Two Priorities for the Canadian Forces

Continental defence should come first argues Roland Paris.
By: /
May 3, 2012

How should we define the priorities of the Canadian Forces? Steve Saideman raises this question in his latest post. In my view, the CF should have two overriding missions: first, the protection of Canada’s coastlines and airspace (along with assistance to civil authorities in emergencies); and second, the ability to contribute contingents of highly capable and versatile ground forces to overseas multilateral operations.

Steve believes that Canada faces a threat only in the Arctic, because the rest of our coastline and airspace are “quite safe.” He suggests, therefore, that when I argue that continental security should be the top CF priority, that I am actually putting the Arctic first.

In fact, that’s not what I am saying. Although the Arctic will be an area of increasing international competition (given undersea resources and new shipping routes opening up due to melting sea ice), Canada still must be able to identify and intercept potentially dangerous ships, planes, and cargo before they reach their destinations. We know all too well that airplanes can be hijacked, and that ships can be used for mass human trafficking, for example, and we have an immense coastline and airspace to monitor and patrol.


Yet, there is another reason – and one that is arguably more important – for Canada to prioritize continental defence. If we don’t secure our portion of North America, the Americans will do so on our behalf, whether we like it or not. This has been the implicit deal between our two countries at least since the Second World War. Maintaining this deal is a critical political interest for Canada, and, as I mentioned in my previous post, CF priorities should flow from an assessment of our broader foreign policy requirements.

The second priority for the CF, I believe, should be the ability to contribute ground forces to multilateral missions overseas. This, too, flows from our foreign-policy requirements – namely, Canada’s interest in a stable and just international order, particularly at a moment when existing international institutions and systems of rules are under strain.

The pace of global change, and problems arising from this change – from the environment to trade and finance – are outstripping the capacity of existing international institutions to cope with them. As an open country that’s particularly dependent on trade, Canada has benefited from these systems of rules. Just think about how Canada has profited from a measure of stability in the international economy for the past several decades.

Indeed, the greatest challenge we collectively face may be the transition from a U.S.-led international system to a multipolar one. This challenge is not just economic (how can Canada increase its trade with rising economies?), but is also political (how can Canada contribute to the adjustment of international systems of rule, such that these systems can peacefully accommodate the rise of new powers?).

This process of rule-building and institutional reform is primarily a diplomatic one that suits Canadians well. It’s no accident that Canadian leaders and diplomats have traditionally “punched above their weight” in building multilateral institutions, from the United Nations to the International Criminal Court: We have had to develop such skills to keep this fractious country together from the very start of our history. This quality has defined Canada and Canadians.

There are moments, however, when diplomacy isn’t enough and stakes are so high that upholding international rules requires the deployment of military forces to multilateral operations. This does not necessarily mean going to war. In fact, there is a range of possible roles for Canadian military personnel in multilateral operations – from monitoring ceasefires and providing training for national security forces (or to the peacekeeping troops of other countries) to counterinsurgency and combat.

To perform such varied and unpredictable tasks, however, we need ground forces that are capable of adapting quickly to new types of missions and deploying quickly. This means having highly skilled troops that can largely support themselves (with helicopters and vehicles, for example), and that Canada can deliver to the area of operations without having to rent or borrow transport.

A military policy rooted in these two priorities – the protection of our airspace and coastlines, and the ability to contribute skilled and adaptable ground forces to multilateral missions – would provide a strategically founded basis for making tough decisions about equipment purchases as budgets become tighter. For example, how big a blue-sea navy would we actually need if we adopted these priorities? Coastal patrol vessels, including those with the ability to operate in the Arctic, would seem more important than acquiring more destroyers and frigates. And would we really require stealth fighters if their primary task were to intercept threats to our continental airspace?

As you ponder these questions, consider this: F-35 stealth fighters and new ships (including destroyers and frigates) are the most expensive items on Canada’s current list of planned military purchases. What mission, exactly, will they perform?

Photo courtesy of Reuters