A Canadian Potemkin Village

Some of us, in another forum, were discussing why UN peacekeeping seems to go so very wrong, so very often ~ not always, I hasten to add, just usually ~ and I quipped, with just a wee bit of hyperbole, that “Simple human decency says that a country like Canada should have dropped a light brigade into South Sudan and destroyed the South Sudanese Army in a short, brutal campaign of exemplary speed and violence … should have if we could have, but, of course, the Canadian Army is a fat, overstaffed, poorly managed corporal’s guard, that cannot deploy any brigade anywhere because we don’t have any nearly fully staffed brigades and even if we did they don’t have enough logistical “lift,” so they are useless once they have marched more than 15 km out of the camp gate … unless a country with a real army (you know, one with trucks and people a23to drive them) decides to support and sustain us.

Sadly no one, not even officers who have, fairly recently, commanded brigades in the regular army, challenged my assertion that the Canadian Army has been hollowed out until, now, it is a sort of military Potemkin village in which bits and pieces are deployed and redeployed to create the (entirely false) impression that we, Canadians, are getting a real army for the $20 billion or so that we spend, year after year after year, on out national defences.

The process  began, in earnest, in about 1970, when, in response to quite draconian cuts imposed by Pierre Trudeau (but not, it has been suggested, as deep as he wished) the Canadian Forces began to try to “make do” with a “pint sized” brigade in Germany ~ when a full sized (6,500±  soldiers) one was need by promising (and practising) to augment it with “fly-over” troops from Canada who were trained and equipped and could move, fairly quickly on to “pre-positioned” equipment … if it was properly maintained. It worked well enough, in a peacetime/training situation, except for the fact that we, eventually (early 1980s), understood that we could not sustain a brigade in Germany with “fly overs” when we needed the same troops to “fly over” to Norway to keep another promise, made to try to placate our allies about our deep defence cuts, and by the late 1980s the Norway task (promise) was quietly shelved (broken) about twenty years after it was started, and after a quite disastrous “test” (Exercise BRAVE LION) proved to civilian planners and military commanders alike that the Canadian Army (which was much larger than it is today) simply did not have the where-with-all (especially the logistical “tail”) needed to sustain “fly over” missions to Europe. But the damage was done … in twenty years, almost a generation, the Army, especially, had gotten used to “faking” its combat effectiveness with Potemkin Village tactics.

It’s hard to blame the Army, and even if it wasn’t not all of even most of the blame can be laid at the Army’s doorstep.

Government, both Conservative and Liberal kept repeating Pierre Trudeau’s lie that “we’re here and we’re doing our full, fair and agreed upon share.” Kudos to Prime Minister Mulroney who, when faced with irrefutable and embarrassingly public evidence that we simply could not deploy and sustain two small brigades in war, cancelled the North Norway brigade commitment and pulled the Germany based brigade back to Canada.

This graph, which is only rough, being drawn from three different sources and “rounded” for ease of plotting, shows, essentially, what happened between 1964 (Prime Minister defspendingPearson) and 2014 Prime Minister Harper). As you can see defence spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product ~ a fair measure of our national, political commitment to our defence of Canada and of our allies and neighbours, has declined steadily even though, generally, with one “blip” in the Chrétien era, when he was trying to wrestle with the deficit, the actual dollars spent on defence have grown in number. What it really shows is that our GDP grew a lot in the past 50 years ~ it’s now almost $2.5 Trillion (that’s $2,500,000,000,000.00)  ~ but our political willingness (or appreciation of the necessity) to spend 2% of GDP, as we did in about 1970s and as we have, sort of, agreed (in NATO) do aspire to do again, has not kept pace with our increasing prosperity. In fact, while the dollars spend on defence have doubled, in 50 years, the % of GDP spent of defence has fallen to ⅓ of its 1964 level. But ministers’ desires to “talk  a good fight” remain at historically high levels and even as resources shrink admirals and generals are told to “keep up appearances. That, keeping up appearances, was what the admirals and generals wanted to do … no one really wanted to go into various international military fora and say “as our resources decline we’re going to have to do less,” instead they went out and said “we’re learning new ways to do more with less,” which is, of course, mostly errant nonsense. Meanwhile more and more quite senior officers came back from tours of duty in the USA and brought with them some very American ideas about organization and management. Now American organizational models might work very well for armies with 1,000,000+ soldiers, or even for those with 495,000, like South Korea’s perhaps, even for those with 100,000+ like the French Army, but they are not always (or even often) suitable for an army with 20,000± regulars and 25,000± reservists. The new organizations might make us look bigger, on paper, but they hide the fact the army has been hollowed out since 1970.

The Army of 1964, the one that consumed its fair share of the 3% of GDP that Canada spent on defence had four brigades, the largest had about 6,500 soldiers in it, the smaller 0b1ef507ba759f077480b4fe47c81308ones had about 5,000 each. That was more men and women in combat units than we have in the entire, top heavy, Canadian Army today in total. But we still have three of the four brigades, we have nine instead of 13 battalions of infantry and three instead of four regiments of artillery … but how? Simple: it’s the Potemkin Village, again, battalions that should have 950 soldiers have 500 … if they’re lucky. In fact there are no combat ready infantry battalions. Any battalion being readied for operations must be reinforced from other infantry battalions … we have nine battalion commanders and nine regimental sergeants major and so on but we only have enough soldiers in rifle platoons to staff five battalions … maybe only four if the battalions are properly equipped with mortars and heavy assault weapons. Why? Because no one, not ministers, not senior civil servants and not the generals want to “cut his coat according to his cloth.”

So what should we have?

slide1During the loooooong Afghanistan campaign we learned, again, that the staffing calculations used by most businesses 4.2 employees (5, in practice) are needed to run sustained 24/7 operations, applies also to units and brigades as this simplified model shows. In effect, in this grossly oversimplified model, we have 3.5 brigades worth of people distributed through the five brigades … we really have four full strength brigades worth of people because ½ of one brigade’s worth (2,500 to 3,500 soldiers) is away on individual training courses needed to make them better soldiers.

But that is not what a “balanced” army should look like.

First, we need more than one type of brigade. Even a small army, like Canada’s, needs light (airborne, air mobile and air transportable)  and heavy (armoured and mechanized) forces and something in the middle, too.

In Canada’s case we should have two light brigades:

  • AS2006-0828aOne “big” brigade (say 5,500 soldiers) organized and equipped to go almost anywhere in  the world and engage in low to mid intensity combat operations; and
  • One smaller “Defence of Canada” brigade (say 3,500 soldiers) organized and equipped to be inserted ~ probably by parachute, for about half the force ~ anywhere in Canada,especially into the far North to conduct low intensity operations.

Leopard_2A6_main_battle_tank_Canada_Canadian_Army_001We also need three motorized or mixed brigades (say 4,500 to 5,00o soldiers each) that will be, generally, in a training mode; and we need one very large (7,000 soldiers) mechanized brigade trained and equipped to engage in mid to high intensity operations.

That, by my calculations, is six brigades, comprising about 30,000 soldiers in combat units ~ about three times as many as we have now ~ which probably means that we are talking about a total military force of 100,000+ people which would need a budget of $40 to $50 billion, in 2016 dollars, which, not coincidentally, is the 2% of GDP that NATO and I have been talking about.

(Remember, please: I am discussing mainly the army in this article … the RCAN and RCAF have also been hollowed out.)

This is not, however, just about numbers, it’s not about either troop strength of budgets. It is, really, about having ~ and paying for ~ an efficient and effective military force to protect our own sovereign territory and to assert our will in the world. It is about having “baseline” forces, specially tailored to task “defence of Canada” forces and combat ready “expeditionary” forces and then supporting and sustaining them all. Finally it is about good organization and management, something which I believe, based on many years of service around the world, that the current Canadian Forces need to improve, greatly.

But, there is no existential threat to Canada so it is unrealistic to expect the Canadian voter/taxpayers to demand increased defence spending, especially since it must, of necessity, come at the expense of very popular social programmes. But a fully responsible, Conservative party can and should start making the case for better, more capable (worth the money) armed forces and, concomitantly, for better social programme funding models.

13 thoughts on “A Canadian Potemkin Village”

  1. Further to this, and to illustrate that it’s not just a Canadian problr, see this article in the Financial Times :https://www.ft.com/content/36f47240-7c0e-11e6-ae24-f193b105145e in which just retired General Sir Richard Barrons, formed Chief of the General Staff, says that “Britain’s armed forces cannot defend the UK against a serious military attack and have lost much of their ability to fight conventional wars.” It should be a warning to us all.

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