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Mission impossible: The crisis of Canada's military

By Jackson Murphy
web posted April 12, 2004

There are scarcely 3,500 Canadian troops serving on various missions around the planet currently. There are about 1,800 in Afghanistan, about 750 in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 425 in Haiti, another 250 fighting in the War on Terror, and the rest scattered on 10 other missions around the globe.Yet the Canadian Prime Minister has just informed the public that because of those commitments, "our forces are stretched very very thin" and likely won't be able to help protect the United Nations in Iraq as the country transitions to civilian rule.

Canada's military: Dying from neglect
Dying from neglect

The problem is that Canada's military has been so run down, for so long, that managing even the most basic contributions to worthy international missions is becoming increasingly a "Mission Impossible". On the one hand it should be commended that Mr. Martin won't write checks that our military cannot cash. On the other hand the situation and state of affairs in our armed forces has become one so embarrassing that it cannot simply be ignored. This is not to say that our troops aren't professional and able soldiers. Far from it, but it is true that our political leadership has spent the better part of the last quarter century sending them on missions without properly equipping them-continually asking them to do more with less.

Now, in Prime Minister Martin's defense, he is quite right not to commit troops to another mission at this time. It is almost refreshing to see the leadership admit when it can no longer commit troops, however troubling that realization may be. And judging by the situation in Iraq right now the mission wouldn't be an easy one anyway. The government's latest budget makes no foreword thinking attempt to imagine that anything new might come on the horizon. It outlays cash for maintaining the current operations in Afghanistan and Haiti but little else. The world is arguably more dangerous than it was five years ago, and Canada has failed to spend even the bare minimum to deal with a changing world.

As J.L. Granatstein notes in his new book, Who Killed the Canadian Military? the Canadian Forces simply cannot keep up with the "operational tempo" that the government has demanded in the past decade. "In 1999, before the Afghanistan operation, Canada had some 4,500 troops abroad, or some 7 percent of the force's nominal strength of 60,000 and 8.25 percent of its actual trained strength of just under 54,000," writes Granatstein. "By the beginning of 2002 the Canadian Forces had 1,600 troops in Bosnia and more than 2.500 in Operation Apollo, the Afghanistan mission."

No wonder a Senate committee in 2002 recommended that Canada recall all of its soldiers for two years and infuse the military with an immediate $4 billion to revive the forces. What this tells us is that in the past five years with a relatively consistent amount of troops in the field, Canada has been and remains completely incapable of dealing with any potential crisis. Previous and current governments expanding Canada's role in the world while simultaneously eroding the resources given, now find the Canadian Forces, and Canada itself, completely unprepared and unprotected.

The story of the deteriorating Canadian Military doesn't end there. Members of our top special forces unit, the JTF 2, are leaving the forces to join lucrative private security firms now at work in Iraq. The National Post splashes juicy front page headlines declaring, "Petite, aggressive European nation dares fly its flag over Hans Island" which tell of the problems Canada has exerting even the simplest amount of sovereignty over our sprawling territory. It is discomforting that we can't even stare down a smaller nation like Denmark over a deserted northern island. But it is down right scary that Denmark can send a ship into our waters, lay claim to that island, and we don't even know about until much later.

While the Post may have overblown the Hans Island situation, the paper rightly exposed that the military, already strapped for cash by the tune of $635 million this year alone, has to spend some $50 million on various projects including a soil erosion investigation at one particular Canadian Forces base. And then there is the question of the Canadian citizen being held hostage in Iraq? Canada is currently negotiating his safe release but what, if anything, could Canada realistically do about it, or heaven forbid if there was ever a larger more complex crisis?

These problems underscore a tragic new reality, one where Canada's international irrelevance is both shocking and inevitable. "Today, Canada has proportionately the smallest, least well-equipped army in the developed world," writes Peter Worthington in the Toronto Sun. "As far as our national security is concerned, the anti-militarists are right - we don't need a military. If we face grave danger from some alien invader, the Americans will protect us for their own security reasons."

If the Canadian Forces are incapable of addressing immediately a dispute in our own back yard then it is inconceivable that simply because we have 3,500 troops overseas we can't participate in anything else regardless of want or necessity.

Undoubtedly Canada doesn't have enough men and women in uniform, and worse it lacks the equipment and resources to participate in any meaningful way abroad. This story isn't something new, but an increasingly dangerous world may have finally helped to expose the continuing crisis in Canada's military. The answer to this problem isn't to shrug our shoulders and stop participating in world affairs. The answer is to quickly rebuild the military and retake our position as a leading nation.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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