Military futures matter in peacetime because that is when both weapons and warriors are developed. The American victory over the Japanese navy at Midway in 1942 depended on aircraft carriers authorized years before Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. A tough infantry sergeant who knows how to fight and how to make others fight can take up to fifteen years to train, though the British now claim they can do it in ten years. Canada’s Royal Military College graduates lieutenants and navy sub-lieutenants after a tightly-packed four-year program. Much of their professional training starts after graduation. An 18-year old who enters RMC with the dream of flying a supersonic fighter can spend ten years before she or he flies with a CF-18 squadron.
Defence decisions can be forever. When John Diefenbaker cancelled the Avro Arrow program in 1958, never again would Canada build a supersonic fighter aircraft. Wiping out the design team that produced our City-class patrol frigates may mean the same for Canada’s hope of building future warships. Abandoning tanks dissolves hard-earned Canadian expertise in armoured warfare. What if Canadian soldiers ever face sophisticated tanks again? Do we mourn Canadian military horsemanship or feats of shooting with the old Rossrifle? Life is lived now and tomorrow, not yesterday. Get with it, say the futurists. Get it right, say the rest of us.
Forecasting is tough work and the Department of National Defence has a poor record. In 1949, Brooke Claxton’s White Paper confronted the Cold War threat by giving top priority to Canada’s own defence. A year later, Canada was frantically raising forces to defend South Korea and, by 1951,western Europe. The 1964 white paper emphasized peacekeeping but no serious new peacekeeping involvements occurred. By 1972, Canada’s home defence again became ”œPriority One.” Why? Each statement dutifully adopted the preferences of the prime minister of the day, not Canada’s defence needs. The 1987 white paper was designed by Perrin Beattie to please Prime Minister Mulroney by endorsing President Ronald Reagan’s ”œevil empire” view of the Soviet Union. By ignoring Soviet glasnost or détente, the prophetic shortfall added to jokes about ”œmilitary intelligence.” To be fair, the Liberals’ 1994 White Paper had sensible forecasts about the violent nineties, but its recommendation sutterly ignored Canada’s fiscal crisis. By demanding more than a sensible government could afford, the 1994paper achieved instant irrelevance. When defence critics demand a new white paper, they may only want to embarrass the authors.
Prediction is frustrating, unreliable and inevitable. If we won’t make choices, time makes them for us. The passage of time is even more inevitable than death or taxes. As we have seen, ships, aircraft and vehicles wear out. So do their crews. Repair bills mount, reliability shrinks, and some cold day, the engine won’t even turn over. I met a Search and Rescue (SAR) crew at Comox, B.C., rolling out their 1958vintage Labrador helicopter. They were flying up a stormy coast to hunt for an overdue fishing boat. Safe? Sure, hours of maintenance and careful crew checks saw to that, but, as a crewmember reminded me, a long thin rod linked the forward rotor blades to the engine in the rear. Snap, and the air-craft would fall like a stone.
Planning would have replaced his helicopter that year, 1995. Taming the deficit was a higher priority. Had defence planning in 1994 ignored Canada’s financial condition? Should it now ignore the competing claims of agriculture, decaying urban infrastructure, health care for an aging population, and the environment, not to mention world hunger and poverty? If so, the next Canadian defence review will be as myopic as its predecessors, and as irrelevant.
Using the past to foretell the future runs into familiar problems. First, we only remember part of the past ””most often parts that make us feel good. The whole story may be too embarrassing, boring, and long, but missing details may make a big difference. Bullets, for example, are a huge improvement on arrows but they have problems too. Unlike arrows, they demand precise manufacturing. A British .303 calibre bullet won’t work in a .300 calibre US rifle. And human ingenuity can usually outsmart both prophets and technologies. Not until September 11th and al-Qaeda, did any-one realize that an airliner with a full load of fuel might be ideal to destroy a hundred-storey office building.
Like stockbrokers, generals and admirals are desperate to know the future. For two generations after1945, the puzzle was straightforward. World War III would pit the United States against the Soviet Union, each with their respective allies. The struggle would resemble World War II, plus nuclear weapons. If the Soviets often had an edge in missiles, tanks and submarines, the US was far ahead in computers, aircraft, and a huge array of electronic sensors that kept an eye on the vast, secretive Soviet system. When President Ronald Reagan cranked up the American war machine in the1980s, Soviet Marshal Nikolai Olgarkov tried to get his side to measure up. Instead, to general astonishment, the Soviet economy and its military systems puttered and collapsed.
In 1990, after two generations of nervous stability, the world entered anew, but bewildering era. Instead of peace, prosperity, and happiness funded by ”œpeace dividends” from reduced defence spending, the world passed through one of the bloodiest decades in the twentieth century as conflicts the rest of the world had forgotten burst into flames. From Armenia to Azerbaijan, Croatia to Cambodia, humans slaughtered each other. Earlier, we saw the impact of this period on Canada’s armed forces. Canadians might note that American experience was similar. After the Gulf War, the US cut a third of its military personnel and $100 billion in defence spending. During the Cold War, US forces had deployed overseas ten times; during 1989-99, they took on 36foreign missions. If Canadian Forces complain about their operational tempo, Americans invented the term. In both countries, defence forces faced governments with other priorities such as high taxes and serious indebtedness.
Combining new technologies and appropriate tactics for future battlefields has often given one side its margin of victory. History suggests that challengers do it better than champions. Thanks to wars with the Scots, English kings realized that peas-ant archers with longbows could penetrate a knight’s chain mail armour, devastating French chivalry and giving the weaker country famous victories from Crécy to Agincourt. Organized in deep columns of infantry, and buoyed by revolutionary élan, the ragged, ill-trained troops of the French Republics mashed into the straight lines of their monarchist opponents and rolled them up, saving the Revolution and later giving Napoleon his victory edge. In 1939-40, blitzkrieg tactics, combining tanks and dive bombers by wireless radio, gave Hitler vengeance for Germany’s defeat in 1918. In their time, these were revolutions in the way of making war.
When Americans talk of RMA or a ”œrevolution in military affairs,” they think they have the answer for future triumphs. What is RMA? Having heard the phrase before, you have a fair idea but here is the definition The Economist offered its readers: ”œa paradigm shift in the nature and conduct of military operations which either renders obsolete or irrelevant one or more competencies in a dominant player or created one or more new competencies in some dimension of warfare, or both.”
After humble bowmen began knocking them off, being an armoured knight lost some of its glamour and lots of its value. The tools that made blitzkrieg possible in1940 all existed in 1918; the trick was to improve and combine them. American-style RMA doctrines grow out of the digital and space technology that dominated US research funding since the 1950s. Techniques that put astronauts on the moon and produced the world-wide web have trans-formed the way Americans have waged war since 1989, from the Gulf to Afghanistan. They may also have rendered obsolete most of the weapons in the Cold War arsenal.
The urgent need to know what was actually happening in the highly secretive Soviet Union led the US to a huge lead in surveillance technology. Once a target is identified, computers feed in extra data. Weapon systems, scattered around the world to avoid becoming a target, are networked and alerted. On the commander’s decision, perhaps checked out with the White House, a single, suitable missile may be on its way from anywhere that can reach the target. US pilots remember how many of their buddies died trying to knock out a key bridge in Korea or Vietnam. Now they believe that a single precision-guided missile or an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV)can do the job the first time. Or smash shut al-Qaeda caves in Tora-Bora or atomize Saddam Hussein in his Baghdad lair. And, enthusiasts boast, few Americans will come home in body-bags ”” unless they were treacherously playing with the ”œbad guys.”
RMA includes every imaginable computer application, from global positioning systems (GPS) to sorting billions of megabytes of information. Remote sensors on pilotless aircraft flash real time pictures of the battle-space. Robot scanners detect vehicles and weapons and report electronic sig-natures from transmitters and even telltale road dust from a moving vehicle. Computers absorb vast quantities of input and transform it into information for suitably trained field commanders. RMA-style communications link President Bush to an infantry squad leader in a Philippine jungle. RMA extends to every kind of programming, from directing precision-guided missiles to their targets to giving up-to-the-minute reports on target status.
RMA’s most revolutionary claim is that it takes the guess-work out of warfare, from the precise location of key targets to the battle plans of the enemy generals and admirals? Throughout history, commanders have complained about ”œthe fog of war” and worried about what the enemy was doing ”œon the other side of the hill.” Airplanes helped a little. In 1914, a French pilot won the Battle of the Marne and perhaps the First World Warby reporting that the German armies were passing in front of Paris, not behind it. RMA techniques would have warned French generals even faster. Indeed, data overload may trouble the high command as much as the earlier dearth of information. RMA enthusiasts have an answer: better training, computers and algorithms reduce the guess-work and the doubts. Machinery, not staff arguments, provide the alternatives and the arguments pro and con.
As usual, experience shapes future threats. A decade of asymmetric war, in which the enemies were ”œnon-state” organizations, failed states or ones close to collapse, now seems to stretch far into the future. Asymmetric war pitted al-Qaeda against the United States and pro-Western governments in the Islamic world, the IRA against the British army, FARC against the Colombian armed forces, Tamil Tigers against Sri Lanka, and Hamas and Hezbollah against the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Asymmetric war may have targeted Australian holiday-makers in Bali and a miniature United Nations of ill-paid workers in the World Trade Centre. It utterly ignores the two-century struggle to ”œcivilize” war with Hague and Geneva conventions for the rights of prisoners, medical personnel, prisoners of war and innocent civilians.
Key strategies in asymmetric war include targeting vulnerable people and encouraging the more powerful adversary to make enemies and outrage public opinion by slaughtering innocent people. When a jet fighter killed a terrorist leader with a 500-kilogrambomb, Israelis felt victorious. Hamas made sure that world media learned that Israel’s bomb had also killed and injured a hundred neighbours, some of them babes in arms. It was not a good day for Israel. The British remembered January 30th, 1972, when paratroopers stopped an illegal march by killing 13 unarmed Catholics in Londonderry, launching the latest round of ”œTroubles.” Asymmetric warfare is not for the faint of heart.
For almost a century, military forces have been measured in what current jargon calls ”œplatforms”””tanks, bombers, battleships, fighters, submarines, aircraft carriers and artillery guns. ”œPlatforms” do no harm themselves; they carry the bombs, shells, rockets and torpedoes that do the damage. Indeed, the platform becomes the target. Aircraft carriers and their 3000 crew members are highly vulnerable to missile attack. So are tanks, self-propelled heavy artillery, missile sites and most other forms of military hardware. Air and naval bases, vital for repair and maintenance of sophisticated weapons, cannot easily be rolled up and hidden. Nor, for that matter, can the fabulous Battle Information Centre(BIC) in Anaheim. Even hitting a target in southern California might not be impossible for terrorists who could bomb the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre in the same hour.
The US and its allies are staking their security on some very bold claims. Enthusiastic innovators almost always over-sell their product and are seldom on hand when trouble starts. The rapid pace of change among computers and their programs betrays current inadequacies as well as future potential. Transforming war into a kind of high-stakes video-game, with few risks to the players, strikes lots of people as a great deal. Punishing an enemy, with impunity for the good guys, sounds as good as Hollywood. Aren’t our soldiers’ lives valuable?
Armed forces brass have different instincts. Some of them are self-interested. Generals who trained all their careers to fight Soviet tank armies fought hard for the Abrams tank and Crusader artillery systems because they seemed to be the best weapons ever devised for such a war. But how could you get them to Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq in a few crucial days? Now the US Army is committed to buying 20-tonne ”œFuture Combat Systems” (FCS) armoured vehicles that have yet to be invented. Soldiers, who do most of the dying in any war, may not be happy, but they have to argue with Donald Rumsfeld, President Bush’s defence secretary. In October, 2002, I visited Arnhem, where a superb British air-borne division unexpectedly ran into a weary, under-strength German panzer division in October, 1944. It was no contest ”” for the Germans! I came away wondering how the new American ”œlight” brigades would fare if they ever faced an enemy with real tanks and heavy guns. Count on it. Secretary Rumsfeld won’t be there.
George W. Bush’s war in Afghanistan suited a US administration utterly committed to RMA and the rapid ”œtransformation” of American armed forces to new technology. As Afghanistan was target-ed and a battle plan was compiled at an operational headquarters in Tampa, Florida, US carrier task forces con-verged on the Arabian Sea to launch assaults on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. Contingents of US Special Forces landed by helicopter to support Uzbek-dominated rebels and direct fire on their Afghan government opponents. UAVs reported enemy movements and activities to Tampa, and low-flying UACVs thundered missiles at air defence targets. Bases made avail-able by nervous Gulf states and neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan allowed army and air force deployment. When CNN could report satisfying columns of smoke rising from Taliban and al-Quaeda bases in the Afghan mountains, fears of a costly Rudyard Kipling-style war in the hills subsided, and almost everybody could come home alive. Four Canadian soldiers, victims of US Air Force ”œfriendly fire,” were among the sad exceptions.
Critics of RMA read history differently. What happened, they ask, to the original Gulf War plan to destroy Saddam Hussein rather than his coun-ry? A dozen years later, he was still in place. The final massive bombing in1991 left Iraqi conscripts with little will to fight, but Saddam’s elite Revolutionary Guard seemed to escape intact. A successful Croatian and Bosnian invasion of Serb territory shook Milosevic in 1995. Four years later, months of NATO bombing demolished less than a quarter of Milosevic’s tanks and armoured carriers, and left his troops plenty of time to make Kosovars suffer. NATO needed a Plan ”œB” but planning delays as well as Albanian roads kept NATO forces far from battle. In Afghanistan, some kind of war continues as I write, with little hard evidence of enemy losses or of the fate of Osama bin Laden. Lacking an exit strategy, American forces are stranded among restive hosts in a nasty climate. Come to think of it, isn’t that how those Kiplingesque wars got started?
That’s not how the White House or most of the US Congress sees what happened. Nothing succeeds like a pro-claimed success, and RMA transformation has become the model, not just for US forces but for their allies. Canadian Forces policy stresses interoperability with US counterparts and, if Ottawa can find the cash, ”œtransformation” becomes part of the Candian Forces future too. Most of NATO’s European allies were sidelined in Kosovo and Afghanistan, because their aircraft could not match the speed, altitude and sophisticated communications demanded by USAF strategists. Most European countries spend more on defence than does Canada, but their forces have suffered similar post-1990s rust-out. Many European governments are making the costly transition from conscription to volunteer professional forces. They also face more resistance from Greens, Socialists and taxpayers if they expand defence spending. Europeans also have a smaller base of RMA-style technology, and US laws on military security and corporate practices leave little room or incentive for significant technical transfers, even to allies. The British, with an older, more trusted relation-ship, and Europe’s most effective armed forces, are partial exceptions.
Not all possible threats to the US come from terrorists or ”œrogue states.” One contingency that helped persuade the US in the 1990s to keep forces sufficient for two Gulf-style wars was the threat to its main Asian client state, Taiwan. Defined by Beijing as a Chinese province, Taiwanese pressure for sovereign status provokes regular threats of invasion from mainland China. With a billion people, vast territory and a substantial People’s Liberation Army (PLA), no country comes closer to super-power rivalry with the US than the People’s Republic of China(PRC). Many futurists see China as the next great ruler of the world, though most of them have had to delay their projections several times. While coastal provinces have prospered under cautious state adventures in capitalism, corruption has prospered too. Meanwhile, China’s interior provinces have experienced bitter levels of poverty. Heavily dependent for its funding on its industrial empire, critics believe that the PLA itself may have been corrupted by binshan or soldier-businessmen. Whatever China’s military strength, developing RMA seems a rational US military response to any challenge from the PRC’s large but technologically under-developed armed forces.
In June, 1999, the then Chief of the Canadian Defence Staff, General Maurice Baril, presented Shaping the Future of Canadian Defence: A Strategy for 2020. In the wake of the Kosovo campaign, interoperability was fifth of eight objectives, but its importance would only grow. Defence 2020 built on over half a century of developing links with US forces. Political advantages matched the military benefits. Ties to the Americans always worry Canadian nationalists and socialists but they avoid the French-English divide that grew dangerously during the long British relation-ship. In an era of Quebec separatism, French Canada’s pro-Americanism is a powerful lever in Ottawa.
Keeping up with the Americans has also been the best argument National Defence ever found to loosen up a share of taxpayers’ dollars, and that case has worked overtime since September 11th, 2001. Not only were many Canadians embarrassed that their forces could not measure up to American military standards, they even worried about US retaliation if Canada did not pull its weight in George Bush’s war. Even politicians who routinely ignore National Defence headquarters, heard from constituents and the media. Finally, and fundamentally, Canadians have real difficulty imagining an international situation where their forces would perform independently. From the Boer War to Afghanistan, Canada’s foreign campaigns have fitted into alliance wars. So have Canadian forces. Far away in the Antipodes, Australians faced Indonesians in East Timor, absorbing a few hundred Canadian soldiers as part of the operation. Canadians have never envisaged such a role for themselves: interoperability is an historical pattern.
Already integrated in US carrier escort groups, Canadian navy frigates have to be compatible with American communications and weapons tech-nology. To replace its two aging fleet replenishment ships, the navy is campaigning for a $2.3 billion Afloat Logistics Sealift Capability (ALSC) project to supply an on-shore taskforce and provide limited sea-lift for troops and heavy equipment.
A C$1.226 billion Incremental Modernization Program (IMP) is bringing as many CF-18s as the air force can afford up to current US standards. Canada spent $15 million to have a stake in the new US Joint Strike Fighter, and it has converted one of its new Airbus CC-150s as an air-to-air refuelling tanker. To provide strategic air-lift, the defence department explored buying six huge Boeing C-17s. Since they would have spent most of their time on the ground, one way to cut operating costs was to loan them back to the US. However, such national complications as whose colours the air-craft would wear, which country pro-vides the crew, and what happens if the US used them in a war with Cuba caused the deal to come unstuck.
After the same light tank-heavy tank debate that split the US Army, land forces commander Lieutenant-General Mike Jeffries lined up with General Shinseki, his US counter part. National Defence ordered 651 more LAVs from General Motors, to use a slight armoured personnel carriers. It has shifted all its tanks and other heavy combat equipment to Camp Wainwright in Alberta ”” not far from dinosaur country, and dedicated its other two brigades to light or medium roles.
Historians can only get a grip on the future if they understand deep continuities. People are people: they don’t change overnight, even if they think they do. Throughout their history, Canadians have free-loaded on defence from the French, the British and, since 1945, on the Americans. Why be ashamed? Our imperial partners have also acted entirely in their own self-interest and they have abandoned us ”” in 1763,1871 or whenever, the instant it no longer seemed to be in their interest. The American partnership allows Washington negotiated access to Canada’s vast terrain to enhance American security. It compels Canada to do all it can not to be a danger to its neighbour. Would a bigger military effort by Ottawa give Canada more leverage to influence US national security and defence policy? The evidence is missing. Like other sovereign countries, and more than most, the United States serves its own interests.
David L. King, a retired Canadian colonel and a faculty member at the US National Defence University in Washington, sums up Canada’s military forces as irrelevant to his current employers: ”œThe assertion that the Canadian Forces are militarily irrelevant to the US doubtless will troublesome people, particularly within Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND). However the lack of ”œmilitary” relevance from a US perspective is also increasingly applicable to the rest of the United States’ allies. It will startle few serious analysts to learn that no allied forces are critical to US military policy. Even a cursory read of the American National Security Strategy, the National military Strategy, and the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) reveal that these documents take no cognizance of allied military forces. All the refer-ences to allies are in the context of the US aiding and assisting its allies, not the reverse.
”œGouverner, c’est choisir” declared Pierre Mendès France, one of the wisest of France’s postwar politicians. Unless the federal government is persuaded to devote about C$10 billion of its projected 2002 surplus of $6 billion on defence alone, even many current defence desires must be stalled or buried. Ottawa faces powerful demands from farmers, mayors, provincial premiers, the sick and the very rich, not to mention victims of SARS, BSE and forest fires before it notices military lobbyists with their peremptory commands and American-inspired appetites.
Any Liberal defence minister may find it easier to sell his colleagues and caucus on better living conditions for troops and their families than on new weapons for generals and contracts for the defence industry. Critics of RMA and interoperability will add their own arguments: Canada has become so tied to the American defence machine that it has damaged its sovereignty, especially in the eyes of Europeans and the Third World. Electronic wizardry did not prevent the USS Vincennes from destroying an Iranian airliner in 1988. What if next time the rocket is US activated but from a Canadian warship? Canada’s losses outside Kandahar are a poignant reminder of high-tech warfare’s imperfections. Centralized US command, control, computers and communications erode the autonomy Canada had come to expect for its field commanders since 1918. The US model much prefers complete subordination and integration. So would you, if you commanded a high-tech allied force.
Canadians boast of their politeness and worry about the apparent rudeness of ignoring advice from President Bush’s ambassador or stressing Canadian differences with his boss. Canadians should be polite and thoughtful ”” and realistic. Americans did not order Canadian warships, aircraft or an infantry battalion to support their forces in Afghanistan; they accepted them among many Allied contributions, treated them respectfully, supplied a good many of their needs from their own resources, allowed Canada a share in investigating a tragic accident to its own troops, and offered graceful thanks at the end of their service. What ally has done better?
Interoperability and RMA technologies do not disable Canadian Forces for the peace support operations (PSOs) that Canadian public opinion favours. On the contrary, investments in sea and air lift, better communications, precision-guided munitions and lighter but robust military vehicles are precisely what PSOs needed in the past and will need in the future. If close links with the United States are incompatible with U.N. peacekeeping or peace-making, Canadian forces should never have been acceptable since 1940 or 1947.Neither interoperability nor US support for most PSOs began yesterday.
Peace advocates have proposed some alternative futures for Canada’s armed forces. The Council of 21 pro-posed an international peacekeeping constabulary. Others would transform Canada’s forces into a semi-trained, lightly-equipped local force, capable of suppressing internal disorder. Canada’s armed forces would resemble other military organizations in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the fringes of the former Soviet Union. Too poor to own modern weapons and equipment and sometimes even to feed their troops, many countries know that their defenders will prey on the population, terrify politicians and exploit national pride. Very few Canadians want or expect that kind of company for Canada’s defenders.
Instead, Canadians want their country to play a modest, responsible and constructive role in a sometimes dangerous and often cruel world. Given the differences between the Chrétien and Bush administrations, the state of Canada’s security and defence systems, and enormous Canadian dependence on US markets, the post-September 11thexperience was a successful test of the Canada-United States relationship. Critics, especially politicians and historians, will do their best to find flaws and failure in this record. The rest of us know better.
Canadians will live in the future much as they have lived in the past, day by day. They will turn reluctantly to questions of military significance, suspicious of people who cry ”œwolf” and so far immune from memories of self-inflicted disaster and loss. Living next to a superpower is not as safe as living next to the old United States. Canadians realize from walking their own streets that the world is now a very small place. We can fly to Beijing ”” or back again ””without changing our watches. Our safe little corner of the world looks very attractive to people who believe they are condemned to poverty and early death by the dictates of North American corporations and financial institutions or by their own in competent, profoundly corrupt, and violently tyrannical regimes.
If you have read this far, under-standing some major Canadian defence issues has taken a big step for-ward. If the choices now look more complex than they did, welcome to the truth.