How many is enough?

I have been saying, almost since this blog began, that 2% of GDP is about the right amount fo a G7 country like Canada to spend on its defence … my guesstimate is that a defence budget that consumes about 2% of the nation’s GDP will buy us the kind of ‘Triple A Plus’ (AAA+) armed forces that a G7 country should have at its disposal.

I well remember being a very young soldier, circa 1960, and listening to a lecture by an officer who told us about the size and structure of the Canadian Armed Forces. In 1960 Canada had a population of just about 18,000,000  and our military had 120,000 full time, regular force members: 20,000 in the Royal Canadian Navy, 49,000,000 in the Canadian Army (Regular) and 51,000,000 in the Royal Canadian Air Force. I remember those pretty exact numbers because the officer explained that geography ~ both our vast territory which we were obligated to patrol, from the air, thanks to the then fairly new NORAD agreement, and our commitment to NATO in Europe ~ meant that we needed an air force that was slightly larger than the army. It all made sense to a young soldier.

Today, in 2018, our population is just over 36,000,000, or a tiny bit more than double the 1960 number but the Canadian Armed Forces have only about 67,000 full-time members. NPCN-4407ow, in some cases, the reasons are quite obvious. In 1960 the RCAF was flying about 500 of the Canadian designed and built CF-100 Canuck all-weather interceptors and almost 300 of the Canadair variant of the F-86 Sabre jet.  The Sabres, mostly based in Europe, were replaced (in 1962) by the nuclear-armed CF-104 Starfighter ~ there were, initially, eight squadrons in Europe, then six and then in 1970, only three ~  and the CF-100s were replaced, starting in 1961, by about 130 of the CF-101 Voodoo fighters. Both fleets, the Starfighters and the Voodoos were in the 1980s replaced by only 135 to 140 CF-18 Hornets. There were two reasons for the sharp decline in aircraft numbers: a) changing political priorities; and b) improved performance. Put simply, fewer of the qualitatively better CF-101 Voodoos, for example, could meet the same capability standards that required many p_lancsfifties1more CF-100 Canucks. Similar things happened in the transport and anti-submarine fleets, too. Initially, about the time of the Korean War, the RCAF converted 70 Lancaster bombers to the anti-submarine role. Today Canada flies only 18 CP-140 Aurora aircraft but I will say, without fear of contradiction, that those 18 do much more, much better than 70 Lancasters ever did. But fewer and fewer and fewer aircraft inevitably meant fewer and fewer people are required to operate and maintain them; today the RCAF has 14,500 full time, regular force members.

The Navy is not that much different. In 1960 the Royal Canadian Navy had one aircraft 6021821706_6a7a7c9ec1_bcarrier, 14 modern destroyer escorts and about a twenty frigates of World War II design. Today it has 12 destroyers and 12 small, lightly armed ‘coastal’ ships. Once again the same two factors came into play: political decisions to do less and engineering choices that means that modern ships can do more Type_26_Capabilitywith smaller crews. Our current Halifax class frigates have a complement (crew) of 225; the Type 26 global combat ships that we plan to buy to replace them are likely to have a crew size of approximately 125. But navies have a different problem … notwithstanding that improvements in reliability and maintainability mean that, say, two new ships can accomplish what it took three old model vessels to do, the Royal Canadian Navy still needs a certain number, likely 15 to 25, combat capable warships to meet all the tasks government is likely to assign. Canada’s Navy currently has 8,300± full time, regular members. It probably, certainly I am told by friends, needs more, something like 10,000+, to sail a fleet of about 20+ combatant vessels, six to ten submarines and various other ships.

Armies are labour intensive. The size of the lowest level fighting team, the section (in our terms, the squad in Americanese) is eight to 12 ~ nominally ten soldiers, which means about 35 soldiers in a platoon in most modern armies and 125 in a company. After that things can get a bit fuzzy; in Canada, today, an infantry battalion should have at least about 750+ soldiers but most have only 500±. Those are, mainly, political choices ~ both big P (parliamentary) political choices and small p (uniformed politics) ones. A proper infantry battalion should have about 950 soldiers, in my opinion, but if we had proper battalions we could only have four or five of them, not the nine or ten ineffective ones we have now. It is that Potemkin Village thing again. Today the Army has about 23,000 full-time soldiers. I believe that a proper field army ~ four brigade groups plus a couple of special service light brigade groups ~ needs 35,000 soldiers in the field force, alone and, probably, another 10,000+ to serve in headquarters, training schools and so on.

We have to examine the “changing political priorities.” In 1960 we faced a nuclear-armed Soviet Union that menaced our allies in Western Europe and a restless China that, we feared, would bring most of East and South Asia into its sphere ~ the so-called domino effect. Canada was also committed to UN peacekeeping, especially in the 546e35d469beddf442dac8f1-750-500troubled Middle East and African regions. But, sunny ways and all that, that’s all changed, hasn’t it? Russia isn’t menacing its neighbours, is it? China isn’t threatening to dominate the Western Pacific, is it? The Middle East and Africa are all calm and peaceful, aren’t they? In actual fact, the strategic situation is almost the same as it was in 1960. The biggest difference is that too many countries, including Canada, are unwilling to recognize that fact.

In fact, Canada is, arguably, more threatened than it was in 1960s because we are less certain of American leadership and support. Our current political priorities, Justin Trudeau’s priorities, are not strategically realistic. The United Nations Security Council is not going to settle the issues between Russia and the West or between China and the West. Both can be settled, to our satisfaction, but reaching fair and just settlements will be easier if countries, like Canada, recognize that Justin Trudeau’s sunny ways are strategic nonsense. We need better and bigger armed forces as one of the clubs in our diplomatic golf bag.

So, how many is enough?

My guesstimate is that both the RCN and the RCAF need a few thousand more full time, regular force members: say 10,000+ sailors in the Navy and 15,000+ men and women in Leopard_2A6_main_battle_tank_Canada_Canadian_Army_001the Air Force. The Army, I think, needs 45,000+ full-time regular soldiers. That probably means that we need a total full-time military establishment, including hospitals and supply depots and headquarters and colleges and, and, and … of 100,000± people. I also think we likely need 25,000 reservists and another 25,000+ to 35,000 civil servants to support all the 125,000 uniformed men and women and I think that will require a continuing 2% of GDP national commitment to defence.

Of course, that’s not going to happen any time soon. If the Liberals are reelected (majority or minority) in the coming election they will, absent some HUGE crisis on the world stage, continue to underfund defence in the hopes that Canadians will just ignore the entire issue. The Conservatives cannot be elected in 2019 if they campaign on a promise to reinvigorate our defence forces ~ that’s not a vote-getter. If they are elected they cannot be reelected if they put too much emphasis on rebuilding the military. It will take some combination of a public perception that our way of life is in danger and a change in government to bring about meaningful change in Canada.


Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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  1. I think that increasing the size of the Army would be a much harder sell than meeting the 2% GDP military budget target. Adding Regiments and bases and supporting all of those extra personnel could quite possibly end up eating up so much of the increased budget that you’d just end up with military just as hollowed out as it is now, only larger.

    I also wonder if the days of needing a large Army are somewhat passing. Russia certainly is a threat to it’s neighbours, but their military is also smaller than it once was and their border is now much further from the heartland of Western Europe. I don’t believe there is a real risk today of Russian tanks driving for the Rhine. The Baltics, Central Asian Republics, Ukraine, etc. certainly are at risk. However, I don’t believe Russia would be willing to risk a ground invasion without the element of surprise and the confidence that they could achieve their military aims before NATO has a chance to build up our forces to oppose them.

    So unless NATO, including Canada, is willing to permanently station large enough forces in the regions threatened by Russia to deter an attack (which I don’t believe we are) then maybe the best contribution Canada can make is a larger, more capable RCAF which can help detect Russian military preparations (ISR aircraft) or rapidly respond to an attack (combat aircraft). I think we simply don’t have the military capability to deploy a large ground force to Europe quickly enough to counter a Russian attack against limited objectives and don’t have the will to station large deterrent forces overseas like we did during the Cold War. And from what I’ve read recently, even the US is limited in it’s ability to quickly deploy and sustain large land forces overseas.

    China provides a similar challenge. Any use of their land forces (except potentially in North Korea) is likely to be against a limited objective with surprise. Our ability to respond is much more likely to be with Air and Naval forces rather than with ground troops.

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a stronger and more effective Army, but maybe it doesn’t need to add new Regiments (politically difficult) in order to become a more effective force. This website shows an Order of Battle for 4 CMBG in 1984 ( We could use our existing Regiments to have three Mechanized Brigade Groups with a similar organization. We wouldn’t need to raise any new Regiments but would need to fully man them and add equipment and capabilities that have been lost in the “decades of darkness” since the end of the Cold War. The Artillery Regiments should have four full batteries of SP guns, we need credible AA and Anti-tank capabilities, the Armoured Regiments should all be Tank regiments, etc.

    This organization would use six of the nine existing infantry battalions. The other three battalions could be organized into a Light Infantry Brigade that could be a quick reaction air-deployable force. They could also be deployed on a “Big Honking Ship” if we were ever to get one.

    The rest of an increased defence budget could then be better spent (in my personal opinion anyway) on military capabilities which may see more regular use than a larger Army. For example, a larger figher force which could both defend North America as part of NORAD but also provide meaningful forces for expeditionary missions. A larger MPA fleet to provide better control of our own territory and also provide ISR capabilities for our allies. A fleet of combat capable corvettes to go along with our new CSCs. A larger submarine fleet. A helicopter carrier (Mistral or Canberra like) to support overseas operations (including humanitarian operations). More transport aircraft (and ships!) to deploy the forces we do have. A larger and better equipped Militia. And, and, and….

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