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Canada’s Position on the Use of Force Internationally

Thoughts on the Future of the Canadian Forces

Major-General Andrew Leslie, OMM, MSC, MSM, CD, MA, is a doctoral candidate at the Royal Military College. He has command experience at regimental, brigade, area, contingent and joint task force levels in domestic and international operations.

In democratic nations, governments have a responsibility to defend their citizens from dangers, both foreign and domestic. According to Canada’s first published and very recent National Security Policy, "there can be no greater role, no more important obligation for a government, than the safety and protection of its citizens."1 In terms of absolute results the Canadian historical record in protecting its soil from the ravages of war has been exemplary, at least in comparison to the vast majority of our international friends and allies. Over the years, many hundreds of thousands of Canadians have served their country honorably and well in defending the nation, both at home and abroad, as members of Canada’s armed forces. Our country has taken a great deal of pride in their exploits, most recently on those occasions when they have served to prevent the outbreak of war in far away lands, very often under appalling conditions.

Recent events and tragedies around the globe are indicative of a period of sustained and dramatic changes to the international security context, and a lot of Canadians may be unsure as to the way ahead for members of our profession of arms. What is certain is that more changes are coming, and that a globally connected Canada will be a part of those changes, like it or not. And though Canadians are growing increasingly aware and sensitive to the dangers that lurk in the international context.2 A variety of ‘tough calls’ and new ways of thinking about Canada’s defence requirements will be called for in the coming months and years, in order to better protect Canadians against the new threats facing our nation, both at home and abroad.

The aim of this article is contribute some ideas to the long standing professional debate on the future of the Canadian Forces and the requirement to ensure that Canada’s security needs are met in an increasingly dangerous and complicated World. Without getting into any specific details, some broad suggestions will be offered as to the possible way ahead for the Canadian Forces. It is hoped these will generate discussion, commentary and criticism, all of which will allow those interested in the debate to exchange ideas and learn from each other.

The Winds of Change

As mentioned earlier, there is a strong belief amongst internationalists and security experts that things have significantly changed. The tragedies and horrors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath are well known, as is the end of the Cold War and the resulting period of relative instability and international chaos that gives every indication of growing worse with each passing year. What is less well understood are the causes that led to these new global conditions, and the long-term impacts of the various responses and solutions that are under active consideration or prosecution by a variety of our friends, allies and trading partners. There appear to be new challenges, new threats, and new security concerns. Globalization, the growing gap between the rich and poor nations, ruthless and predatory warlords whose only interest is in seizing or keeping power, fanaticism, corruption, new information and transportation technologies, banditry, the spread of horrors such as weapons of mass destruction, environmental disasters….the list is almost as long as one might wish to make it.3 And while very few of these problems are new to those who have studied some history, what is new is that their results can have a dramatic and immediate impact on both Canada’s social development and quality of life – a direct national priority – and our security, which, until recently, most Canadians may have taken for granted.

In the past, security was often thought of as a largely military affair. In today’s complicated and sometimes bewildering world, security has become a much broader issue. Many of the potential threats to Canada’s security are non-military in nature, and with the changing times have come an understanding that any defence "demands the involvement of all elements of society in a way in which security in the Cold War did not."4 Patterns of behavior and beliefs about sovereignty, economics, national interests, national values, social development, the willingness to help others, a drive towards democratic institutions and representational government, the rule of law, quality of life, human rights and national culture are all parts of the larger equation of security requirements and potential solutions.5

Canada’s standard of living is amongst the highest in the world, and our social programs necessitate a rich and dynamic economy to sustain them. We are a trading nation, with roughly 80 per cent of our international trade and 40 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product tied to the relatively free flow of goods to and from the Unites States.6 What affects the American economy will also affect us. In much smaller measures, the same is true for the European Union and some of the voraciously expanding economies in the Far East. To put this in terms that can be readily understood, one in four Canadian jobs is based upon international trade.7 Both the US and European Union are massive trading entities, whose commercial interests are truly global in scale. The rich, industrialized nations are increasingly interconnected, not only with each other but with many nations that are suffering the direct effects of the very worst of the new security challenges, as discussed earlier. What happens in a far away place can and will have an immediate financial impact at home, more so than ever before. A 5 per cent reduction in international trade could cost Canada billions of tax dollars that the various levels of governments use to fund our social development and quality of life programs. To use a specific example, a 15 per cent reduction could wipe out the equivalent funding for a significant portion of our health care system.8 A 30 per cent reduction is almost beyond talking about in polite company.

The point is that those things that interest us most, as Canadians, are extraordinarily fragile and vulnerable to what happens elsewhere in our world. It is in our national interest to assist our friends, allies and trading partners in bringing social progress and eventual stability to those less fortunate than us, wherever we can, through whatever means we can, if our quality of life and standards of living are to be maintained. Canada has evolved into a sophisticated and wealthy trading nation whose economy is inextricably linked with global markets, and by whatever index one might wish to use the long term historical trend of our international contributions of soldiers, civilians and funds to help others – so that we help ourselves – is not as robust as one might think,9 although there have been some recent and focused successes such as in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Some Ideas on the Way Ahead

As most nations are naturally quite parsimonious when it comes time to decide where, and how much, they can afford to spend to assist others, it would seem to make sense that Canada carefully choose a few selected areas or countries in which our military, diplomatic and developmental help would benefit us and our principal trading partners the most. And we should focus our resources – people, time and money – accordingly.10 The planning for such efforts should be long term and strategic in nature, as the aim is to help ourselves by helping others. All too often our international efforts (military and civilian, time and money) have been a kilometer wide and a centimeter deep, which is a short term approach that caters to the many special interest groups that make up Canada’s international assistance community. But there is no discernable evidence to prove that this scattered approach is particularly successful, although there have been many localized and heartwarming victories. Though it sounds remarkably simplistic, some of the greatest strategists have told us that concentration of effort and selection and maintenance of the aim are keys to eventual victory,11 and one can make the argument that our current, diffuse tactics are not working very well.

The idea of focusing a significant portion of our national contributions to international aid and development may well cause shivers from various groups and narrowly specialized organizations that are relatively comfortable with the status quo,12 but the changing nature of the security threats facing Canada would seem to demand a change in approach on how we help solve the bigger international issues of failed states, despotic warlords, appalling violations of human rights, and the responsibility to protect the defenseless. Some thought should be given to enhancing the coordination of the many key agents before a Canadian mission is launched; to concentrate the effort to maximize the impact. The defence, diplomacy, development and trade (3D + T) concept reflects the nascent stages of a ‘whole of Government approach,’ and it worked very well in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan in 2003/2004. The net should be spread wider to include all those International and Non-Governmental organizations (IOs and NGOs) that receive Canadian taxpayer dollars. Some of them are ferociously independent and their leadership might well bristle at the idea of someone attempting to coordinate their efforts,13 but the aim should be to get the best value for the taxpayer dollar as possible. The overall objectives of the humanitarian mission should reflect the goals and objectives of the Canadian Government, especially if they are the ones who are contributing most of the money. In the absence of vast additional sums for defence, diplomacy and development we have very little choice but to think outside our current boxes and there is no discernable proof that the Canadian electorate is willing to accept a significant decline in social programs to help unfortunate others in far away lands.14

With respect to the Canadian Forces, a logical and realistic solution would appear to be predicated upon modest, flexible, well-equipped and superbly trained military forces that are capable of two interconnected activities, namely, domestic and international operations. The emphasis within each of these two activities should be somewhat different than in the past. Several examples spring to mind, but it might be appropriate to choose one from each of the environmental services – while reminding ourselves that the army, air force and navy do many things apart from the following activities. An admittedly simplistic explanation of previous, Cold War imperatives of the 1950 to 1990 period had the army worried about killing large numbers of tanks somewhere in Europe; the air force focused on detecting and shooting down other manned, high performance military aircraft; and the navy working hard on the challenges of finding and destroying enemy submarines. There is no doubt that these skill sets and capabilities will still be required so as to ensure a certain range of interoperability with our allies, and to maintain the government’s range of force employment options well into an uncertain future. After all, who can reliably predict what will happen in 2020 and beyond, and the US may not remain the only superpower for long.15 It can take 15 years (and sometimes more) to introduce sophisticated new equipment into the Canadian Forces – this is another issue, one that points towards the need to rethink how Canada produces its defence capabilities, but well beyond the scope of this paper – but it underlines that one has to think through very carefully the implications of throwing something away. Once a capability is gone it can take many years to reacquire the equipment, and years after that before the people are fully trained so that they have a fighting chance to do their duty in defence of the nation. But what degree of emphasis – which translates into people, time and money – do these or other activities currently deserve? Can they be used for something else that is related to a contemporary domestic or international mission, and does it make operational or financial sense to do so? In an increasingly complex and interconnected world, the threat has changed. As that threat changes, so should our emphasis on how to best employ the very finite resources available to defend the nation.

For the reasons of sovereignty and economic stability, as discussed earlier, the first priority of the Canadian Forces should be those capabilities dedicated to the defence of Canada and North America, with an emphasis on providing the surveillance and "teeth" within the larger context of Canada’s domestic security strategy. Particular attention and specialized capabilities to cover the air and maritime approaches to the nation would seem to be of paramount importance, especially when one considers the established trading patterns and the potential threats, as would the ability to interoperate with the military forces of the Americans, with whom we should be working even more closely. Closer integration would increase efficiency, minimize the blind spots and, to be blunt, enhance the ability to react should something go very badly wrong – while maintaining sovereignty. Changes to the ways in which the Canadian domestically focused forces are organized, controlled, trained, and equipped would appear to be in order, as the current mechanisms are, of necessity, products of the Cold War, and may not be as joint and integrated with the supported civilian agencies as they could be. Within this domestically focused force the army reserve component – the Militia – might emulate the model already established by the naval and air reserves, who are assigned specific and important roles, responsibilities and equipment to accomplish their assigned tasks. As the reserves are already located in hundreds of Canadian communities, perhaps they should be the first military responders for when the next disaster – be it man-made or natural – comes our way, while still maintaining a crucial capability to help the regular army on international missions.

The argument that focused efforts, across the spectrum of national capabilities, are more important than ever before is as valid for the military as for any other agency. Any military contribution to international operations must be seen as one more tool in the box of capabilities that Canada, in conjunction with her friends and allies, would bring to bear on the crisis.16 What a focused military can provide is security and the ability to protect those who are unarmed or vulnerable, allowing the civilian experts to get on with the difficult work of social reconstruction or humanitarian assistance, and to do this they need superbly trained and effective ‘boots on the ground.’ Lots of them, and the more the better. What the international community should try to avoid is the temptation to accept contributions of poorly trained, poorly equipped soldiers who are unable to prevent themselves being locked into their compounds, hostages to the local warlords – having said this, organizations such as the United Nations can only pick from among the military forces that have been offered by the respective nations, and Canada’s participation in United Nations missions has been declining for some time though, to be fair, our participation within active NATO missions has been rising. The days of a blue United Nations helmet acting as a guarantor of invulnerability and credibility to lightly equipped international forces are long gone.17 More often than not, the deployed military forces in contemporary operations have to be equipped and ready to fight – if they look tough and are tough, walk softly but firmly, are well equipped with a wide range of combat power, and the rules of engagement are sufficiently robust and flexible to nip incipient problems in the bud before they can explode out of control, the hope is that lethal force may not have to be used – at least, not much.18 Hope, however, is not a recommended planning method.18

A disorganized and poorly armed intervention or security force, thrown into the midst of ruthless warlords and hideously complicated venues – within local circumstances where respect for individual rights, due process or even the value of human lives are at a minimum – is asking for nothing but trouble. And the local thugs and predators, some of them armed with weapons ranging from suicide bombers to main battle tanks and heavy artillery,19 will be only too happy to provide that trouble if they believe they can get away with it. Using the analogy of a helping hand, the political leaders and diplomats are extending the hand. The civilian humanitarian and development experts are the open palm. The international military forces in stabilization or crisis response missions are the steel fist, wrapped in a covering of respect and understanding of the local culture and a detailed knowledge of what has to be done to provide security. In this context, security has a variety of interwoven dimensions. One is defensive, or relatively passive. The other is offensive, or relatively aggressive. How much of the steel is exposed, and in which dimension, depends upon the local circumstances, on a day-by-day basis. What is clear is that the ability to deliver precise, carefully controlled and deadly combat power is more important than ever before in this era of fourth generation warfare,20 which is a blend of the political, economic, social, military and technological skills used in unconventional operations to establish whatever the conditions for success might be. As an aside, who is to say that the whole paradigm of conventional versus unconventional warfare will not reverse itself, where the majority of Western military forces of the future will be equipped, organized and trained to fight a terrorist or insurgent foe as matter of routine? It might only be when called for by a very specific mission that they would organize to fight a large standing army. The conventional threat might be the terrorists and insurgents, and the unconventional the massed military formations of anybody silly enough to present such a target-rich environment to the devastating abilities of modern military forces.21

Canadians, both uniformed and civilian, have historically proven themselves to be particularly good at the sorts of complex and dangerous stabilization missions that require superbly trained and robust ‘boots on the ground.’ In the absence of almost unlimited funding, it would seem to make sense to focus on an activity at which the nation excels, and for which there is an ever increasing demand. The Chief of Land Staff has articulated the US Marine Corps concept of a three-block war as a guiding concept for the Canadian Army.22 In one block of a city the ground forces are fighting terrorist or warlords that have been preying on the local residents. In the second block, they are patrolling with local security forces and helping them keep order. In the third block, they are providing security and helping humanitarian relief agencies with hundreds of refugees or displaced persons. This concept is equally applicable to air and maritime assets within their respective domains.

For example, a Joint Support Ship could be floating offshore, providing readily deployed, self contained command and control facilities and logistical support to the ground troops, while an escorting frigate is boarding local vessels and checking for terrorists or contraband weapons.23 Meanwhile, another frigate may have just launched a surface-to-surface weapon to destroy a cave entrance that shelters murderers that refuse to surrender to a combined team of local and international ground forces. Overhead, a very large transport aircraft is engaging in a humanitarian relief flight bringing much needed medicines donated by a Canadian pharmaceutical company to the locals, while a heavy helicopter provides a lift to a civilian medical team from a Canadian-funded Non-Governmental Organization that has to get up into the mountains to help some wounded farmers. A smaller, more agile and robust helicopter is escorting the Canadian Ambassador and the International Coalition Commander – who is a Canadian, as Canada has focused its international contributions into a couple of mission areas, and is one of the largest force contributors to this particular mission – to a critical meeting with some local power brokers.

The point behind these fictitious examples is to argue that the Canadian Forces have to think and operate as a single entity with air, land and naval assets working as a joint team, both at home and abroad. They have to learn how to work even more closely with all of the elements that can help in achieving the Canadian government’s objectives, as well as those of whatever international coalition we may choose to work with. The days of the three traditional environmental services operating in relative isolation from each other, with the air force acting as the supporting bridge between the army and navy, have to come to an end. This implies changes to the command and control mechanisms, to the way the Canadian Forces equips and trains its teams, and even in the way they are educated and view the profession of arms within the larger political and social context in which they will have operate, both at home and overseas.


The threats to Canada and Canadians have changed, and the Canadian Forces will have to evolve to meet these emerging dangers, both at home and abroad. There is no proof that the Canadian electorate is convinced that security has precedence over social programs, and it is fair to assume that democratic governments do what the electorate wants them to do. It must, therefore, be further assumed that any additional resources for the Canadian Forces will be augmented in graduated, incremental doses. The inference is that the Canadian Forces will have to initiate whatever changes they can largely from within existing funds – hopefully somewhat enhanced – which points to the need for tough and determined leadership that will lead to some structural and procedural changes, internal reallocations, and the possible elimination or reduction of systems and infrastructure that is no longer vital to deal with the new security challenges that we, as a nation, might face in the future.

The challenges will be immense, especially if one agrees with the idea that the average Canadian may still want more ‘butter than guns,’ where social programs trump security issues. It is enormously difficult to change large and complex organizations at the best of times, and even more so when the day-to-day business of defence and security has to continue without significant interruption. When combined with the inevitable funding pressures and natural resistance to change from all types of interested observers and participants, life within the Canadian Forces is going to become even more interesting than before. Still, the future looks a lot brighter than it was, because for the first time in decades the funding for the Canadian Forces has risen for several years in a row; and there is every indication that this trend will continue. The key, of course, is whether there will be a long-term commitment from all the interested stakeholders for continued and sustained investments into the military instrument, which is a vital component of fulfilling a nation’s ultimate responsibility to its citizens. "There can be no greater role, no more important obligation for a government, than the safety and protection of its citizens." We live in fascinating times.

End Notes

1. Securing an Open Society: Canada’s National Security Policy. (Ottawa: Privy Council Office, Government of Canada online at April 2004), p. vii.

2. The Security Monitor, ‘Understanding Shifting Attitudes Towards Risk.’

3. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., "US Power and Strategy After Iraq," in Foreign Affairs, Volume 82, Number 4 (New York: July/August 2003), pp. 60-73.

4. Christopher Donnelly, "Security in the 21st Century: New Challenges and New Responses," (CND Final, 21.05.2003), p. 4/14.

5. Ibid, pp. 4/14 – 5/14.

6. Cohen, While Canada Slept, pp. 109-111.

7. Ibid, p. 109.

8. Ibid. Canada trades about $C 800 Billion worth of imports and exports per year. 15% of this figure would be $120 Billion. The potential implications are staggering.

9. Cohen, While Canada Slept, pp. 175-178.

10. Jennifer Welsh, At Home in the World: Canada’s Global Vision for the 21st Century, (Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2004.), pp. 21-23.

11. Sun-tzu, The Art of War, Translated by Ralph D. Sawyer, (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1994), pp. 134 and 138-140.

12. Cohen, While Canada Slept, pp. 173-175.

13. This comment is based on the author’s personal experiences on a variety of international missions. The concepts of independence and autonomy for a large number of International and Non-Governmental Organizations are crucial, as they do not wish to be identified with any military or armed group, thus preserving their absolute neutrality and credibility with all local elements. Having said this, civilian aid worker are now victims of choice for some terrorists/warlords/insurgents, as they represent ‘soft’ targets that will generate enormous publicity when they are attacked. If they can be intimidated into withdrawing from the mission area, the appearance is that the terrorists/warlords/insurgents are gaining the upper hand. In fourth generation warfare (see footnote 42), perception can be as important as reality.

14. Welsh, At Home in the World, pp. 175-176.

15. Evan S. Medeiros and M. Taylor Fravel, "China’s New Diplomacy" in Foreign Affairs, Volume 82, Number 6 (New York: November/December 2003), pp. 22-35.

16. David Eaves (lead author), Canada 25. From Middle Power to Model Power: Recharging Canada’s Role in the World, (Toronto: Published by Canada25, 2004), pp. 31-32.

17. Numerous examples exist. In one, the author was a member of the United Nations force in the Former Yugoslavia. During the heavy fighting of August 1995 in and around Knin, a rebel stronghold, the lightly equipped blue beret forces were essentially powerless and many people died. This particular mission failed.

18. Some contributing nations, usually those with limited international experience, may not understand that stabilization or intervention forces may have to be prepared to fight to protect the weak and the innocent. One of the most difficult and delicate tasks an international force has is in trying to determine what contributing nations will actually allow their respective forces to be used for.

19. To use but one example, various warlords had hundreds of heavy weapons in and around Kabul in 2003/2004 (tanks and artillery) until they were removed and placed into ISAF/NATO monitored cantonment sites.

20. Thomas X. Hammes, Strategic Forum, "Insurgency: Modern Warfare Evolves into a Fourth Generation," No. 214, pp. 1-3. First generation warfare was dominated by massed manpower, reaching its peak during the Napoleonic Wars. The Second generation was dominated by firepower, culminating in the First World War. The Third generation was dominated by manoeuvre as originated in the Second World War, reaching its peak during Desert Storm. For further information see

21. Max Boot, "The New American Way of War" in Foreign Affairs, Volume 82, Number 4 (New York: July/August 2003), pp. 41-58.

22. Lieutenant-General Richard Hillier, Chief of Land Staff, at an Army Conference in Ottawa, Canada in October 2003.

23. At the risk of stating the obvious, this scenario might not be applicable in some circumstances. For example, Afghanistan is landlocked.