Post Afghanistan – What Now?
Sep 15, 2011

With perhaps the exception of the UN-directed “Police Action” in Korea, the end of every military conflict has witnessed a dramatic reduction in the Canadian government’s funding for the military. Facilities, equipment procurement, supply stocks and personnel have always been substantially reduced. Many politicians expect that a similar reduction will occur now that we are withdrawing from the combat role – and transitioning to a role that should be much less dangerous – training and mentoring of the Afghan National Army.

While some think all threats are now gone or subdued, and believe we should now reduce military spending in order to fund more social programs, the vast majority of Canadians are beginning to understand that savings cannot be had by reducing funding to the Canadian military and cancelling military programs and recruitment, only to attempt to ramp up quickly for the next volatile turn of events. There has been a growing awareness among Canadians that, at the outset of the Afghan conflict, the Canadian Forces, although well-trained, were not among the more effective forces. The years of reductions of personnel and funding and capital spending had left it woefully under-equipped – devoid of the necessary capabilities and wherewithal to survive on a modern battlefield.

The fact that the Canadian Armed Forces had achieved their reputation as a competent military force was predicated upon their training and professionalism in stressful situations.

As a military force, we have always “punched above our weight” due to the calibre of our soldiers and their personal standards of skill, cohesion and inventiveness. In Afghanistan, this effectiveness was enhanced by the timely arrival of the badly-needed equipment that gave the Canadian Forces the tools that they needed. And yet, we all remember the political turmoil that was caused in attempting to acquire this necessary equipment. The fact that it took the realism of modern conflict to shake the “toys for the boys” thinking that had permeated much of the discussion concerning the Canadian military for the past three decades, speaks volumes on the content of those discussions. Canadians are slowly coming to the realization that no other nations, governments or agencies were going to provide for our needs. We are a sovereign nation and it is our responsibility to keep our military well provisioned and equipped. I suspect that the aftermath of the Afghanistan war will be far different than that of the post-Cold War period.

The cost of supporting our forces deployed abroad demonstrated just how counterproductive the false economies of defence cuts were. The requirements for tanks, new artillery and new vehicles, aircraft and personnel suddenly became crystal clear as the existing equipment broke down, stocks of spares evaporated, and CF personnel obliged to fill multiple rotations. Even with the Urgent Operational Requirement shortcut to procurement, there were, and still are, a number of gaps in equipment that will necessitate future ­capital procurement programs.

But the men and women in our military are asking themselves if the government will be able to fill these needs. Will we spend the necessary funds to properly equip the Canadian Forces? For what it’s worth, I believe that the answer is yes. The precarious balance of global security is far too fragile to return to our cozy cottages without first being prepared for the worst.

There are five basic factors at play here, and they all point to the need for continued spending for modernization and the acquisition of new defence / security capabilities.

The current inventory of Army equipment is worn out. The main fighting vehicles such as the LAVs, M113’s, Logistics vehicles, crew-served weapons and all the other items that make up a field force have been worked hard during the many operations undertaken in Afghanistan. There are plans for contractors to overhaul and upgrade this equipment, however, the lack of certain fighting and support vehicles will still be needed and will be procured during the reconstitution phase.

The navy fleets are woefully beyond their serviceable years and Canada is facing a tipping point. The Shipbuilding Strategy expected to be awarded in mid-October, will address this deficiency.

The Airforce fighter aircraft fleet is in need of replacement. The Fixed Wing SAR planes to replace aircraft which should be in museums, have yet to be chosen.

Intelligent and Intelligence
The experience in Afghanistan demonstrated that an effective Force can no longer do without specialist systems like UAVs, improved intelligence gathering capabilities, new “intelligent” munitions and weapon systems. The immediacy of the modern battlefield, either COIN (counter-insurgency) or conventional, demands those new systems that provide the Commander on the ground with the information necessary to make informed decisions and issue appropriate orders.

Keeping Pace
We cannot avoid staying current with the new developments fielded by our Allies. We can not allow ourselves to become “orphans” on the battlefield who are dependent upon other armies to provide intelligence and information. This will involve more cooperative programs, stronger liaisons with our Allies, and the overturning of the attitude of procurement that provides the Canadian Forces with a lesser capable weapons or support system because it seems to be “good enough.”

Sustained Investment
Although one can always find skeptics regarding defence procurement, the recent government announcement of a National shipbuilding strategy, which envisions a significant building program over an extended period of time, is a very positive step. Given the expenses to date and the on-line downstream investments in technology acquisition by the involved marine industries, it is unthinkable that any government would cancel the program.

Global Threats
Much of the Canadian public is now aware of the modern world’s threats and the potential for foreign and domestic conflict perpetrated by relatively small ideological driven terrorist agencies. We know that existing police and security forces, while capable of breaking up and arresting small groups of terrorists, would call on the military in the event of a major terrorist attack. The Canadian military would form the shield and sword that the government would employ during such an attack.

Now What?
So what does the future hold for defence funding and procurement? From my vantage point, it will be a period of brisk activity with periods of growth that will be commensurate with increased domestic and international threats. Many of us wish we could turn the clock back 30 years to a simpler, safer time, but we cannot avoid the reality of the modern world by sticking our heads in the sand.

We’ve done before. We entered WWII with the firm opinion that it was gong to be a repeat of WWI. We had to relearn hard lessons once again as the Canadian government scrambled to acquire essential equipment and supplies.

The same occurred with the end of the “Cold War” when the government of the day took an unwarranted Peace Dividend.

We cannot afford yet another post-conflict grab of fiscal resources and the imposition of new constraints.

What we need, to protect our nation and our international obligations, is just the opposite – a “Defence Dividend” which will protect the recent gains made in re-equipping the Canadian Military.
Rob Day, a military historian, is a regular contributor to FrontLine.
© FrontLine Defence 2011