, and a decision last week by Saddam Hussein to allow UN arms inspectors back into Iraq appears to have delayed any onset of hostilities. Tough talk still ruled the day—the Bush administration released a report outlining an aggressive new defence policy that would favour preemptive action against terrorist groups and hostile states. But McCallum, speaking about a hypothetical Canadian participation in a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, said Canadian Forces simply aren’t ready to go back to war. “We could, but we would be stretching them and causing family problems. We already have two ships out there that could help, we would have some capability on the air front. We could send some soldiers, but we would rather not send them until six to 10 months from now.”

Eight hundred infantry members returned home this summer after a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, and a Canadian Naval Task Group in the Arabian Gulf has been scaled back to three ships from six. Military officials worry that a quick call for another deployment will strain resources, and personnel. “They are, legitimately, very concerned about stretching people to the point where they might quit, or we are treating them very unfairly,” said McCallum.

In recent years, the alarm over the crumbling state of Canada’s military has been sounded so many times that it has ceased to cause any panic. Between 1993 and 1998, the Department of National Defence saw its budget slashed by 23 per cent as the federal government wrestled with the deficit. Bases were closed,

equipment purchases were postponed, the military trimmed 27,000 positions, and commitments to NATO and peacekeeping were reduced. While Ottawa has returned funding to early-1990s levels, the lion’s share of the new money—$3.9 billion—has gone to improve pay and living conditions for soldiers, sailors and air crews. Now,

defence supporters are calling for a massive cash infusion to upgrade or replace the military’s aging hardware. (Among the priorities: replacing the navy’s 40-yearold Sea King helicopters. The Liberals cancelled a $4.4-billion chopper deal in 1993, but have yet to approve a scaledback $3-billion version of the project.)

Last year, the auditor general found Canadian Forces now spend a full 20 per cent of their budget maintaining, managing and repairing equipment. Thousands of vacancies in key occupations such as engineers and weapons technicians remain unfilled as new recruits sit on bases awaiting specialized training. Recently, an all-party Commons defence committee recommended an immediate $2-billion budget increase for the military, and said $1 billion is needed just to maintain the status quo. A similar Senate body has called for $4 billion more a year.

The situation has reached crisis proportions, says author and military historian Jack Granatstein, co-chair of the Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century, a defence lobby group. After suffering a decade-long bloodletting from a “thousand cuts,” the anemic Canadian Forces are now on the verge of collapse, he says. The last formal review of defence policy, produced in 1994, calls for a modern, globally deployable, combat-capable military that can indefinitely maintain 4,000 troops in the field. But in reality, says Granatstein, Canada is leaning heavily on its allies just to sustain its token participation in international operations—troops had to hitch a ride with the Americans to Afghanistan, while during the Kosovo campaign Canadian mechanics had to borrow spare parts to keep our CF-18s flying. A recently released study by the council says Canada is losing international credibility and influence, and calls for at least $1.5 billion a year more in military spending. “Military power still matters,” says Granatstein. “When people talk about powerful nations, they don’t mean moral power.”

The situation is serious enough that some of our closest allies are publicly raising questions about Canada’s military competence. Paul Cellucci, the American ambassador to Canada, says the United States is deeply grateful for the “valuable contribution” the Canadian Forces have made to the war on terror, but adds his country worries about the future of our military. “If Sept. 11 has taught us anything, it has reminded us that we live in a very dangerous world, and that having a viable military is important to all countries,” says Cellucci. The Bush administration is urging Ottawa to substantially

increase defence spending. The Canadian Forces need more troops, hardware that is technically compatible with advanced American equipment, and the capacity to airlift themselves to international hot spots, says the ambassador. “It seems to us you shouldn’t have to rely on other countries to get your troops where they’re needed,” he adds.

The Americans won’t say just how much more they believe Ottawa should be spending on defence, but Cellucci notes that Canada ranks toward the bottom of NATO members in terms of military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product. According to the United Nations Fluman Development report, Canada spent the equivalent of 1.3 per cent of its GDP on military matters in 1999, ranking seventh of the G8 countries, and well behind NATO allies like Greece, Norway and Denmark. In 1990, prior to the budget cuts, Ottawa spent two per cent of GDP on the Canadian Forces. (Canada ranks third on the UN world quality of life index, partially because we spend so little on arms and more in areas such as health and education.)

But as more and more voices join the chorus for increased funding, some critics are cautioning voters and the government to take a hard look at what we already pay so much for. Scott Taylor, editor of the military magazine Esprit de Corps, says the Canadian Forces’ deep systemic problems can’t be solved by a simple cash infusion. “We could give these guys $5 billion more a year and it’s not going to make a difference,” he says. Years of budget cuts, neglect and infighting among the services have created a climate of dysfunction, where good money is frequently thrown after bad. “Nobody wants to admit that there has been a lack of foresight,” says Taylor. “You need a blueprint for the future and a management team that can put it in place.” Military planners need to scale back their aspirations for big-ticket items like jets and ships, he says. “We could do a hell of a lot more operations if that was the emphasis.”

Others argue that Canada has lost touch with the moral values that have traditionally shaped our world outlook. Ernie Regehr, director of Project Ploughshares, a peace and disarmament think-tank sponsored by Canada’s major churches,

says there is more than one method to build global security. “The other ways in which we contribute to world peace—foreign aid, diplomacy—have had their spending cut at least as drastically as the military has,” says Regehr. Despite Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s recent appeals to Western countries to spend more on world development, Canada’s record of giving remains miserly. We now spend just .25 per cent of our GNP on foreign aid, about half of what we contributed in 1991.

When Parliament reconvenes on Sept. 30, questions of military spending are sure to be high on the opposition’s agenda. But the competition for an increased share of the shrinking surplus will be fierce. Liberal insiders are already talking about ambitious new initiatives for health care, the environment, major urban centres, and First Nations. Montreal’s daily La Presse has even floated the idea—since flatly denied—that Finance Minister John Manley is considering increasing the GST to 10 per cent to pay for the raft of new programs.

With the Defence Department coming out as a winner in the last three budgets, few observers are predicting the monstrous type of funding increases military supporters say are needed. Even McCallum, a former chief economist for the Royal Bank, seems resigned to the idea of making do with what’s available. “We need a significant injection of resources to be sustainable in the long term, both on the people side and on the capital side,” he says. “But we’re certainly not going to get $4 billion.” With no magic solution on the horizon, the challenge for Canada’s soldiers, air crews and sailors will be the same as it has been for a decade—getting the job done, even if it means breaking out the chewing gum, string and duct tape.

jgatehouse@macleans.ca