BUSINESS WATCH

The perils of starving the military

The Cold War is as irrelevant as the Crusades, yet Canada continues to defend European territory that is no longer threatened

Peter C. Newman April 29 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

The perils of starving the military

The Cold War is as irrelevant as the Crusades, yet Canada continues to defend European territory that is no longer threatened

Peter C. Newman April 29 1991

The perils of starving the military

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

The Cold War is as irrelevant as the Crusades, yet Canada continues to defend European territory that is no longer threatened

There has always been an unwritten rule that civilian control of the military in Canada must be supreme and that no matter how frivolous or serious a threat, it should be the politicians, not the admirals and generals, who decide what, if anything, we do about it. That’s precisely how democracies should operate, but there’s a less comfortable corollary to that proposition: for politicians to properly exercise that responsibility, they must at least pretend to know what they’re doing.

Merely throwing comically inadequate funds at defence department planners and then expecting them somehow to muddle their way through is no longer good enough. Canadian participation in the Gulf War—and the army’s exemplary conduct at and around Oka last summer—proved two things: that even if most of their equipment is a joke, Canada’s armed forces are staffed by men and women who have earned our trust and gratitude. It also proved that even if we got away with pragmatically hammering together a last-minute response to an unexpected situation one more time, this country deserves a sensible, long-term defence policy.

Defence has operated in a policy vacuum since Perrin Beatty’s 1987 white paper was eviscerated by Michael Wilson’s 1989 budget. The Gulf War demonstrated, once and for all, that Canada’s military planning during the past half-century, based as it was on the Soviet threat, is totally out of date. The Cold War is as irrelevant as the Crusades, yet Canadians continue to defend European territory that is no longer threatened.

We must either stop pretending that we have an effective navy, army and air force, or fashion a military policy that will help us remain a viable, independent nation, capable of implementing the basic elements of its sovereignty. Like it or not, there are some mundane functions of nationhood that require the modem state to command effective fighting forces, even if it’s for internal peacekeeping, which

Canadians learned last summer is no longer a hypothetical possibility.

According to recent figures, Canada ranks 92nd among 122 of the world’s nations in terms of the proportion of its gross domestic product devoted to defence. That puts us well behind such awesome players on the world stage as Burkina Faso, Togo and Guyana. “With something like 0.4 per cent of our population in either the regular or reserve forces,” points out Alex Morrison, executive director of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, “we’re the equal of Costa Rica, which by all the accepted definitions has no army at all. The strength of Canada’s armed forces and our foreign-aid budget are now each below tolerable levels. If our leaders refuse to allocate the necessary resources, others will do the job for us, but in their interest more than ours—and at the cost of our sovereignty and independence.”

The navy, which reached its lowest previous ship total of 22 destroyers under Pierre Trudeau in 1975, will by the year 2000 be down to a dozen patrol frigates plus four destroyers built in the 1970s. (Three of its destroyers are permanently tied to jetties where they can be cannibalized for spare parts although they’re

still counted as part of our active NATO contribution.) The only chance for renewal would be the purchase of a dozen or so relatively inexpensive coastal patrol vessels (also useful for minesweeping) that would be manned by the cost-effective naval reserves. They would provide this country with protection against drug runners, illegal immigrants, polluters, foreign fishermen straying past their limits, or anyone else violating our coastline, which, incidentally, is the world’s longest.

The army badly needs replacements for its Leopard tanks, night observation devices and northern-terrain vehicles; the air force has had everything but its Hercules transport plane orders cancelled. With the planned purchase of the Polar-8 and nuclear-powered submarines cancelled, our grand claims to Arctic sovereignty are absurdly hollow. Defence Minister Bill McKnight was correct when he admitted that from now on “defending Canada’s Arctic waters will have to be left to the United States and Britain.” As if to underline the point, the Americans sent their coast-guard icebreaker, Polar Star, through the Northwest Passage last September—and Ottawa didn’t dare utter a peep.

The most realistic option for freeing funds that might allow us to field any kind of semieffective home defence is to begin immediately withdrawing our air and land forces in Europe. Even before the Gorbachev disarmament initiatives, NATO’s German front was the equivalent of France’s Maginot Line—an obsolete concept celebrating a bygone era. Even when the Cold War was still a vague possibility, Canada’s mechanized brigade at its base in Lahr, Germany, was so poorly equipped it had been relegated to providing a reserve capability for the 7th American Army and the German 2nd Corps. Without new CF-18s, which we can’t afford, most of our air element will soon have to be repatriated anyway.

The 18,000 Canadians who have been helping fight the Cold War in Lahr (and nearby Baden) for the last generation have run out of missions to perform. Just being there was good enough when NATO’s European partners craved reassurance that they would not be left alone to face The Soviet Threat, and thus found comfort in the physical presence of Canadians and Americans on their soil. That’s no longer the case. In Europe, the Americans are busy closing 32 installations and are considering troop reductions by as much as 200,000, from the current level of 300,000.

Until Canadian politicians assign the Canadian military some meaningful role, the mood of the men and women paid to protect this country will remain sour. “We attack at dawn,” goes the tired joke in military messes across the country, with some straight man inevitably asking, “Why dawn?”

“That way,” runs the sarcastic reply, “if things don’t work out, we haven’t wasted the whole day.”

Canada must either respect its commitments or abandon them. In terms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it’s time to move on towards military postures suitable for the 1990s, instead of the 1950s.