Created on:
January 4, 2023

Prioritizing National Security By Vice-Admiral (Ret’d) Mark Norman

Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt

As 2022 slipped into our stern-arcs and 2023 crested the horizon there is much to continue to assess in terms of global defence and security issues. The crisis in Ukraine, and its attendant implications, continues to loom large. This edition examines Canada’s land forces and other important topics including a view into Joint Operations Command and a look at rotary-wing capabilities, giving us much to consider in the context of the continuous evolution of warfighting.  

Looking at the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, now months beyond what some observers thought would be the case, we need to be very careful to not draw potentially erroneous conclusions from observations to date. In particular, the apparent effectiveness of hand-held and autonomous systems against traditional platforms such as heavy armour and ships is getting a lot of attention. In the context of examining the future of our land forces specifically therefore, we need to be both careful and measured.  

The impressive effectiveness of Ukrainian forces is as much a function of superior training and leadership as it is of asymmetric/innovative technologies in and of themselves. We can’t deny the impact of these arguably disruptive capabilities, but I believe it’s less about the tools or systems themselves, but more a result of how poorly the Russian forces have performed. I fear that there are some - potentially here in Canada - who might be unduly influenced by reports that suggest that sweeping changes in how to train and equip western militaries are required in light of the events of the past several months. This is potentially dangerous thinking.  Predictions of the immediate irrelevance of traditional capabilities such as tanks and armour are as seductive as they are flawed.

The Staples of a Modern Combat Power

There are many attributes of a combat capable Army including firepower and mobility. These proven principles are not lost on our allies (or potential adversaries) and a quick examination of the recent decision to upgrade the Leopard Tank fleet of the German Army is a useful indicator. This is not just a throw-back to a bye-gone era or an investment in domestic industry. Simply look to the PLA and you can see unprecedented investments in tanks, armoured vehicles and anti-armour capabilities which should reinforce the relevance of these staples of modern combat power.

Building on themes from my last column, any discussions about Canada’s Army will unfortunately reinforce the concerns expressed earlier about readiness and training. The entire CAF is suffering a complex mix of challenges; the Army is however a useful exemplar for the broader issues. In particular, as we consider specific challenges faced by the Army the concerns around people and training are significant. This is especially true across all the units of the Army that are varying states of staffing and readiness.

The current deployment of the Battle Group in Latvia provides a useful illustration of the underlying tension that exists within the structure of the Army.  It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the Army “Force Generation” (FG) machinery appears to be strained to continuously deploy force of roughly 1000 people. This capacity challenge is playing out in real-time as I write this column in the context of Canada’s consideration - yet again - of a potential deployment to Haiti. Basically, the entire force lacks sufficient “bench-strength” and that’s highly problematic of Canada.

Beyond the internal challenges of capacity, there’s an equally concerning external misperception about the role of the Army (and the CAF more broadly). I fear that many outside the CAF are seduced by the apparent availability of capacity “at home” to deal with domestic tasks.  With only one visible international contribution and a naive view that there is no threat to Canada, it appears easy therefore for units to be pulled away from their primary mission - combat readiness - to deal with the increasing demand for help here at home. This emerging thinking is deeply concerning as its potential impacts include both reductions in readiness as well as erosion of morale amongst the rank and file.  

Helicopters

Beyond the scope of the Army itself, this edition examines modern rotary wing capabilities, which are an invaluable element of any capable armed force. Providing many essential capabilities such as mobility and combat-power, modern helicopters are truly a force-multiplier. Our experience in Canada however has been, in my opinion, somewhat inconsistent as we tend to consider helicopters as a bit of an afterthought rather than the primary combat platform that they are. Recent investments in heavy lift and Maritime helicopters are a positive signal; hopefully the CAF can find a way to upgrade the other helicopter fleets and incorporate more sophisticated capabilities more broadly into their force structure. Regrettably however, I fear more of the same in the coming decades.

My message is that policy makers in Canada must resist the temptation to be seduced by perceived trends in military affairs. The CAF is already too small and fragile to abandon the fundamentals of effective combat power. It can barely hold onto what is left of what little structure is remaining after generations of half-hearted and undelivered policy commitments. As we look into the challenges of the years ahead, Canada must avoid making short-sighted decisions in the pursuit of potentially seductive efficiencies based on flawed or premature deductions. Our national security deserves better.

VAdm (Ret’d) Mark Norman is a former Comander of the Royal Canadian Navy and a Senior Defence Strategist with Samuel Associates. The Views expressed here are their own and do not necessarily reflect a CDR editorial or Samuel Group position.

This article was originally published in Canadian Defence Magazine Volume 28 Issue 6.

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