Monday, January 16, 2006

Harper's Defence "Plan"

(Full disclosure: I am a former member of the navy/military, having served in naval and special forces culminating in command. I have been committed to combat, peacekeeping and domestic security operations and, at a senior level, have served as a member of Canadian and British forces and as an attached member of US forces.)

The Conservative Party of Canada's plan for national defence is interesting. (PDF page 45). On the surface, in all honesty, it looks pretty good. I don't know any senior member of the Canadian Forces who would argue with much of it. There's only one problem: it's not really a plan.

Most of what the CPC is offering is already underway. There is little in there that the Liberals under Martin haven't already started or at least gotten onto the priority list. The Conservative product then grabs all of that and then tosses in some ideas of dubious merit. In fact, it is not a Defence Plan; it is a cobbling together of ideas.

The Conservative idea for Arctic sovereignty has some points of merit. It is also very poorly thought out. The Arctic National Sensor System is a good idea. To be able to do it within the budget Harper proposes is something else again. Planting fixed acoustic arrays in the Arctic is a completely different trick than doing it off the Grand Banks or even in the Pacific Deeps. In fact, Canada does not presently have the ability to monitor its open water column much less the ice cap. The Conservative focus on the Arctic fails to address the reality of Canada's Pacific and Atlantic ocean frontiers.

Harper is promising $2 billion for the establishment of an Arctic naval base and three armed naval ice-breakers. Interesting. In fact, I know of at least three Canadian admirals who are writhing in orgasmic ecstasy over the idea. Too bad. The idea of a year round arctic base has been around since the 1960s. Harper should look into why it's never happened. $2 billion won't begin to cover the cost of the proposal. Three armed ice-breakers, if construction was ending today, large enough to handle a role into the ice pack and with sufficient sea-keeping qualities, will run at least $850 million apiece, assuming their armament is much reduced from that of existing frigates. That leaves $45 million for a full facility, deep-water, year-round port at Iqaluit on Baffin Island. Since the proposal from Iqaluit was for a $49 million port, the Conservative estimate falls short. The dollars discussed are for "economy" models of everything. The Iqaluit deep-water port proposal does not include a comprehensive ship repair facility, harbour maintenance or logistic organization. Add more millions. The ships would have to go to Halifax or Esquimalt for extended maintenance and those ship repair facilities would have to be expanded and fitted-out to accept whatever class of ship gets built. Add more millions. Harper would not discuss armament. The easy answer to that question is, he doesn't have a clue. This idea was pulled from the air and will go precisely nowhere.

The establishment of a renewed airborne battalion to be stationed at Trenton is also interesting. It is intended to dovetail with the plan to increase sovereignty in the Arctic. That makes it a problem. Trenton isn't in the Arctic. The intention is to air deploy the entire battalion and drop them in. And then what? Unless there is a means to reinforce and resupply an airborne drop from the ground, an air dropped force will not survive. Since this plan is in place of actually stationing a battalion in the north, it looks more like a political carrot offered to the Trenton region than a realistic option for Arctic sovereignty. A battalion present would be much more effective than a battalion in being.

Whether the CF should actually reconstitute the Airborne is a whole other question. (See update below). Existing battalions retain "jump companies". The Canadian Airborne Regiment was, arguably, a quasi-special-forces unit. When Gordon O'Connor, the CPC defence critic, was questioned why the need existed when JTF-2 exists, he answered, "JTF 2 is to deal with terrorism. The airborne regiment is intended to protect Canadian sovereignty." O'Connor, a retired Brigadier General, should know better. JTF-2 has expanded significantly, is NOT strictly a counter-terrorism unit and has full special forces capability.

The concept of an army training centre at Cambridge Bay is a good idea, however since this was accompanied with virtually no information, it defies comment. Perhaps someone from the CPC will elaborate, but I suspect this is little more than a political offering for Cambridge Bay.

The announcement of establishing territorial battalions in Canadian cities is another attempt to use defence as a political offer. The term is stolen from the British army and this is a false implication of financial benefit to major centres. Harper identified 5 cities which would receive at least 100 regular force personnel and 400 reservists. On the surface it appears there would be an increase of 500-plus regular force personnel just for Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg and Toronto. He also said "other major centres", but didn't identify them later. What he didn't say is that those cities already have naval, army and air-force reserve units lodged in them. The increase in regular force personnel would be about 70 per city. The reserve units regularly fall short of permitted strength through normal recruiting. Even the attempt at 90/10 mixed regular and reserve battalions fell short of their recruiting goal in the 1990s. While I would applaud any attempt to increase armed service visibility in Canada, this idea isn't going to do it. Harper either has no idea of how the current CF reserve is constituted or he's deliberately misleading us.

Harper has proposed a rapid reaction regular force army battalion lodged at Comox. Good idea, bad idea. BC should have a regular battalion and I understand the simplistic approach to lodging them next to an air base. However, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the existing infrastructure. Comox may get a sudden economic boost, but has no place to put them. Better to put that battalion in Nanaimo where it can be moved using wheeled, sea or air transport. This idea needs to be reworked.

Most of the rest of Harper's so-called plan is pretty good. It should be; it's already being done. He's offering a greater increase in strength, but if he becomes government that will change. He's talking about a 13,000 person increase in the regular force. Given the economy as it is now, and the mythical economy he suggests he will create, I question where those people will come from. When a person can get a good job on the economy, the armed forces tends not to be a career choice and the recruiting pool is extremely limited... unless he intends to reduce the standards, and that would be a disaster.

One final note. Since Harper has adopted the mantle of the Conservative Party and allows the designation of "Tory", he can wear the can for past tory governments. Conservatives are famous for their lofty promises and equally as famous for breaking them. They consistently offer what the country cannot afford and then leave the service with nothing. It was a Conservative government which scrapped the Avro Arrow and it was a Conservative government which forced the navy to spend valuable time and money developing a nuclear submarine program, (for Arctic sovereignty), and then cancelled it. It was the Conservatives who so indebted the country that a cross-government budget-cut put the CF at odds with its operations. (I could add that the only time I have had to go into hot combat was when a Conservative government sent me, but I'll take personal responsibility for that. I volunteered.)

Update: As reader Boris pointed out, there is already a special regiment being formed under prior legislation by the government. This more than nullifies the Conservative promise to reconstitute the Canadian Airborne Regiment. In fact, under the Liberal plan, there will be an entire Special Forces Command. The Conservative plan is now reduced to a political promise of pork to the Trenton area in an effort to buy votes.

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