We read the stories in the news all the time, an economic downturn forces more folks to use food banks even as the economy causes donations to dry up. Images of shelves, picked bare by those simply trying to survive, feature prominently. Those images bring the problem into a stark reality, you cannot provide support if you lack assets.
The military of a nation is no different in its inability to use assets it does not have. In time of emergency, the military reaches into the cupboard, and if that cupboard is bare it then tries to accomplish the mission in any way it can. We can be proud of the Canadian Forces in the way it has learned to make do, the ability to get the job done. We need to recognize though that we are approaching a dangerously low level of capabilities. The cupboard is more often bare then well stocked. Canada, as a country, is using our allies as a food bank. Were we a poor country, barely able to meet our domestic needs, this might be acceptable. Canada is not a poor country though, we are a G7 nation that has a sizeable economic capacity even in a major downturn.
We can, we must, do better. We must make sure that the cupboard is not bare, that in time of need the Canadian Forces can reach for its assets and meet the needs of the nation.
Looking back at history, we see Canada in World War 2, a small country that entered the war with limited military production and an even smaller military. Six years later the country fielded a powerful military backed by a vibrant manufacturing sector. Heady growth and evidence that if the world erupts in flames Canada can rise to the challenge. That growth also provided Canada with the tools that would allow our nation to step up onto the world stage in peacekeeping and international aid.
Heady indeed, much of the legacy of what made Canada great in the second half of the 20th Century was harvested from the seeds of that growth. It is a false narrative though to suggest that we could do it again. The pace of changing world situations has accelerated. Whether it is a response to a natural disaster, a need for humanitarian aid or even a military crisis, we have to acknowledge that Canada will have to meet those challenges with what is on the shelf. That shelf is now dangerously bare.
The Right Honourable Pierre Trudeau was the last Prime Minister to see to it that the cupboard of the Canadian Forces was not bare. It is hard for a conservative- thinking person such as myself to admit that. PM Trudeau made a plethora of poor decisions regarding that military, but at a basic level… he refused to leave the cupboard bare.
PM Mulroney would investigate acquiring nuclear submarines (SSN’s), and scrapped plans for the final batch of six Halifax-class frigates in order to find funding. And yet, when the SSN acquisition fell flat, the final six frigates were not restored. Nor were the plans to stretch six of the frigates by 10 metres taken up, had that been done it is quite possible those stretched frigates could have been refit to replace our aging destroyers.
The replacement of Canada’s naval tankers also dates back to the Mulroney era, as does our shipboard helicopters. Both programs would stagnate, twenty years later little has been produced but rhetoric.
Nor should we assume that only the Navy has suffered, the Air Force Search And Rescue (SAR) helicopters will soon be given a mid-life update. That update will see the choppers finally reach the capabilities intended from the beginning. Fixed-wing SAR aircraft have been a priority replacement for a decade, and we still don’t know what we will buy. Replacement of the Snowbirds air demonstration aircraft has languished to the point where the Breitling Jet Team, a civilian operation, now flies more modern types. The Army has fared little better, and the state of the Canadian Coast Guard is beyond description.
Current plans to recapitalise the Canadian Forces and the Coast Guard look impressive. Yet dig deeper and there are major holes. Many of the major vessels of the Coast Guard are not scheduled for replacement. Plans for RCN ships and RCAF aircraft seem to be set on minimum levels of capacity, we are going to buy the fewest number of assets we can get away with.
The cupboard is bare. Our plans to restock are minimalist. In time of need we are running the risk that there will not be assets available. Will Canadians understand that we are not helping more in a humanitarian crisis or natural disaster because we didn’t build the capacity? Will our allies understand when a military crisis stretches our military?
It is perhaps ironic that once again we will see if a Prime Minister named Trudeau will refuse to leave the cupboard bare.