I recently listened to a podcast where Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff talked about the future of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). As things tend to go with senior leaders from any large governmental organization, it was a guarded talk.
There was however one thing I seized on from the General’s remarks. Specifically, on two occasions, he indicated that the CAF would have to choose capabilities (current or future) that it wouldn’t be able to take on. The comment got me thinking. What are the current or future capabilities that Canada should walk away from or not take up at all?
As I reflected on the speech, my immediate thoughts went to Canada’s non-existent replacement program for its aging Victoria-Class submarines. In my estimation, this is the most obvious platform Canada’s current politicians might think the country can go without.
When you look at Canada’s defence budget and then you consider the cost of the Type-26 frigates and the F-35s, there’s just no way the country can invest in a new submarine platform. In my opinion, this would be a colossal mistake, but I wouldn’t put it past the country’s political elite to make it. If you want to see my argument for Canada staying in the submarine game, please see my blog post on this topic.
If Canada is going to have to go without doing or purchasing one or more capabilities, it got me thinking about what programs I would recommend we discontinue or not pursue in the future. Below, I flag what these programs could be.
Regarding this analysis, I’m going to provide examples of similar-sized countries that have the platform, capability, or unit I’m proposing we walk away from. Such comparisons demonstrate there is a precedent or perhaps a strategic reason for a country the size of Canada to have the capability in question.
Importantly, none of these countries will be the United States; that’s an unfair comparison to make. But Australia, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and even the UK, are most certainly fair comparisons when it comes to assessing the kinds of military capabilities a middle-power country could have.
That caveat aside, IMHO her are the things the CAF shouldn’t invest in or should get out of.
Attack and/or Reconnaissance helicopters. Now to be clear, I’m not aware of anyone in the Canadian defence establishment making the argument Canada should be purchasing Apache helicopters or some other similar platform. However, it is worth pointing out that in the 70s through to the early 90s, the CAF did fly the Kiowa helicopter, which was a light tactical helicopter that played a number of key battlefield roles. So a light reconnaissance helicopter isn’t without precedent for the CAF.
Eventually, the Kiowas were replaced by the maligned CH-146 Griffon, which at the time of their purchase twenty-five years ago was touted as an all-in-one replacement of four different airframes. Operational history has demonstrated that while serviceable, the Griffon is hardly that dynamic.
Right now, Canada operates the aforementioned Griffon and the hugely important Chinook heavy-lift helicopter. Looking into the future, there are two types of scenarios that will help to inform this analysis. In scenario one, you have Canada leading a mission, where it would provide the bulk of the needed capabilities. In scenario two, you have Canada as one member of a larger mission.
In the first case, it is unlikely that Canada would be engaging with a foe that required specialized helicopters. A general-purpose helicopter and the Chinook would enable Canada to undertake the vast majority of missions in this scenario.
In the case of scenario two, if Canada is part of a larger mission, other nations who have invested in other capacities can bring specialized helicopters into the mix if they’re needed. This is the beauty of multilateral operations – everyone brings what they’re able or want to bring, and together, there’s a full range of capabilities. In this kind of arrangement, Canada might choose to contribute its Chinooks, while another country (let’s say the Dutch) throw in their Apaches. And voila, you have a full spectrum of options as they pertain to helicopters.
So no matter how you look at it, when Canada looks to replace its current aging fleet of CH-146 Griffons, it should look only to replace them with a similar, if more capable general purpose helicopter. Canada doesn’t need to get specialized or fancy when it comes to the kind of capability.
By way of comparison, here’s the number and type of attack helicopters operated by other similar-sized countries:
- Netherlands: 28 Apaches
- Australia: Currently 22 Euro Tigers; 29 Apaches on order
- Spain: 24 Euro Tigers
- UK: 50 Apaches
The Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR). There is very little information available about CSOR online. As best I can tell, it is a special operations unit that includes between 200 and 300 operators and performs duties that seem to be a cross between the US Army Rangers and the Green Berets.
While there is little doubt this unit is highly trained and capable, the concerns I have regarding this unit are two-fold.
1) Canada’s Army is small and exceedingly so. With so few soldiers to draw from, does Canada need another special operations unit in addition to JTF-2? With so few soldiers to draw from, my concern is whether or not there are enough quality candidates to support CSOR and JTF-2.
Let’s do the math. Let’s say CSOR is 300 soldiers and JTF-2 is another 250; that’s 650 special operators. Altogether, the combat arms professions within the Canadian army can’t be more than five thousand soldiers. That means there’s approximately a 1 to 9 ratio. That’s not a huge pool to draw from. And when you consider that only a fraction of all active soldiers would try to qualify for a unit like CSOR, you’re talking about an even smaller pool to pull from.
2) How much funding goes into supporting a unit of this size relative to other Army outfits? Where funding is a constant challenge, can the military afford to spend millions on two highly specialized units while the rest of the Army suffers from a raft of equipment shortages? Certainly, JTF-2 is necessary, but couldn’t the reg force regiments take on most if not all of the responsibilities of CSOR? Each of the Regular Force regiments has a company dedicated to maintaining Canada’s paratroop capability. Isn’t tasking these companies a more cost-effective way of maintaining a capability that is so infrequently used?
Units similar to CSOR:
Australia: 2nd Commando Regiment
UK: Ranger Regiment (est. 2021)
Main Battle Tanks. Does it make sense to maintain a capability when you’ve got so few of a particular platform that you cannot hope to deliver a meaningful or sustained capability? [As a quick aside, I wrote this sentence about two weeks before the whole bruhaha over Canada sending 4 tanks to Ukraine. Talk about prescient].
At present, Canada has something in the range of 30-ish operable tanks (it could be in the teens based on recent media reports). I appreciate this number might be meaningful if you’re only ever going to field battlegroup-sized formations, but against any enemy that might have heavy armor this number of tanks is inconsequential. Further, the Ukraine conflict has demonstrated the vulnerability of the modern tank to anti-armor weapons such as the Javelin. Whatever funds Canada might invest in the mighty tank, it is better off investing in modern fighting vehicles like the LAV 6.0 platform and an healthy inventory of anti-tank missiles (which the CAF doesn’t have presently!).
Number of MBT’s operated in other countries:
- Netherlands: 18
- Australia: approximately 50 Abrams; 75 new Abrams delivered by 2025
- Spain: Unclear – est. between 100 to 200 Leopard 2s various variants
- UK: 148 Challenger 3s as of 2027 although there’s recent talk that this number is too low
Self-Propelled Artillery. Like the Main Battle Tank and the attack helicopter, the Self-Propelled Artillery is something Canada can’t afford to operate. Like the rest of the CAF, the Royal Canadian Artillery is a relatively small outfit so if it’s going to take on an air defence role and be the main operator of any new drone force, one wonders if it has the capacity to run another piece of complicated kit such as self-propelled artillery.
It’s worth noting that Australia is in the midst of purchasing of 20 M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). These systems have been used to tremendous effect in Ukraine. Because of their success, it could be argued that Canada would be well served in purchasing a similar capability. But like self-propelled artillery, mobile rocket systems are not a platform Canada afford given the CAF’s size and it’s budget.
Instead, the CAF should focus on fielding a robust towed artillery capability that would allow Canada to make a meaningful contribution of this kind to a future independent mission or multilateral force. Canada cannot be all things. It should focus on one particular capability, do it well, and should have enough of said capabilities such that when it is deployed it can have an impact that’s commensurate with Canada’s middle power status.
Number of self-propelled artillery and mobile rocket systems operated by other counties:
- Netherlands: 40 Panzerhaubitze 2000s
- Australia: 0 self-propelled artillery; 20 HIMARS on order.
- Spain: 64 M110 self-propelled howitzers (dated); 100 M109A1 155 mm self-propelled (very dated equipment); reports that Spain is looking at France’s CAESAr self-propelled howitzer as a possible replacement
- UK – approx. 115 AS-90s; 40 M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS)
Type-26 Frigates. Presently, Canada only has twelve operational frigates. Back in the nineties, the Royal Canadian Navy would have had 12 frigates and four dated destroyers. How many frigates does Canada need to replace its current surface fleet? The better question is, how many of these costly platforms can Canada afford to buy?
Looking at Canada’s defence budget, it’s abundantly clear we can’t afford all fifteen of the Type-26 frigates we have on order. These are hugely expensive platforms and my worry is that they will eat up the entirety of the RCN’s budget for the next forty years.
Being both realistic and strategic, I would much rather see Canada cut its order of 15 ships down to 13 or even 12 and use the funds that would have been for these platforms to invest in submarines. When Wayne Eyre spoke of the idea that Canada would have to do without particular capabilities, what I heard was Canada would be getting out of the submarine business. I have a whole blog dedicated to the affordability and necessity of Canada purchasing a new fleet of submarines. Regarding the notion of not replacing the Victorias, in this post, I’ll only say it would be a huge strategic error for Canada not to get new subs.
Number of frigates/destroyers operated by other countries:
- Netherlands: 6 frigates
- Australia: currently 9 frigates; 8 Type 26 frigates ordered with delivery 2023 through to 2031
- Spain: 11 frigates
- UK: currently, 6 Type 45 destroyers and 12 Type-23 frigates; future, 8 Type-26s are to be delivered 2022 through to 2027; 5 Type-31 are to be delivered from 2023 through to 2027.
AWACS. Sweden, Australia, Brazil, Turkey, Greece, and South Korea all operate modern Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS). When a country or group of countries wants to manage or control a particular part of the sky, AWACS is a critical capability. With a country the size of Canada and considering the types of missions Canada may wish to participate in at some point in the future, it could be argued that Canada should be investing in this type of platform. But like the other platforms/capabilities mentioned above, this is a capability Canada simply can’t afford.
It is worth mentioning that Canada does provide a very modest contribution of personnel to serve on NATO AWACS planes in Europe and that Canada will be investing billions to modernize NORAD, so the country can properly monitor its northern reaches. So there is some kind of argument to made that Canada, through bilateral and multilateral alliances, is investing in this capability.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the Canadian defence budget increases to 2.0% GDP from its current paltry 1.1 to 1.3%. If it did, Canada would be getting itself into the game considering several capabilities that other peer states have.
If the unlikely scenario of a budgetary windfall were to happen, Canada should be cautious about where it invests its funds. Canada should have a solid, general-purpose military that could offer a meaningful contribution to any future mission. But because its funds will always be limited, Canada should refrain from investing in some capabilities that could otherwise be delivered by allies that have chosen for whatever reason to get into these niche areas.
Ryan Flannagan is the author of Take Whiteman, A CANZUK at War novel. Visit Ryan’s website: www.raflannagan.ca to learn more about Ryan and his writing.