Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

‘Threadbare and patched’

Canada’s overtaxed military has little to contribute

SCOTT TAYLOR October 8 2001
Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

‘Threadbare and patched’

Canada’s overtaxed military has little to contribute

SCOTT TAYLOR October 8 2001

‘Threadbare and patched’

Canada’s overtaxed military has little to contribute

SCOTT TAYLOR

Prior to last week's meeting between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Canadian pundits were hard-pressed to predict just what, if anything, our military could contribute to this “new war” on terrorism. Evidently, Bush's senior advisers have also been paying close attention to the demise of our once-proud armed forces, as no specific U.S. request was made for the contribution of Canadian troops.

Despite the desperate attempts by Defence Minister Art Eggleton to portray the state of the Forces as “strong and proud” and “ready to answer the call,” the Canadian public has finally come to the shocking realization that our country’s combat cupboard is virtually bare. (Defence spending this year will reach $11.4 billion, down from a high of $12.8 billion in 1991.) And although innumerable alarm bells have been sounded over the past year, it took a horrific terrorist attack on the United States to alert Canadian citizens to the precarious state of our national security.

In the months before Sept. 11, there was no public outcry over reports that, overall, the Canadian Forces may soon be nearly 10,000 recruits short of their authorized strength of 60,000 and that the chronic shortage of sailors has forced the navy to sideline the destroyer HMCS Huron. Media stories of the department of national defence’s equipment woes have abounded: a combination of rust-out, old age and a lack of spare parts has rendered army transport trucks unsafe. While the DND denies the suggestion, some sources claim half of the air force’s fleet of CF-18 fighter jets is to be sold off in order to pay for an overdue refit of the remaining 60. And earlier this year, an independent report from the Royal Canadian Legion indicated how our demoralized peacekeepers were wearing “threadbare and patched” combat uniforms. But there has been little reaction to such news.

Similarly, it appears that very few Canadian civilians were paying attention to the circumstances surrounding last month’s NATO mission into war-torn Macedonia. When Canada was first asked to provide troops for this latest Balkan peacekeeping operation, defence headquarters initially offered to contribute a token three soldiers. The Canadian army had reached the breaking point: there were simply no more troops left to send. To prove this point, when NATO officials subsequendy asked Canada for a larger commitment to their mission in Macedonia, the only option available to DND was to direcdy transfer 200 soldiers from their tours of duty in Bosnia.

However, now that war has officially been declared on terrorism, Canadians have suddenly taken a renewed interest in military issues. Not only is the public concerned about their own security, but polls reveal that the majority also supports a military counterstrike. Although the Pentagon has yet to present Canada with a specific wish list for either troops or matériel, the mounting domestic clamour will likely pressure Chrétien into contributing something to Bush’s coalition force. But the Canadian military possesses only two assets that it could send.

The air force could provide CF-18 Hornet fighter jets—during the 1999 NATO action in Kosovo, 18 were sent. However, this contribution could require the establishment and constant resupply of a forward airbase, somewhere within striking distance of Afghanistan. Such a massive operation would sorely tax Canada’s already limited transport capability and drastically reduce our domestic air defence resources.

The bigger question is: just what purpose would these fighter aircraft serve in eliminating terrorism? Canada should not commit to a bombing campaign aimed at “punishing” civilians, and every experienced soldier knows you cannot fight terrorists from 7,000 m. And even if elimination of hidden arsenals was possible from such altitudes, it would do little to deter terrorists, who demonstrated so tragically on Sept. 11 that they do not require sophisticated weapons to murder thousands of people.

The only way to fight the followers of Osama bin Laden in the wild mountains of Afghanistan will be to put elite troops on the ground. As such, this will be a perfect opportunity for Canada to commit our counterterrorist specialists, the Joint Task Force 2. Well-trained and wellequipped with all the latest high-tech weaponry, this little-known commando unit would make an ideal contribution to Bush’s proposed alliance.

Considered to be on a par with the British Special Air Service and the Americans’ Delta force, the JTF 2 has performed Canada’s counterterrorist role since 1993. This commando unit is cloaked in secrecy. Nevertheless, its past exploits include targeting Muslim and Serbian snipers in Bosnia, conducting long-range patrols in Rwanda and VIP protection here at home. If a large-scale mission is launched into Afghanistan to “seek and destroy” Osama bin Laden’s terrorist cells, one has to suspect the JTF 2 will be the unit that Chrétien chooses to carry the Canadian flag.

Scott Taylor, a former soldier, is an author and editor of the Canadian military magazine, Esprit de Corps.