At the beginning of the 21st century, the Canadian Forces (CF) face a range of challenges. Reduced defence spending, uncertainty regarding missions and tasks, and the lingering effect of recent scandals have resulted in a diminished military. At the same time, Canadian foreign policy continues to be strongly interna- tionalist and emphasizes Canadian intervention whenever core interests are threatened. Furthermore, Canada’s allies, the United States in particular, have undertaken dramatic defence modernization programs that will make it increas- ingly difficult for countries to cooperate effectively on the battlefield. In what follows, I examine the degree to which the CF are currently able to cooperate with allies””what is called ”œinteroperability” in defence terminology””and describe the steps that need to be taken if the CF are to remain a viable fighting force in the future. I will suggest that the CF need to prioritize among the three services to ensure that at least one maintains a wide range of interoperability capabilities. Establishing priorities will not be easy for the military, but failure to do so will have enormous implications: a ”œrusted out” defence force that will be incapable of carrying out Canadian defence and foreign policy goals.

According to the U.S. military, interoperability is ”œthe abil- ity of systems, units, or forces to provide services to and accept services from other systems, units, or forces, and to use the services so exchanged to enable them to operate effec- tively together.” It is this notion of seamless cooperation and efficiency that is the hallmark of an interoperable fighting force. Interoperability encompasses standardization, integra- tion, cooperation, strategy, and defence production and can be defined at both the operational and technical levels. Operational interoperability addresses support to military oper- ations, focusing on people and procedures. Implementation of operational interoperability includes testing and certifica- tion, training and force configuration over the entire spec- trum of military operations. Technical interoperability is essen- tial to achieving operational interoperability. Rather than focusing on people, however, technical interoperability stresses communications and electronics equipment, ensuring that information can be relayed quickly and efficiently. On the modern battlefield, rapid com- munications are a necessity for effective opera- tions. They include information related to weapons systems, software and related computer codes, and intelligence at the command level.

Achieving interoperable defence forces in practise is not a simple task. Differing force struc- tures, weapons systems and training techniques make realizing interoperability a challenge. A recent U.S. study that examined 40 coalition oper- ations identified a long list of difficulties, includ- ing capability divergences between U.S. and allied forces, differences in decision-making procedures, and communications discrepancies.

As far as Canada and the CF are concerned, interoperability has long been a major goal. Since 1945, successive Canadian governments have accepted that this country’s military forces are incapable of defending Canada on their own, so that cooperation with the U.S. and other allies is necessary. This was confirmed in the 1994 Defence White Paper, which concluded that Canada need- ed to maintain ”œmulti-purpose, combat capable” forces. Rejecting the argument that Canada required a defence force largely focused around ”œconstabulary” tasks, the White Paper instead rec- ommended that Canada ”œneeds armed forces that are able to operate with the modern forces main- tained by our allies and like-minded nations against a capable opponent””that is, able to fight ”˜alongside the best, against the best.’”

Since that time, in spite of an almost 25 per cent cut in defence spending, the official goal of an interoperable CF has been reconfirmed on sev- eral occasions. In 1999, the DND released a major planning document intended to mould defence strategy for the first two decades of the new cen- tury. Entitled Shaping the Future of Canadian Defence: A Strategy for 2020, the study established both short- and long-range goals for the Canadian military. Among those goals was to ”œstrengthen our military relationship with the U.S. military to ensure Canadian and U.S. forces are interoperable and capable of combined operations in key select- ed areas.”

In sum, interoperability is a primary goal of the Canadian Forces. However, at a time when the pace of military innovation is quickening dramat- ically, achieving interoperability poses serious challenges.

Today’s Canadian Forces are suffering the con- sequences of decades of neglect, inadequate funding and questionable decisions regarding force structure. At present, the army numbers about 23,000 personnel, or about 40 per cent of the total CF, a force strength that reflects the wide range of tasks the army performs, from conven- tional warfare at one of the end of the conflict spectrum to peacekeeping and other low-intensity conflict missions at the other.

Peacekeeping has been the army’s most important role over the last several decades. Successive Canadian governments have empha- sized it (even to the point of featuring it on our currency!), and there is a widespread international perception that the CF have been geared specifi- cally toward this task. While Canada participated in 19 UN and non-UN peacekeeping assignments between 1947 and 1986, that number ballooned to over 25 between 1988 and 2000, and, despite the CF’s combat role in Afghanistan, there are few indications that this emphasis will change in the near future.

So far, the army has been able to carry out the peacekeeping assignments that have been given it””although there have been notable recent cases where the Canadian commitment has had to be scaled back because forces were not available””but the point must be made that the army is largely incapable of carrying out many of its other com- mitments. Its standing field forces consist of three mechanized brigade groups, each composed of three infantry battalions, an armoured regiment, an artillery regiment, and an engineer regiment, along with combat support and combat service support. While each brigade should number about 6,000, current strength is actually about 4,500. And while each brigade should be capable of oper- ating without assistance, the reality is that if a Canadian brigade group were deployed, it would be heavily dependent on additional resources pro- vided by allies, including fire support, engineers and electronic warfare capabilities.

For overseas engagements, the army is sup- posed to be able to field a ”œSabre” brigade group, which consists of mechanized infantry battalions, an armour regiment, armoured reconnaissance, along with an engineer regiment, air defence, and a service battalion. But the Sabre brigade is not designed to take part in high-intensity combat operations, only low- to mid-level engagements. And weaknesses in strategic transport (examined below) mean there are serious concerns about the DND’s ability to actually deploy the brigade.

With regard to equipment, the army suffers from a long list of dated, even antiquated systems. Its primary weapon remains the Leopard I main battle tank, which was acquired in the mid-1970s. The Leopard was a sophisticated tank when it was introduced, but it has not been regularly upgrad- ed, and is essentially unchanged from the original model. It would constitute a strategic liability in virtually any contemporary combat environment. Another key deficiency is the lack of tactical avia- tion. Canada has never owned a dedicated attack helicopter (like the U.S. Apache) but instead has assumed the capabilities such a helicopter offers would be provided by allies. The army does have helicopters (approximately 100 Griffons) but they are focused primarily on reconnaissance and transport missions.

A service with inadequate equipment and uncertain strategic goals is a service in crisis, as many observers have noted. For example, in 1999, the Conference of Defence Associations, a pro- DND lobby group, stated that ”œthe Canadian Forces, especially the army, are on the verge of col- lapse.” More recently, in January 2002, the com- mander of Canada’s land force, Lt. Gen. Mike Jeffrey, acknowledged that the army is in a ”œfrag- ile” state with erosion beginning to set in. Given its lack of modern equipment and its difficulty in carrying out current missions, the prognosis for the army is poor and, barring a major increase in defence spending, will remain so.

Like the army, the air force is battling equip- ment obsolescence and political indifference. Its decline has been particularly dramatic since 1994. That year’s Defence White Paper outlined a series of steps necessitated by the reduction in defence spending. Most critically, expenditures on fighter forces and support were to be reduced by 25 per cent. To achieve those savings, the air force was required to retire the CF-5 fleet, cut the cost of fighter-related overhead, reduce the annual authorized flying rate, and cut the number of operational CF-18s, the sole combat aircraft in its inventory.

Canada’s fleet of 138 CF-18s was purchased in the early 1980s, and are the original A/B models produced by the American manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas. The second version of the plane, the C/D model, was produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s and included a large num- ber of improvements over the original. In 1998, the Boeing Corporation””having purchased McDonnell Douglas several years earlier””began manufacturing the third variant of the aircraft, the E/F (nicknamed the ”œSuper Hornet” in the U.S.).

Canada’s CF-18s have taken part in two major conflicts in the last decade. In the Persian Gulf War, 24 CF-18s were deployed to perform defensive combat air patrols, although in the war’s later stages the aircraft also performed sweep and escort missions. In 1999, 18 CF-18s were deployed to Aviano, Italy, where they took part in Operation Allied Force over Kosovo. Canada was one of only five NATO countries to play an active role in the conflict’s bombing campaign.

This contribution involved both pluses and minuses as far as interoperability is concerned. On the plus side, the CF-18s were able to integrate quite well with other NATO aircraft, and per- formed a valued mission. On the minus side, Canada did not have any strategic air-to-air refu- elling capability and was thus wholly dependent on the U.S. for this requirement. More important- ly, Canada was the only NATO country that did not have secure voice communication capabilities, a failing that forced the entire allied air effort to use single frequency, jammable equipment.

With the CF-18s having entered the last five to ten years of their original life expectancy, in 1999 the air force introduced a plan that will keep the aircraft flying until approximately 2020. The Incremental Modernization Program (IMP) has a budget of $1.2 billion and is now well underway. The project consists of ten independ- ent ventures, including enhanced computer capabilities, new electronic warfare systems and an improved radar suite. But even after all the upgrades are completed (in 2008), the CF-18s will only have been brought up an operational equal to that of U.S. F-18s for almost 20 years. And while the DND is studying the possibility of replacement aircraft for the CF-18s in the post- 2020 environment, the enormous expense of modern combat aircraft (which can rise to over $100 million per plane) means Canada is unlike- ly to operate such aircraft once the CF-18s are withdrawn from active service.

For transport, the air force has 32 turboprop CC-130 Hercules aircraft. The Hercules have been in service since the 1960s (although some were purchased in the early 1970s) and like many other weapons platforms in the CF are nearing the end of their operational life. Replacing them will be a particularly daunting challenge, as they are very versatile and have been depended on for virtually all deployments of CF personnel abroad (despite the fact that the DND recently acknowledged that only a third of the fleet is available for daily oper- ations). While the U.S. Air Force is currently intro- ducing the C-17 Globemaster into service, the high cost of this aircraft (approximately $300 mil- lion per plane) makes it unlikely that the CF will purchase any.

The air force is clearly facing a difficult period ahead. Its sole combat plane is almost obsolescent, it has no strategic lift capability to speak of, and its transport aircraft are aging and increasingly error- prone. In addition, although the air force tries to emphasize its non-military capabilities””its web- site devotes considerable attention to non-combat operations””air power runs inherently counter to the ”œsoft power” view of the world that is popular with the Liberal government and in the Department of Foreign Affairs. Given the chal- lenges discussed above, the air force, like the army, has a generally poor prognosis, and would thus make a poor choice for prioritization.

The Functionary

Public-service news delivered to your inbox.

At the moment, the navy is in the best shape of Canada’s three services, and is the obvious candidate for prioritization. The navy’s major equipment includes 12 Halifax class frigates, four Iroquois class destroyers, two fleet-support vessels and four submarines. In addition, maritime avia- tion consists of 30 Sea King helicopters and 21 long-range patrol aircraft. Finally, the navy has most recently acquired 12 maritime coastal defence vessels.

The frigates are the pride of the fleet. Delivered between 1992 and 1998, the ships can perform a variety of roles against submarine, sur- face or air threats. A Halifax class frigate can survey some 32,000 square kilometres of ocean, and can do so for about ten days before having to refuel. To detect and track submarines, and to extend the ter- ritory the frigate is able to survey, each carries one Sea King helicopter (to be discussed below). The frigates are quite heavily armed, with a range of missiles, guns and other defence systems.

The destroyers, though purchased in the early 1970s, have been extensively modernized and refitted over the years, and are still effective naval vessels. In addition, each destroyer has been equipped with 29 long-range surface-to-air mis- siles, accompanying radars, and chaff launchers, which allows them to extend protection to other vessels. New command-and-control facilities mean they can serve as flagships for Canadian or allied naval task groups.

The navy’s Victoria class submarines are just being introduced. Purchased (slightly used) from Britain in the mid-1990s, they offer the navy an enormous improvement in capability over the now-withdrawn Oberon class submarines, which had been in service since 1963. The new sub- marines will provide valued surveillance capabili- ties as well as a much-needed anti-submarine capability in hostile waters.

Taken together, the three primary naval ves- sels offer Canada a fairly robust presence and sig- nificant military capabilities. A critical further advantage is a high degree of interoperability with allied navies, in particular the U.S. Navy. Perhaps the best example of this is the integration of Canadian frigates and destroyers into U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups. Since the Gulf War, Canadian naval vessels have frequently been integrated into such groups. The most recent occasion is Operation Apollo, the Canadian designation for our contribution to the U.S.-led war on terrorism, which had five Canadian warships””four frigates and a destroyer””join the U.S.-led fleet. Extensive training between the two navies allows for easy integration and a degree of interoperability that is highly unusual in the naval world.

Where the navy’s equipment is most in need of modernization, however, is in the area of mar- itime aviation. Inter-service prioritization would be a big help here. The navy’s maritime helicopter, the Sea King, is completely obsolete, to the extent that it poses a danger to its crew and to nearby ships virtually every time it flies. While the gov- ernment has announced its intention to replace the fleet (which was introduced in 1963), the timetable remains unclear. Right now it looks as if the Sea Kings will be flying””or at least trying to”” until 2008 and beyond.

The navy’s other major aircraft is the CF-140 Aurora, which is also nearing the end of its opera- tional life. In service since 1980, the 18 Auroras perform an array of surveillance and reconnais- sance missions in addition to anti-submarine war- fare tasks. Performing so many missions has meant that they have been operated hard, however, and they have now exceeded the U.S.-set deadline for refurbishment of the airframes. As a result, the Auroras have problems with corrosion and fatigue. In addition, the now-customary Canadian practise of not upgrading the aircraft has resulted in serv- ice and maintenance difficulties.

Problems with its aircraft notwithstanding, the Canadian navy is in surprisingly good shape, and is the obvious candidate for service prioritiza- tion. Any such decision would have an immedi- ately beneficial impact, as badly needed modern- ization programs could be undertaken quickly. In addition, because the primary navy vessels are all relatively modern, replacement should not be an issue for at least another ten years, and even then a decision could be made to simply retire (rather than replace) the destroyers. Finally, given the impressive degree of interoperability between the Canadian and U.S. navies, the navy is well-posi- tioned to participate in a wide range of missions, from peace support/humanitarian aid to sophisti- cated conventional war.

The decline of Canadian military capabilities has occurred with the apparent approval of much of the Canadian public. While defence com- mentators and what remains of the Canadian Progressive Conservative and Alliance parties have strongly criticized the Liberal government for its defence cuts, the reality is that Canadians have repeatedly demonstrated that, where spending is concerned, defence simply does not rate very well in comparison to other programs like health care or education.

Nor, somewhat surprisingly, does this seem likely to change in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. While the Canadian govern- ment has pledged to pay more attention to securi- ty issues, there is no indication that the DND will be getting any significant infusion of cash as a result. Indeed, since the attacks, not only has the government announced only minor increases in defence spending””of the additional $7.7 billion allocated for security in the December 10, 2001, federal budget, only $1.2 billion spread over five years was earmarked for defence””but it has also revealed that a defence policy review needs to be undertaken, a signal many observers believe indi- cates the government’s willingness to acknowl- edge that the vision of the military set out in the 1994 White Paper is too expensive.

There is no question that years of budget cuts have left the CF in a precarious position. Despite the goals set in the White Paper, the reality is that Canada today cannot field military forces able to fight ”œalongside the best, against the best.” In the last ten years, the CF have lost combat capability across the spectrum. Once lost, such capabilities are difficult to restore.

This unpleasant reality runs counter to the official goals of Canadian foreign policy, which remains strongly internationalist. Although the tenure of Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy ended in 2000, his successors, John Manley and most recently Bill Graham, continue to stress the international role that Canada can play. And while there now seems to be less emphasis on ”œhuman security” and ”œsoft power”””concepts that, by downplaying military assets, at least were consis- tent with Canada’s declining capabilities””Mr. Manley’s conception of foreign policy was far more dependent on traditional ”œhard power” resources that, after three decades of cuts, we simply do not have. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Graham is more in the Manley or Axworthy mould.

The disconnect between Canada’s foreign and defence policy no longer can be papered over. The DND is incapable of fielding the forces required to match Canada’s foreign policy rhetoric. And yet, as suggested above, there are steps that the DND can take to ensure at least some degree of combat capability in the future. The army and air force are currently suffering from advanced equipment obsolescence, thus making future interoperability unlikely. The navy, on the other hand, has a rea- sonably modern fleet, can perform a wide array of missions, and enjoys widespread political support. A decision to give it priority, including fiscal prior- ity, would ensure that the CF can participate in multinational coalition operations well into the 21st century.

Giving priority to the navy also makes sense on strategic grounds. The Afghan war has revealed some interesting changes in the way Western mil- itary operations are likely to be conducted in the future. Combining small teams of special forces on the ground with both carrier-based and land-based aircraft, the new style of U.S. warfare may well dis- place ground and tank forces as the U.S. mainstay on the battlefield.

For our purposes, however, the key point is that Operation Enduring Freedom has revealed that the U.S. will likely welcome naval participa- tion in future task forces (provided foreign forces are fully interoperable), but is unlikely to request air or ground assets. At the very least, it suggests that only those countries that maintain highly sophisticated and capable air and ground units will be ”œallowed” to participate in U.S.-led opera- tions, a standard that Canada abdicated some time ago.

Taken together, the ongoing fiscal challenge and the changing strategic reality confront the DND with some stark choices. A military that is not very combat capable in the contemporary strategic environment has little hope of becoming more combat capable in the future one. That is true no matter how much lip service the Canadian government pays to the necessity of maintaining interoperable armed forces that can take full advantage of advanced military technology and the emerging ”œrevolution in military affairs.”

Nor is the emphasis on interoperability likely to diminish in the future. On the contrary, inter- operable forces will remain critical to both the U.S. and its allies. Granted, the U.S. interest in interop- erability may have more to do with American political concerns than strategic ones. The U.S. has the military assets to conduct unilateral operations anytime it perceives its national interests are at stake””as it is essentially doing in Afghanistan. However, when core U.S. interests are not directly threatened, as in Kosovo or the Gulf, the U.S. prefers to have allies on board before undertaking military operations. And the primary criteria for joining U.S.-led coali- tions is fielding defence forces that are broadly interoperable with American ones. If Canada fails to maintain such forces it is likely to find that future offers of assistance will be politely declined, an understandable response given the greater risks the deployment of such forces entails.

The Canadian Forces have entered a critical period that will determine their force structure for the next several decades. At a time of fiscal challenge and dramatic technological change, the fic- tion that we have general-purpose combat forces is no longer sustainable. The events of September 11 and the resulting U.S.-led war on terrorism high- light the importance of having a modern and capable military. The Department of National Defence needs to set clear priorities if it is to retain a viable fighting force. To be sure, making the decisions that are required could open up internecine rifts within the military. But failing to make them will both weaken the military and ensure that the disconnect between Canadian for- eign and defence policy becomes a permanent fix- ture of Canadian statehood.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License