Punching Below Our Weight

Mathew Preston
February 6, 2019
Wonder why China and Saudi Arabia are publicly berating Canada with seeming impunity these days? Well, who respects a country that is so blatantly unserious about defending itself, especially in a world where tensions are clearly rising among the major powers and their allies? As Ottawa prepares to take possession of some worn-out Australian F-18 fighters bought on the cheap, Mathew Preston undertakes a detailed comparison of Aussie and Canuck military capabilities and defence policy and comes up with mortifying answers to these questions.

Punching Below Our Weight

Mathew Preston
February 6, 2019
Wonder why China and Saudi Arabia are publicly berating Canada with seeming impunity these days? Well, who respects a country that is so blatantly unserious about defending itself, especially in a world where tensions are clearly rising among the major powers and their allies? As Ottawa prepares to take possession of some worn-out Australian F-18 fighters bought on the cheap, Mathew Preston undertakes a detailed comparison of Aussie and Canuck military capabilities and defence policy and comes up with mortifying answers to these questions.
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The Royal Canadian Navy was founded in 1910 with two hand-me-down cruisers from Britain’s Royal Navy. No longer would our young nation subcontract its security by indulging Mother Britain’s requests to subsidize construction of her own dreadnaught battleships. A formidable naval power soon grew out of that inauspicious beginning, and to this day our sailors celebrate the October 10 arrival in Canadian waters of the first of these used ships.

It was the last time Canada ever acquired such outdated foreign equipment – until this coming summer, when the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) will receive the first of 25 heavily used, 35-year-old F/A-18 Hornet fighter planes from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Few, if any, RCAF members will celebrate their arrival, now or ever. These castoffs – otherwise destined to be parked in some desert “boneyard” or perhaps sold to a Third World country – are being transferred to Canada to shore up our aging fighter squadrons while Australia makes room for state-of-the-art new fighters. The exchange starkly illustrates one nation’s ascent and another’s decline in the world.

Australia’s rise may be inevitable. It’s certainly necessary. As the focus of world power shifts from west to east, Australia needs to play a greater role – and it is stepping up, including in its clear willingness to bolster its military across the board. But Canada’s decline – partly due to neglect and partly, it seems, willful – is anything but preordained. Both countries were important if not key in the British wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries, played large and honourable roles in both world wars, and throughout the Cold War carried a sizeable burden – Canada in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, and Australia in the Pacific and Vietnam.

The outsized contribution of the two former colonies

The First World War helped drive each nation’s transcendence from colony to genuine nation born through battle – Canada at Vimy Ridge in France, Australia at Gallipoli in Turkey. In the Second World War each put an incredible 1 million of its people in uniform. Canada’s total was slightly higher than Australia’s, although Australia’s population was 4 million fewer. The Royal Canadian Navy ended the war with 434 commissioned vessels while the Australians had around 350 by war’s end. In the air, the Canadian Encyclopedia states, “By late 1944, the RCAF reached its peak as the fourth largest Allied air force with more than 215,000 personnel in uniform, including about 17,000 members of the Women’s Division.” Canada then flew the improbable-sounding total of 78 aircraft squadrons – approximately 1,000 aircraft, and many of the Allies’ leading air aces were Canadians. Australia claims the same fourth-place standing for the RAAF at the end of the war, but fielded fewer personnel, 185,000, in late 1944. Punching above their weight was a hallmark of both countries.

The Canadian Army currently has just 9 battalions totalling 7,200 combat-capable regular troops plus two smaller special forces units.

Even after the big postwar defence drawdowns, Canada maintained a substantial military capability. As recently as the late 1980s, during the final decade of the Cold War, the Canadian Armed Forces exceeded 100,000 personnel, with over 200 fighter aircraft, 114 then-top-of-the-line Leopard 1 tanks, enough combat battalions and regiments to field a full division during a shooting war, 12 state-of-the-art frigates, four aging but excellent refurbished destroyers and three submarines. Canada kept 10,000 front-line troops deployed in Germany as part of its standing NATO forces, with a further significant commitment to deploy to Norway in a crisis. Canada also played a key role in Cold War anti-submarine operations by helping to keep Soviet subs hemmed in.

But as the 21st century evolves and tensions mount among major powers and their allies, Canada’s military capability is continuing to decline not only against Australia’s, but pretty much everybody’s. Holland, for example, just received the first of its new F-35 stealth fighters.

The size of a nation’s military is never a direct measure of its ability to influence world affairs – but it doesn’t hurt. Canada’s “Golden Age” of diplomatic power came at a time when it fielded significant military capabilities – which even included nuclear weapons between 1963 and 1984. A commitment to a sizeable and capable military signifies how a nation sees its role in the world. With capability, a nation is part of the way to having power and influence on the world stage. A willingness to use its full range of national resources – including, as a last resort, its military capability – is the next element. And a demonstrable track record adds the final element, credibility – allowing a nation merely to hint at using its military forces for its influence to be felt. History has proven again and again that real power – including the power to do good – relies on far more than good intentions – or tweets. And that is to say nothing of the physical security a strong military provides to its nation’s territory, sovereignty and people. By these measures, Australia is clearly on its way to surpassing Canada as an influential middle power.

Rise of the red kangaroo

It is beyond cliché in Canadian defence circles to look to Australia while lamenting the failures of Canadian procurement policy. Australians, as evidenced by equipment quality and age, quite simply do it better – and have done so over and over. The RCAF is in a particularly dismal state compared to its counterpart down under. In January, the U.S.-based National Interest asked, Is Canada’s Air Force Dying? In expressing concern about the extra U.S. commitment that will be required if Canada cannot defend her own airspace, the piece was effectively a foreign version of domestic hand-wringing. The RCAF today has just 77 aged fighters operational (not counting the “new” Australian ones), while the RAAF plans to deploy 72 state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighters by 2023, has 24 Super Hornets (a vastly improved “Fourth Generation” version of the F/A-18) and a world-best aircraft for airborne surveillance and control (or “C4ISR” in abbreviated military jargon) in its six Wedgetails. Under the current state of affairs, Canada is virtually disarmed in the air, and the used Hornet purchase will do nothing to change that.

A Royal Australian Air Force E-7A Wedgetail surveillance aircraft.

On the positive side, Canada is about to embark on a major recapitalization of its navy. A contract has been awarded for a new advanced combat ship – the highly impressive, 7,000-tonne Type 26 frigate – the first Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship was launched last September, and the formerly problem-plagued Victoria-class submarines have been refurbished at last and are performing admirably in the Pacific theatre. But long-planned new supply ships are seven years late – without which a nation cannot project power far from a friendly port or sustain its naval forces for lengthy deployments. And the interim, initially successful supply ship solution is mired in a criminal trial that suggests that, in military procurement, process and regional politics are more important than outcomes to Canada’s federal bureaucracy and elected politicians.

The Royal Australian Navy, under that country’s record $90 billion defence recapitalization, is building no fewer than 12 new submarines, nine frigates, three state-of-the-art Hobart-class air warfare destroyers and a smaller class of patrol vessels that will be produced continuously to sustain a healthy shipbuilding industry. The latter plan is also integrated into Australia’s foreign aid strategy, as 13 of these vessels will be given to small Pacific island nations to bolster regional security and to help counter Chinese expansionism. In addition, Australia has a capability Canada only briefly consideredtwo amphibious assault ships. This level of power-projection signifies a serious commitment by a serious nation.

For its ground forces, the Canadian Army fields 23,000 regular personnel and 17,000 reservists, with 80 modern, German-made Leopard II tanks and 638 wheeled infantry fighting vehicles. Australia as of 2015 had 29,000 regular forces and 14,000 reservists, 59 tanks, and 1,052 infantry fighting vehicles, along with 22 attack helicopters, a capability Canada’s military has dreamed about for decades. While the personnel numbers sound meagre in themselves – especially compared to totals in previous eras, with Canada putting an entire army corps of three 12,000-man divisions ashore in Nazi-occupied France, for example – the numbers of actual combat-capable troops are even more worrisome. Canada today is down to three 800-member battalions of light infantry, six (also 800-strong) battalions of mechanized infantry, and two units of special forces, Joint Task Force 2 (there’s no Joint Task Force 1, 3, 4, etc.) and the Canadian Special Operations Regiment. The tip of Canada’s spear has become awfully small. It amounts to less than one armed, combat-capable soldier for every 1,200 square kilometres of Canada’s land mass (and that’s only if all positions were filled – which they’re not). While nations around the world are rearming, Canada’s barracks are full of empty bunks.

The growing discrepancy with Australia is all the more stark when considering that Canada has 12.5 million more people and a half-trillion-dollar GDP advantage. Not to mention 202,000 kilometres of coastline to monitor and defend, harbouring the world’s second-largest landmass – with the corresponding airspace. Plus the polar region threatened by a newly belligerent, rearming Russia, which compels Canada and the U.S. to jointly defend a vast airspace extending far beyond their sovereign borders. Unlike Australia, Canada sees constant probing of its air defences by the Russians.

A surprising political consensus vs. cynical vote-grubbing

Working further to Australia’s advantage is a durable political consensus in support of a strong defence policy, stemming largely from its geographical vulnerability. Australians live in a more dangerous part of the world and have always been far removed from their patron superpower, formerly Great Britain and now the United States. Some might argue that Canada, surrounded on three sides by huge and/or forbidding oceans, and implicitly protected by a continental neighbour who happens to have the strongest military on Earth, doesn’t need to worry much. But this is no excuse to disarm. Canada stands between the U.S. and both nations’ mutual adversaries. Russia’s bombers would have to approach Canada and their missiles would need to pass right over the country to strike at the U.S. And, while highly unlikely, were the Chinese or North Koreans to hurl missiles at the continental U.S., Canada would be in or near the flight path of any strike.

Australia takes its geographical security challenges seriously. Having learned bitter lessons from the depredations of fascist-ruled Japan in the 1930s and through the Second World War, Australia today is seeking to mitigate Chinese military aggression by bolstering the defences of a belt of small island nations lying between it and China. In so doing it is building up forward defences and creating strategic depth for itself. Canada’s security perimeter, by contrast, is effectively shrinking through neglect of defence of its airspace and the polar region. The difference in national political commitment to self-defence, regardless of ruling party, could hardly be more pronounced.

The domestic political consensus on the need for a robust military and why it exists is among the foremost reasons for Australia’s military ascent. At bottom, the difference is rooted in political will. As veteran war correspondent Matthew Fisher wrote in the National Post over two years ago, “Debates on national defence [in Australia] often end up being about different shades of grey.” The Aussies’ clear outlook on defence policy is all the more remarkable given their country’s otherwise chronically fractious politics.

In Canada, the Conservatives view the military more traditionally, as a tool of state power, while the Liberals see it as a way to shore-up multilateral institutions, traditionally through a focus on United Nations peacekeeping initiatives (of which there are precious few at present), and the NDP sometimes appear as if they’d do away with the military altogether. The Liberals and Conservatives both campaign on promises to boost defence spending but not even the last Conservative government fully delivered and, as a result, Canada currently spends about 1.23 percent of its GDP on the military (among the lowest rates of any NATO ally), compared to roughly 2 percent in Australia – more than making up for Australia’s smaller GDP.

The Liberals also make a habit of using military procurement as an electoral cudgel. Former prime minister Jean Chretien got elected in the early 1990s promising to cancel the Navy’s replacement for its Sea King helicopters, which required the aging, corroding, maintenance-intensive aircraft – first acquired in 1963 – to be kept flying until 2018. Current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got elected partly on a promise not to buy the F-35, the first step on a trail of incompetence that has led the RCAF to the saddest state in its history.

This politicization is vividly explained in Canadian defence writer and academic Richard Kim Nossal’s short but powerful book Charlie Foxtrot. Nossal expertly lays out how the process has become politicized, from regional pork-barreling to cheap election one-liners. Trudeau’s campaign promise in 2015 – “A Liberal government will also do what the Harper Conservatives ought to have done years ago. We will not buy the F-35 fighter jet” – distilled of years of politicization.

While Australia has also had its share of procurement misfires (all nations do), they aren’t compounded by the extreme and highly damaging Canadian-style partisan posturing. Nothing in Australia’s military procurement record is on the same order of political cynicism and multi-billion-dollar, decade-wasting fiasco as Canada’s worst bungles. Of course, these wouldn’t recur if parties didn’t see opportunity in it – hence historian Jack Granatstein’s answer to the question in his book, Who Killed the Canadian Military? It was the voters.

The reduction to mere voting arithmetic of procurement decisions that will be critical to Canada’s defences for decades to come – and that could determine whether Canada’s military men and women might live or die during operations – further erodes public trust and increases cynicism towards defence policy. This makes it politically even harder to make the next major purchase of new equipment, sending Canada spiralling down a disarmament hole from which – unless forced by a major war – it may never emerge.

Nobody respects a paper tiger

Canadian leaders often make grandiose statements about our role in the world that prove absurd in hindsight. Former PM Stephen Harper’s famous prediction that Canada would become an “energy superpower” now seems quaint at best. In 2015, newly-minted PM Trudeau declared “Canada is back” as the world’s foremost do-gooder. Ever since, the U.N. has been begging us to do more Third World peacekeeping. Instead, we’re bailing on the only new mission undertaken during Trudeau’s time in office, a token medevac force in Mali. In that ironic sense, perhaps, Canada’s military capabilities are well-matched to the way we conduct our foreign affairs. On the other hand, our genuine weakness is exposed when our leaders provoke or stumble into confrontations with important countries like Saudi Arabia and China. During those eruptions, our adversaries increasingly see a paper tiger.

The only new mission undertaken by the Trudeau government so far has been a small medevac operation in Mali.

Brian Lee Crowley made this point in the Globe and Mail recently, noting that China might not have been so quick to arrest two of our citizens, re-sentence a third to death, and accuse the country and its legal system of “white supremacy” if it believed Canada had the muscle and will to defend itself. Australia has also endured its fair share of threats from China, but has not suffered reciprocal actions for banning Huawei from its 5G networks, for example – a far more serious decision in substance than the Meng arrest by Canada. And, the threats against Australia were indirect, via a jingoistic and bombastic state-run newspaper, not directly from China’s Ambassador in an op-ed column in Ottawa’s influential Hill Times.

It’s difficult if not impossible to draw a direct line of causality from the size and capability of a nation’s armed forces, plus its willingness to use them, to that nation’s global clout and its treatment by other nations. Still, it’s telling and worrisome that, in 2010, Canada lost for the first time a bid to be on the U.N. Security Council. It’s highly unlikely we will gain one on the next try – despite it being a stated priority of the Liberal government. Australia, meanwhile, last served in 2013-14 and has served more often than Canada since 2000. Before that, the record was reversed. Clearly, a nation’s defence capabilities and posture are a measure of its seriousness about its role in the world – and of its respect in the world. Canada has fallen behind Australia – by numerous measures, far behind. Canada is effectively ceding its century-old role as a middle power and, before long, the red kangaroo will be a far more respected and feared symbol in the world’s skies than the maple leaf.

Mathew Preston is a writer based in Alberta. He holds a Master in Strategic Studies from the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and previously worked as a defence consultant in Ottawa.

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