Defence Policy | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Defence Policy

Before 1870, the defence of Canada was a costly burden for France and then for Great Britain, invariably against enemies to the south, be they Iroquois, English or the American invaders of 1775-76 (see AMERICAN REVOLUTION) or of 1812-14.

Defence Policy

 According to the late C.P. Stacey, Canada is "an unmilitary community." This is no accident. Canadians have paid no price for unpreparedness. FORTIFICATIONS built at British or French expense serve crowds of tourists as monuments to folly. Capital which might have been lavished on defence was made available for the Intercolonial and the Canadian Pacific railways and to finance the social programs of the 20th century.

Before 1870, the defence of Canada was a costly burden for France and then for Great Britain, invariably against enemies to the south, be they Iroquois, English or the American invaders of 1775-76 (see AMERICAN REVOLUTION) or of 1812-14. The AMERICAN CIVIL WAR persuaded the British that there could be no successful replay of the WAR OF 1812. Confederation became, in British eyes, a device to help their North American colonists accept the hopeless burden of their own defence. The day the last British garrison left central Canada, November 11, 1871, might be celebrated as Canada's Independence Day. More accurately, the few Canadians who thought about it realized that they had been left to their own devices.

Canadians faced the paradox of being at once invulnerable and indefensible. Distance and the Royal Navy safeguarded both ocean frontiers from all but occasional raids. The North remained impassable until the advent of long-range aircraft in the 1930s. To the south, whatever George T. DENISON and other militia colonels might assert, defence was impossible without a level of preparedness that would, itself, be provocative. In fact, the British departure was a signal for the United States to close its border forts and move their garrisons west to protect their western settlers. Canada's policy, as A.A. Dorion had suggested in 1865, was "to keep quiet and give no cause for war." The Treaty of WASHINGTON, 1871, and the ALASKA BOUNDARY DISPUTE, 1903, removed threats to peace. So did the NORTH-WEST MOUNTED POLICE, created in 1873 to prevent the banditry and border violence that could draw United States troops into the "Great Lone Land" as they did in Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti and other countries to the south.

Canada's second line of defence was a British guarantee, offered in 1865, to defend every part of the empire "with all the forces at its command," in return for a Canadian pledge to "devote all her resources, both in men and money, to the maintenance of her connection with the Mother Country." The Venezuela Crisis of 1895-96 showed that the British had given no thought to their commitment. Nor had Canada. A militia of 40 000 on paper, costing $1 million a year, was described by an American observer as "a kind of Military Tammany." Reformers were not welcome. Both Conservatives and Liberals promoted Canada as a refuge from conscription and a haven from what Sir Wilfrid LAURIER called "the vortex of European militarism."

When wars came in the 20th century, Canadians could answer the call of a noble cause or a half-remembered homeland because their own country seemed inviolable. Others, unmoved by crusading fever, would grow resentful that fellow citizens should involve them in what Colonel Armand Lavergne termed "a somewhat interesting adventure in a foreign country." In the First World War, the external threat was sufficiently remote that the few thousand defenders allotted to Halifax or the Welland Canal were denied the status of veterans.

In the Second World War, a more real threat from German or Japanese submarines hardly justified assigning 3 army divisions or the large Home War Establishment of the RCAF to protecting Canada. Instead, it was initially intended to save them from being conscripted for overseas service. Wartime Canada remained, as Senator Raoul Dandurand had described it 16 years earlier, "a fireproof house, far from the sources of conflagration."

That status ended abruptly in 1945. Five years earlier, at Ogdensburg, NY, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had invited Canada into the American defence system largely to meet Washington's anxiety about potential hostile use of Canada's North as a staging area for air attacks. Convinced that he was serving his linchpin role between the US and Britain, PM Mackenzie KING enthusiastically agreed. Canadians had largely ignored the military significance of their North; Americans did not. Only belatedly did Ottawa recognize the threat to Canada's ARCTIC SOVEREIGNTY as Americans poured north to build the ALASKA HIGHWAY and northern air bases.

In the postwar years, as Soviet-American hostility rapidly developed into a COLD WAR, Canada found itself between two belligerent superpowers. Canadian defence faced a new paradox: the Soviet Union was the ultimate enemy but the US was the immediate threat. Washington would be sole judge of North America's security; Canadians could play their assigned role or Americans would do it for them, and possibly send them the bill.

By the 1950s, the USSR had thermonuclear weapons and a limited capacity to deliver them to US and Canadian cities. Canadians became partners in a continental air defence system with 3 northern radar lines and fighter-interceptor squadrons that flew mainly over Canadian soil. NATO, Canada's "providential solution" to the dangers of a lopsided bilateral alliance, was rejected by Washington as an agency for North American defence.

The North American Air Defence (NORAD) agreement, accepted by Ottawa in 1957, made military sense for a continent in danger; politically it gave Washington effective control over Canada's right to make war or peace. That fact, belatedly absorbed by the DIEFENBAKER government during the 1962 CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, left a gap in NORAD defences and a political crisis. The ensuing 1963 election led to a change of governments - a rare intervention of defence issues in peacetime Canadian politics.

 Technology temporarily rescued Canadians from domestic defence dilemmas. Nuclear warfare was transformed by the stratospheric trajectory of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the abstractions of MAD (mutually-assured destruction). Nuclear-tipped rockets would pass far over Canada to fall on superpower soil. Defence priorities which, in 1949, 1959 and 1964, had formally listed NATO, NORAD and Canada's PEACEKEEPING contribution to the UNITED NATIONS at the top, were abruptly reversed by the TRUDEAU government. Defence "Priority One" became SOVEREIGNTY, whether defined as surveillance of Canada's frontiers or overawing opponents of national unity in the October Crisis of 1970.

Fishery patrols, arctic overflights and a tiny Northern Command at Yellowknife were combined with drastic reductions in armed forces strength, largely at the expense of Canada's NATO commitment. Armed Forces strength, which had dropped from 120 000 to 100 000 in the PEARSON years, was slashed by the Trudeau government to 78 000 men and women in the regular forces and less than 20 000 in the reserves. Re-equipment programs languished until the late 1970s when pressure from Washington and NATO allies forced the government to buy new fighter aircraft - the CF-18 Hornet - and long-range patrol aircraft.

By 1984, many Canadians were embarrassed by the weakness and obsolescence of their defences. The Anglo-Argentine conflict over the Falklands reminded Canadians that their own small fleet would be utterly defenceless in modern war. The MULRONEY government pledged expansion and modernisation, partly to restore national pride, partly to reassure the Reagan administration. In 1987, a long-awaited white paper, issued by defence minister Perrin Beatty, reasserted Canada's alliance commitments, promising a "total force" concept with the reserves rebuilt to a strength of 90 000 and major capital funding to reverse the "rust-out" of weapons and equipment.

Within two years, the Cold War foundations of postwar Canadian defence policy and the Beatty white paper had collapsed as certainly as the Berlin Wall. An emotional public outcry terminated the nuclear submarine program even before it was launched. Other programs persisted, including rebuilding the North Warning System and creating a "total force" integrating regulars and reserves, though after 1989 the Department of National Defence lacked the budgetary resources to make them effective.

While the 1987 white paper remained official policy for several years after the end of the Cold War, Beatty's successor, William McKnight, modified it in the autumn of 1991 with an announcement that Canadian Forces personnel strength would be significantly reduced. Later, after contradictory pronouncements, the Mulroney government ordered the 2 NATO bases in Germany to be closed by 1994. All of the Canadian forces stationed in Germany would come home and most would be disbanded as a deficit-cutting measure.

The emphasis of Liberal and Conservative governments on modernising the navy and air force was reflected in the small contingent sent by Canada to the Gulf War, 1990-91 - three ships and a squadron of CF-18s which saw service without significant incident or casualty. However, the chaotic post-Cold War world suggested that Canada's busiest service would be its shrunken, ill-equipped army. Most of a mechanized brigade was deployed outside Montréal in the summer of 1990 in support of the civil power and against defiant Mohawks at Kanesatake and Kahnawake.

In 1991, Canadian troops had to be deployed for peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia, and, a year later, a Canadian airborne battalion formed part of a peacemaking force in Somalia. However, the "total force" policy guaranteed that more and more of Canada's domestic and peacekeeping commitments would be met by ill-trained reservists and that sophisticated equipment for the land forces was unlikely to be acquired. Even adequate equipment for the navy and air force came into question with the 1993 debate over cancellation of 50 EH-101 helicopters needed to equip the new patrol frigates and to replace obsolete search and rescue equipment.

In 1993, the Council of 21 was formed as a private group headed by former Trudeau aide Tom AXWORTHY, inspired by University of Toronto political scientist Janice Stein, and backed by many prominent Liberals and by former Progressive Conservative leader Robert STANFIELD. The Council urged the new Liberal government to replace the armed forces with a short-term, lightly-armed force that would meet the safer demands of peacekeeping while alleviating youth unemployment. Instead, the CHRÉTIEN government's first white paper, in September 1994, reassured generals, admirals and veterans by promising armed forces capable of "fighting alongside the best against the best." Instead of the two division corps proposed by Beatty, Canada would provide small, operationally ready combat forces - a maritime task group, an army brigade group and a battalion group, a wing of fighters and a tactical transport squadron - up to 10 000 personnel, of whom 4000 would be stand-by forces, available to the UN or NATO for an indefinite period in a low threat environment.

In practice, Liberal policy after 1993 was driven by the priority of deficit reduction. While federal programmes were better protected than transfer payments to individuals or provinces, the Department of National Defence was an easy target for cuts. Defence critics had long complained about an excess of real estate, a top-heavy rank structure, and three small military colleges, though most demanded that money saved be applied to badly needed weapons and equipment. Instead, savings were applied to debt reduction as bases were closed, units were disbanded and Canadian Forces strength dipped to 60 000. Defence spending fell from $12 billion in 1994 to under $10 billion in 1998, and by the end of the 1990s, Canada's armed forces were almost as unfit for operations as if the Council of 21's advice had been heeded.

While Canada remained a NATO member, its withdrawal of air and ground forces from Germany reduced its standing in a predominantly European alliance and cost its soldiers and flyers daily experience with some of the world's most sophisticated land and air forces. When NATO forces were deployed to the former Yugoslavia, Canada's contribution was limited to a brigade headquarters and a battalion-sized battle group.

Changes in strategy and tactical thinking do not stagnate in peacetime. Indeed, battle experience is often a check on the wilder ideas of theorists. In the 1990s, experts spoke of a revolution in military affairs in which information technology, backed by sensors, satellites and computers, made everything visible on a traditional battlefield. Inevitably, costly counter-measures were designed to achieve electronic concealment. Lacking such protection, even the more modern weapons of the Canadian Forces could be spotted and destroyed before their crews could even detect an enemy. American forces were at least partially adapted; without a massive investment, their Canadian allies were not.

After scandals in Bosnia and Somalia, even peacekeeping lost some of its former allure. As people who buy a lot of insurance, Canadians understood the need for some military organization, and they were occasionally embarrassed to discover how old or bad military equipment had become, but there was little public consensus on how much was needed or why.

Consensus changed when terrorists hijacked four American airliners on 11 September 2001 and crashed two into New York's World Trade Center, a third into the Pentagon in Washington and a fourth in a Pennsylvania field as its passengers struggled to regain control. Canada felt the crisis on 12 September when the world's longest undefended border was jammed shut and movement ceased between two of the world's major trading partners. Americans believed, and many still do, that the terrorists had somehow come from Canada. Instead, they had been funded and controlled by Al Qaeda, an Islamic terrorist organization with headquarters and training camps in the remote mountains of Afghanistan, a country that had defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s and which was controlled by the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist movement once armed and financed as an anti-Soviet proxy by the US and Pakistan.

When the Taliban refused to hand over Al Qaeda's leaders, even the UN had to approve an armed intervention. So did NATO, recognizing that the 9/11 terrorism was an attack against a member to which all other members must respond. By November, US Special Forces had begun war in Afghanistan by supporting a dissident Northern Alliance against the Taliban regime in Kabul. To redeem its reputation in Washington, Ottawa dispatched its four-ship maritime task group to the Persian Gulf and its Joint Task Force (JTF-2), a top-secret force trained to recapture hijacked aircraft, to work with US Forces in Afghanistan.

History was confirmed. With a weak and corrupt state apparatus and chronic dissidence in its provinces, Afghanistan has always been easy to invade; securing any conquest is a different story. Within weeks, the Taliban leaders had fled Kabul, and Al Qaeda's leaders had moved south into Pakistan's weakly controlled frontier province. The US was too close to Pakistan's military rulers to consider crossing its border. Instead, President George Bush decided to complete the First Gulf War by invading Iraq and overthrowing a former US ally, Saddam Hussein. This time, unlike Britain and some NATO and Commonwealth countries, Canada refused, a little nervously, to go along. So did the United Nations. Instead, at the invitation of President Bush's Defense Secretary, it agreed to provide a commander for the troops NATO members agreed to provide to occupy Afghanistan. The American-nominated commander was Major-General Rick Hillier, an armoured corps officer who had completed the American War College and served as deputy commander of an American army corps. Canada's combat-ready battalion group preceded him to Kabul. Once established, Hillier soon realized that his top security priority would be Afghanistan's south-western provinces, the home ground of the Taliban and the border provinces with Pakistan. His influence in Ottawa easily persuaded the Canadian government to transfer their troops plus reinforcements to Kandahar. Whether or not he believed it, Hillier's bluff contempt for Al Qaeda and the Taliban left an impression that disposing of their threat was no major problem for well-trained Canadians. Since soldiers would play the major role, Hillier could reverse the precedence that had left the Army at the bottom of the priority list for modern weapons and equipment. Were tanks obsolete in modern war? Hillier did not think so and Canada's obsolete Leopard tanks were flown to Kandahar in chartered aircraft at a million dollars each to take on Taliban guerrillas. So were armoured troop carriers and artillery. The few Americans who still cared about Afghanistan would be impressed, a major Ottawa preoccupation as the Canada-US border was painfully reopened to trade and travellers with new and sometimes paralyzing security measures.

Afghanistan lacked the troops necessary to provide the top requirement in winning the hearts and minds of any population: security. Canada's battalions at Kandahar, rotated every six months, lacked the manpower to protect hundreds of Afghan towns and villages and their people. Once the Canadians and their vehicles left for the safety of Kandahar, the Taliban could exact vengeance on those who collaborated with the foreign infidel invaders. A relentless toll of casualties left Canadians at home with a scorecard of apparent failure. Years of peace and peacekeeping had allowed them to forget that wars are fought by young men and now women, whose youth and smiling faces are gone forever. If Canadians had been deployed to protect scattered villages, many more might have died in night assaults by Taliban fighters. Instead, in 2011, promised Stephen HARPER's new Conservative government, they would all come home. Canada would have bled enough.

Did Harper remember the price Canada had paid in international trade and political esteem when Trudeau had slashed Canada's commitment to NATO? Did Canadians? Canada's security, from earliest times, has depended on powerful allies, whether it was France or Britain in the earlier centuries, or the United States since Ogdensburg in 1940. Abandoning allies in Afghanistan would exact a cost few Canadians were measuring as they prepared to welcome home their troops.

Anxious to protect a limited population in a vast terrain, Canadian defence planners have usually argued against public experience. For almost two centuries, Canada's wars began and ended somewhere else. An illusion of inviolability from domestic or external military threats co-existed with a widespread belief in the folly of peacetime military preparedness and misgivings about military values for discipline, subordination and sacrifice. Even members of the forces questioned such values, particularly when they were not always exercised by their superiors. Nor was it easy to maintain enthusiasm when members of the Canadian Forces deployed on active service compared their weapons, equipment and clothing with those of allies and then came home to share the poverty and insecurity of military life in the 1990s.

Was the world dangerous enough to worry about? Strategic analysts had a professional duty to worry. In the new millennium, threats were not limited to sectarian terrorists or the decay of state power and authority in Africa or across the territory of the former Soviet Union. State-to-state war existed in Congo and central Africa and in Asia, and there was a threat of conflict between Turkey and its Greek and Syrian neighbours. India and Pakistan felt empowered by the explosion of their nuclear devices and China had grown into a military super-power. Canada might seem remote from such threats, but Canadians easily forgot how ancestral ties pulled Canada into war in 1914 and 1939. Canadians of Croatian and Serbian origin had learned in the 1990s how to influence Canadian foreign and defence policy, and Canadian Tamils would occupy downtown Ottawa to defend their compatriots in Sri Lanka. Their examples would multiply as multicultural immigration policies diversified the origins and ancestral loyalties of Canadians.

A variety of well-armed powers, exploding nationalisms, and proliferating and sometimes ill-managed stockpiles of nuclear weapons made the world even more dangerous in the new millennium than it had been in its predecessor. History had not ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Still, many Canadians believe themselves to be innocently remote from danger. Most are satisfied to condemn nuclear proliferation, land mines and child soldiers as remote evils. Some rejoice when state prosecutions of alleged terrorists collapse with the stink of discrimination poisoning the air. Yet Canadians will be the first to complain if their innocent assumptions leave them defenceless. Those who have tried to defend them will be the first to bear the bitter consequences and the blame when the weakness and cheapness of Canadian defence policies doom them to fail.

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