Column

MILITARY MYTHS

MARY JANIGAN February 10 2003
Column

MILITARY MYTHS

MARY JANIGAN February 10 2003

MILITARY MYTHS

John McCallum’s troops will get more money, but that’s only the beginning

Column I

MARY JANIGAN

TO GET A REALLY good idea ofjohn McCallum’s basic problem, you only have to look at the back of our $10 bill. There is a depiction of a war memorial arch—without the traditional statues of soldiers that usually stand beneath it. To the left, in a wash of purple ink, is a female soldier, peering through binoculars, wearing the jaunty blue beret of the United Nations peacekeeping force. It is a wistful tribute to Canada’s role in world peace. And it is an illusion: today there are only 269 Canadian peacekeepers among the nearly 40,000 troops in the service of the United Nations. “Saying we are a peacekeeping nation is a rewriting of our history,” says Alain Pellerin, executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations. “And peacekeeping changed in the 1990s. Look at the Balkans: there has been a lot of fighting—and we have lost more than 20 people there. There is an element of myth to how we see our armed forces.”

That myth has dogged Defence Minister McCallum since he was catapulted into his position last May from a junior finance portfolio. True, in increasing numbers, Canadians want an able military: in late November, 5 6 per cent told Liberal pollster Pollara Inc. that Canada should spend more on defence, the highest portion since the firm started tracking in the mid-1980s. But there has not yet been a full debate on the hard choices and expensive changes that lie ahead. When even peacekeeping in the 21st century is a dangerous task requiring combatready troops, when armed forces have been steadily edging into closer co-operation with the U.S., the ministry could charitably be called a public relations challenge.

McCallum has had a steep learning curve. First, the former bank economist and arts dean educated himself, talking to defence officials, academics and businessmen with military experience. Then he tackled his colleagues, lobbying the regional caucuses, forging astute bonds with Foreign Minister Bill Graham and Finance Minister John Manley. The short-term result is this month’s

budget: up to $1 billion will be added to the department’s bottom line. At least $500 million of that will be added for 2003-2004— on top of current spending of $ 11.8 billion. That money will simply stabilize the forces. More importantly, the budget will lay out a multi-year plan to recruit trained personnel and fund new equipment. “The budget will say that Canadian troops have to focus their skill set,” says an insider. “And, they need quality equipment. We cannot do it overnight—but we are going to do it in a phasedin way with new money and a reallocation of existing money.”

The cash will come as a relief to the military, which is struggling with huge maintenance budgets for aging equipment, shortages of skilled staff and depleted capital budgets that have been raided for daily expenditures. Last fall, Pellerin’s group grimly itemized the needs of the services: up to 40 to 50 per cent of the army’s weapons and vehicle fleets could be grounded early next year “because the purchase of spares has been inconsistent and inadequate”; the air force lost half its manpower over the last decade. The group called for an injection of at least $1.5 billion. The Senate defence committee says $4 billion is the bare minimum. “It is probably beyond the ability of the department right now to save major capabilities from collapsing over the next few years,” warns Douglas Bland, chair of Queen’s University’s defence management studies program. “There is just this crumbling away.”

But more money is only part of the solution: Canada’s military must be restmctured to deal with a world of high-tech threats and low-tech terrorism. To his credit, Mc-

‘Nobody ever heard of East Timor and suddenly we were there: today, the principal element of defence policy is surprise’

Callum has started this process in his quest to find annual savings of $200 million. Outside experts will examine how to streamline administration and procurement. Almost $4 billion goes to non-military expenditures such as environmental cleanups. And savings will likely come from the elimination of outdated equipment such as tanks. “The challenge has changed dramatically from the Soviet Union to terrorists,” McCallum told Maclean’s. “There are enormous challenges facing militaries around the world to adapt to the new security environment and the new technology.”

That is a solid start. But the greatest challenge lies ahead: the updating of the 1994 White Paper on defence. Its basic aims will surely remain: homeland, continental and international defence. But Canada needs new master plans for both defence and foreign affairs. The good news is that McCallum and Graham are working together to diminish the traditional rivalry between their ministries. The bad news is that it would be folly to create policy before a new prime minister takes over early next year.

So the hard choices are still ahead. In an eye-opening series, the Institute for Research on Public Policy has examined the critical priorities in the “new world disorder.” In one study, Bland outlined Canada’s choices for military coalitions: with established groups, such as NATO in Bosnia; in “coalitions of the moment,” such as our 1999 peacekeeping mission to East Timor with the Australians; or a deeper relationship with the U.S. “Choosing where in the world Canada is willing and able to act in multinational operations, including humanitarian operations, is a difficult political decision,” says Bland. “Nobody ever heard of East Timor and suddenly we were there: today, the principal element of defence policy is surprise.”

So far, we are tilting toward the U.S. Dalhousie University political scientists Danford Middlemiss and Denis Stairs note that we are edging toward ever-greater interoperability with U.S. forces—with almost no national debate. Our fighter jets, for instance, which had compatibility problems on previous Gulf missions, are being upgraded to match U.S. standards in 10 areas.

McCallum’s task is to hold this fort at a time when the gap between myth and reality has never been greater. Or more dangerous, lifl

Mary Janigan’s column appears every other issue. mjanigan@macleans.ca