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The Halifax Class Modernization Frigate Life Extension (FELEX) Project


The Halifax Class Modernization Frigate Life Extension (FELEX) Project.

Defence after Kandahar

by Martin Shadwick

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Academic and media commentary on Canadian foreign and defence policy has, of late, been dominated, quite appropriately, by two interconnected issues: (a) the wisdom (or otherwise) of maintaining some form of Canadian military presence in Afghanistan post-July 2011; and (b) the future missions and theatres of operation for a modernized and battle-hardened army with extensive and hard-won knowledge of counter-insurgency warfare. Some observers, such as Eugene Lang and Eric Morse, have added a third, over-arching, dimension. Writing in the Toronto Star, they posit [that] at a minimum, our political leadership owes Canadians a conversation about the military as an instrument of Canadas foreign policy. An honest conversation about the nature of our military today, the realities of the dangerous world in which we live, the imperfections of our international organizations some of which are usefully explored in the Canadian Defence and Security Institutes (CDSI) recent Security in an Uncertain World: A Canadian Perspective on NATOs New Strategic Concept and how a Canadian contribution to international peace and security can fit with these realities.

The case for maintaining a Canadian military presence in Afghanistan post-2011 has been advanced in a variety of venues. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, appealed to allied solidarity when she urged Ottawa to provide training or other (i.e., logistical support) personnel. Essentially similar entreaties were made by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. Editorial support for a training role has been expressed in some Canadian media circles. A Globe and Mail editorial of 29 March 2010, for example, argued [that] Canada should look favourably at any NATO request to keep some soldiers in Afghanistan, in a training capacity, beyond the 2011 end to the mission in Kandahar. Conservative and past Liberal governments have shared a commitment to the process of nation-building in Afghanistan, as well as a complementary interest in preserving Canadas national security and that of our allies. Some continuing training role would adhere to those objectives and honour the enormous sacrifices made by Canadas servicemen and women in pursuit of them. Unlike the Globe and Mail, which appeared to envisage a low-risk training role in Kabul, a National Post editorial of 6 April 2010 endorsed the continued presence of Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams, which see experienced Canadian troops leading Afghan soldiers in battle clearly not a low-risk endeavour. In the view of the National Post, the presence of the well-trained Canadians helps to solidify the capabilities of the Afghan troops while also exposing them to our methods of warfare, which are deeply rooted in the tenets of international law. Such a mission would help Afghanistan and would show Washington our determination to remain an ally but it would still represent an end of the combat mission, thus satisfying the demands of Parliament and reducing the strain on our overburdened military.

In a thoughtful paper presented at the annual general meeting of the Conference of Defence Associations on 4 March 2010, Jack Granatstein argued that the trainers and the [Provincial Reconstruction Team] with a military component to provide protection should remain. I also think the [Chinook transport helicopters] should stay in theatre to assist our allies with a capability they need. Other potential post-2011 military contributions have been identified by a variety of analysts. Although some of their proffered options could prove militarily relevant, others could be characterized as diplomatic window-dressing of doubtful military utility.

It would, in several respects, be surprising if the Harper government a staunch advocate, particularly during its early time in office, of the Afghanistan mission inherited from its Liberal predecessor left no more than a military attach, a modest detachment of embassy security personnel, and a handful of staff officers in Afghanistan but each restatement of its resolve to withdraw leaves it with less political flexibility. Public frustration with a costly, decade-long presence in Afghanistan, the lamentable lack of burden-sharing by some NATO allies, and the performance, particularly the recent performance, of President Hamid Karzai, can only serve to reinforce the governments apparent predisposition to withdraw. Entreaties from some of Canadas key allies, and broader diplomatic calculations, may yet produce some post-2011 Canadian military presence in Afghanistan, but it would almost certainly be a comparatively modest and carefully nuanced contribution.

The second issue, the future utilization of Canadas reinvigorated army, constitutes, in the view of Lang and Morse, the central unanswered even unasked question of Canadian foreign policy. They posit [that] this new fighting machine Canada possesses, along with its warrior image, is foreign to Canadians. It makes a good chunk of our population and many of our politicians uncomfortable. True enough, but even if one harbours serious reservations about the current Canadian commitment in Afghanistan, it must be acknowledged that such an army (and the air mobility bestowed by the air forces CC-177A Globemasters, and, in the future, by its CC-130J Hercules and CH-147F Chinooks) is clearly relevant to the pursuit of an exceptionally broad array of human security and peace support operations. As ably demonstrated in Haiti, it is also relevant to international humanitarian relief operations.

Particularly timely in this regard is an excellent report What Happened to Peacekeeping? The Future of a Tradition by Jocelyn Coulon and Michel Ligeois. Commissioned by the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI), the report concludes that the era of traditional or classic peacekeeping (i.e., Suez, Cyprus) associated with Lester Pearson has largely disappeared but that the demand for newer, more robust, and much more challenging forms of peacekeeping has continued to expand and evolve. During the last ten years, they posit, Canadian governments have preferred to commit Canada to military interventions outside the UN structure, and in the particular case of Afghanistan, in a counterinsurgency mission. This choice is perfectly legitimate. But Canadians and their elites must also remember that Pearson left a heritage that has gone through astonishing transformation, and continues to show surprising vitality. The world has made peace operations in the old and new versions a key instrument for managing or regulating conflicts. Canada, with its great tradition and the exceptional and courageous experience of our soldiers in Afghanistan, is in a good position to re-engage in peace operations. The authors make two other particularly germane points. First, that the concentration of Canadian military personnel in Afghanistan has exposed the Canadian government to criticism. Ottawa cannot offer Canadians who cherish the Blue Helmet image any other example of current peacekeeping deployment whereas Canadas other allies can. This causes suspicion among some that Canada has truly abandoned peacekeeping. Indeed, a mere handful of Canadian military personnel a number even lower than when Coulon and Ligeois prepared their report are currently assigned to non-Afghanistan UN, NATO, and other (i.e., MFO) peace support operations. And, second, [that] the general public and often political authorities and certain experts have difficulty understanding the new forms of peacekeeping, particularly as the peaceful and easygoing peacekeeper of the sixties and seventies has now been eclipsed by a peacewarrior, authorised in certain circumstances to use force to defend or impose a mandate from the UN or from non-UN players. This confusion continues to surface in public opinion polls commissioned by DND and other actors.

The recommendation that Canada re-engage with UN peace support operations has not been universally well-received. Lang and Morse, for example, see it as little more than an attempt to grapple toward a military raison dtre that aligns with majority Canadian public opinion, which tends to mythologize any mission with the UN prefix. Others are more receptive to re-engagement as a whole, but have expressed reservations, in some cases profound reservations, over potential large-scale Canadian involvement in specific UN operations (i.e., Congo).

The call by Lang and Morse for a meaningful conversation about the military as an instrument of Canadas foreign policy, the nature of Canadas military, contemporary, and future security and defence challenges, and potential Canadian contributions to international peace and security is politically problematic, but no less welcome. This need not mean a formal, time-consuming, grand spectacle replete with green papers and the like, but it does mean some form of multi-faceted national dialogue on important public policy issues. Such a dialogue has been absent for quite some time, partly because the Martin governments International Policy Statement of 2005 potentially a useful catalyst for dialogue and debate was largely neutered by the governments short tenure, partly because the ensuing Harper government has not produced a foreign policy white paper (or at least something approximating a white paper), and partly because the Canada First Defence Strategy although in many respects a most commendable document was not exactly the most weighty or detailed of public policy pronouncements. Given that we live in a world brimming with strategic uncertainties and troubling dangers, given the harsh realities of Canadian defence economics, and the numerous competing demands on the public purse, given the mixed signals apparent in Canadian polling data, and given the sea-change represented by the forthcoming large-scale withdrawal from Afghanistan in lieu of a prompt replacement operation elsewhere, the number of Canadian military personnel deployed overseas under NATO, UN, or other auspices could fall to the lowest level in 60 years the time is right for such a dialogue. Indeed, some commentators have noted that successive governments have not even been able to provide Canadians with clear, compelling, and consistent rationales for Canadas decade-long involvement in Afghanistan. It we have failed at the micro level, the damage and potential damage at the macro level can well be imagined.

If we are able to embark on some form of conversation, it would be useful to jettison some of the clichs, some of the mantras, that have long coloured our interpretations of Canadas place in world affairs, the place of the military in Canadian foreign policy, public attitudes on defence, and civil-military relations. It is no less true for being obvious, but the events of 9/11 (and subsequent terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world) have impacted upon the Canadian political and public psyches. The relaxed approach to national security and national defence that characterized so many Canadian governments since 1867 is no longer politically tenable. Similarly, the freedom of manoeuvre and presumed public apathy that so easily allowed many Canadian governments to address other national priorities by implementing drastic cutbacks in security and defence, seemingly with little or no forethought or analysis, has been seriously eroded. The events of the past decade also have altered the relationship between Canadians and their armed forces. A March 2009 Ipsos Reid poll, for example, noted that its respondents described themselves as proud of the bravery, courage and commitment of the Forces, even in instances where they did not always agree with their missions. The stellar performance of the military in responding to natural disasters, both at home and abroad, also has served to produce a tighter bond with Canadians.

That said, old habits die hard. As we move further away in time from the events of 9/11 it is sometimes difficult to believe that it has been almost a decade the parsimonious proclivities of Canadians and their politicians will not be far from the surface. To the additional defence spending authorized by the Martin government, the Harper government has injected substantially morebut fiscal realities and the sheer backlog of capital projects it takes more than a decade to correct a decade of darkness impose very real constraints. The global economic recession, the extremely serious damage to the manufacturing sector in central Canada (and the concomitant loss of government revenues), the looming surge in health care spending, weaknesses in Canadian productivity and levels of research and development, and a host of other factors will limit what DND can reasonably expect in coming years. It is also possible that a public awakened to a more dangerous world may give preference to the type of security threats addressed primarily by law enforcement agencies at the expense of defence threats best handled by the Canadian Forces. Still others, notably those opposed to Afghanistan-type operations, may seek to funnel available defence funding to military roles of a non-expeditionary nature.

A key component of any such conversation must be the materiel condition of the services. Some important army projects face challenges, but the land forces have understandably been the primary beneficiary of Afghanistan-related improvements and are consequently in a comparatively sound condition. Some elements of the air force notably strategic and tactical airlift and heavy helicopters are, or will be, in very good shape, but serious question remarks remain over the fighter replacement (the estimated life expectancy of the 79 modernized CF-18 Hornets is 2017-2020), the Aurora replacement, and the new Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft (the recent recipient of some blunt remarks from a National Research Council study). The navy, however, is in an extremely difficult position. The modernization program for the Halifax Class frigate is moving forward, and the Victoria Class submarines may at long last be turning the corner, but the two hybrid designs the Joint Support Ship (JSS), and the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS) remain seriously troubled, in part measure because they are indeed hybrid designs. The three surviving Iroquois Class destroyers can soldier on for a time, but, barring intervention by an ally willing to sell existing and reasonably modern anti-air warfare vessels at friendship prices, they will decommission without a direct replacement. The first four modernized Halifax Class frigates will assume some of the formers command and control mandate by acquiring enhanced communications suites, additional displays, and staff accommodations, but will obviously not be AAW vessels.

We may indeed be entering a brave new world in Canadian defence, but some very traditional problems will continue to complicate the way forward. Depending upon our overall foreign and defence policy choices, and the funding available for procurement, we may no longer be able to avoid formal and difficult choices between services that are, indeed, multi-purpose, combat-capable, and those that are something less.

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Martin Shadwick teaches Canadian defence policy at York University. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly.

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