Too Many Generals...

Steve Saideman explains why having one military for many countries is just unrealistic.
By: /
March 28, 2012

The new NATO Smart Defence initiative sounds really … well, smart. Given constrained budgets, it makes sense for NATO countries to work together to plan their military budgets so that they create less duplication. The logic is incredibly compelling: Each country focuses on certain capabilities so that when they come together as part of a coalition operation, each country can contribute its niche capability to the effort.

There is one major problem with specialization: If you are on the battlefield and you need an ally to show up with a key capability, such as helicopters, reconnaissance technology and personnel, light or heavy armoured vehicles, etc., there is no guarantee that the ally will show up. The lessons of Afghanistan were not new ones, and they were repeated in the skies over, and the seas near, Libya. Countries always impose varying restrictions upon their own contingents, even as they transfer operational command to the alliance or ad hoc coalition leaders.

In Afghanistan, that meant that Canadian troops in Kandahar got some support from some allies at some key points in time, but other allies either did not show up at all (Germany got the most grief for this), or showed up a day late because they had to call home for permission. In the aftermath of the first prison break in Kandahar, the French unit assigned to embed with a particular Afghan battalion, or kandak, could not move to Kandahar quickly because they had to call home to get permission from French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

For the Libyan effort, only about half of NATO countries bothered to participate at all, and only a handful of them were willing to drop bombs. Others participated in the embargo or the no-fly zone, as these presented less risk and less visibility. Most notably, Germany pulled out of the one truly multinational effort – the Airborne Warning and Control Systems planes – which forced NATO to find other personnel to staff positions in those planes. 

Canadians cannot be too smug about this, as Canada imposed its own restrictions in Bosnia, in the skies over Kosovo, and even in Afghanistan for the first couple of years and again since the summer of 2011.

Canada’s experience with specialization in Afghanistan was unpleasant. Canada sent its army into Kandahar with little in the way of helicopter support, hoping and expecting that the Americans and the Brits would fly them around whenever required. However, helicopters were a scarce commodity, so the Americans and Brits and others often assigned the helicopters to their own efforts. (It could have been worse: Germany and Italy both deployed only a handful of choppers for their sectors, which each represented about one-quarter of the country.) This meant that the Canadians had to spend more time on the roads of Kandahar, raising the risks for the troops. This problem was only addressed as part of the Manley Panel’s conditions for renewing the mission. So, one of the lessons learned from Afghanistan is that dependence due to specialization can be quite costly in lives and, as a result, in support for the mission.

NATO can, and should, encourage as much co-ordination as possible in defence planning, but countries, such as Canada, should – and probably will – remember the lessons from previous missions: Specialization means dependence, and allies are not always reliable, so specialization means increased risk. To be sure, military operations and planning should be about managing and mitigating risk rather than avoiding it entirely. Politicians just need to keep in mind that what they do today in terms of weapons procurement does have consequences for how risk is finessed down the road, on the battlefield, at sea, and in the skies. 

Photo courtesy of Reuters