In the past, shield-shaped North America has largely lived up to this geographical representation as a continent that has always enjoyed natural defensive qualities. Bounded on three sides by vast oceans, and in some cases rugged and desolate terrain, one has to reach back more than 200 years to encounter a conflict where foreign powers struggled for dominance on the interior of the continent.
Since that time, both the United States and Canada have been engaged in two world wars, and an American Civil War, among numerous other conflicts — but few have managed to scar the face of the continent itself, largely fought either on the periphery or in foreign locales around the globe.
Considering that perceived disconnection from immediate military threat by virtue of our geographical barriers, it has become easy for us to forget that these barriers have become less formidable in the 21st century, as nations grapple with borderless terrorism, missile delivery systems become more and more accurate and deadly, as pilotless drones remove the human element from conflict and disconnect the ‘button-pusher’ from the consequences of their actions — we must be ready to accept that old notions of what is entailed for the defence of a nation might not always be the most prudent approach to national security.
This month, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is launching public consultations on a new review that will guide the future size of the Canadian military, their equipment and its targeted theatres of operation.
Perhaps tellingly, the report is expected to be tendered days before the 2017 federal budget, and Liberal promises of a “leaner, more agile” military have been viewed by some as a strong signal that big cuts could be just over the horizon.
Backing away from the Conservative-tainted, gaff-laden contract to secure F-35 fighter jets as a replacement for Canada’s aging fleet of F-18’s, the Liberals have already been eyeing less pricey choices, including the Boeing Super Hornet, with any cost savings to be passed on to the navy for completion of the Canadian Surface Combatant ship building program. Efficiencies are expected to be found in the military’s admittedly bloated bureaucracy, as well as reducing a heavy reliance on outside consultants and contractors, which costs Ottawa $2.7 billion annually. In the past, even under the Harper Conservatives, it was recommended to reduce Canada’s active military personnel from 66,000 to 50,000, as well as cutting an infantry company from each of Canada’s nine battalions.
There is little doubt that a limited re-shaping of Canada’s military to meet more 21st century threats, such as terrorism, or to play a more humanitarian role in conflict zones around the globe, is probably a reform that will meet resistance from top brass, but is nevertheless a necessary choice. However, if these choices result in a size-shrinking, increasingly toothless force incapable even of continental defence, serious questions will need to be asked about the road this will lead us down as the decades march forward.
After all, while the nature of war and conflict has certainly changed today, that doesn’t mean that old-school military threats have disappeared entirely. Putin’s new Russia appears to be back on the march in Eastern Europe, and has proven itself to be not unwilling to strongly challenge NATO’s authority in Syria, the Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and the Baltic. In the Orient, military powerhouse China has been stirring up trouble over territorial grabs in the South China Sea, while North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs are a focus of concern. Nuclear powers India and Pakistan are still poised — at any moment — to duke it out over disputed Kashmir. And this is only a few examples.
In our own backyard, Russia’s resurgence and increasing interest in the high Arctic — and our own largely token attempts to exert our sovereignty over the region — should not be dismissed as fantasy, while our NATO obligations will only suffer under a gutted military.
And the unspoken elephant in the room, that we need not spend too heavily on our own military considering our proximity and ties to military superpower the United States, is a gross dismissal of our own efforts to preserve our own sovereignty, and an embarrassing admission for a nation that usually enjoys punching far above our weight class in foreign policy circles.
While we look to streamline our military to address new and emerging threats, it’s important that as a military power we still maintain the ability to defend the country from old and existing ones.