Flexible naval options as alternatives to land engagement

The size of Canada’s offshore areas of maritime responsibility and the vast distances of our airspace and sea approaches make a blue water navy fundamental to our security and sovereignty as a nation. Canada has the longest coastline of any country. The offshore Exclusive Economic Zone through which our (and a considerable percentage of U.S.) seaborne trade passes is equivalent in size to the combined area of Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces. Forty percent of our exports move by sea. Twenty-five percent of our known oil reserves are offshore. Canada is surrounded by oceans: on, over and under which our navy and maritime air force must operate to keep us secure from threats that can only approach us through those routes. The control of Canada’s ocean areas and the use of the world’s oceans – including our ability to deny their use to our enemies – is a vital national interest to Canada. Essentially if Canada chooses not to exercise her sovereign responsibilities someone else will to the detriment of our sovereignty and economic stability.

What Canada needs is a government defence policy based on our national interests that will lead to a Defence Plan which would explain why and how the defence policy will be achieved. Lacking a firm policy foundation based on Canadian national interests, interests that impact on the very foundations of the country, such as sovereignty and our ability to trade, we risk a series of short term decisions based on the belief that only tactical level land engagements – “boots on the ground” – can contribute to Canada’s security and curry favour with Allies. But history and reality teach us that nations have interests while nations also tend not to have long memories, unless perhaps the memory is a lingering hurt. Canada’s “boots on the ground” in both World Wars had little effect on our post war international standing. The endless draining rotations of battle groups through the Balkans in the 1990s failed to get Canada a seat at the table crafting the Dayton Accord; neither have our more recent efforts in Afghanistan realized any resolution of the significant cross-border trade or other issues vital to Canada’s interests.

If one believes that only “boots on the ground” count, one can ignore reports that China has some one thousand spies operating in Canada, that its officials have threatened Los Angeles with an ICBM attack if the U.S. joins in the defence of Taiwan, that they operate a huge arctic research ship in the Canadian Western Arctic Basin, and that it has had naval battles with Vietnam and the Philippines over oceanic resource claims. One would also be able to dismiss the President of Russia's veiled threat of an attack on Poland or the Czech Republic if they join the emerging NATO/U.S. missile defence pact or the current resurgence of Russian world wide military deployments. Essentially the “boots on the ground” focus allows one to ignore the reality of the threats facing this country. Thus one can also ignore the fundamental importance of the Navy to the security of Canada and for how Canada chooses to contribute to a secure global environment. But one cannot suggest that a defence policy or plan based on this premise, i.e.; “boots on the ground or land effects” addresses the most significant threats to Canadian national interests.

All people, as well as our government and DND/CF leadership, need to recognize that navies, air forces and armies fulfil differing functions. Navies take a long time to develop and to build, but provide government with a longer lasting and wider range of independent national options, spanning a spectrum of activity that ranges from diplomatic to combat. They directly affect the defence, security and sovereignty of Canada while permitting the independent projection of power worldwide, without the need for over-flight clearances or basing and landing rights. Air forces also directly affect the defence, security and sovereignty of Canada. Admittedly neither the navy (without a marine corps) nor the air force can occupy foreign land – only the army can, but they can deny its use and destroy its economy. “Boots on the ground” can neither affect the defence, security and the sovereignty of Canada, nor can it operate internationally without the agreement of other nations, nor can it deploy without air and sea support.

Given the strategic importance of navies, the apparent disregard for their flexible strategic, operational and tactical capabilities is indeed perplexing and short sighted. What “future strategic” environment is envisaged that Canada no longer is required to defend herself, has no national maritime interests, or that future governments will not require their most flexible military tool (the navy)?

The constant strategic reality throughout our history is that Canada has relied on the sea both to move her trade and prosper, to defend herself, and to go to war. Strategically, the most important aspect of our security has been and will continue to be the ability to use the world’s oceans. Protected in the decades after Confederation first by Great Britain and then by the United States, Canada emerged during the Second World War as a full partner, ensuring that both the Atlantic and the Pacific formed an effective moat, securing the homeland. The importance of being able to operate anywhere in the world’s oceans to ensure that national or vital interests are met was pointed out succinctly by the noted British Historian Niall Ferguson:

"Without Canadian pilots the Battle of Britain might well have been lost. Without Canadian sailors, the Battle of the Atlantic surely would have been."

He is correct; a lost Atlantic campaign would have led directly to the capitulation of Great Britain and the loss of the war in Europe.

Another noted British historian, Paul Kennedy, stated that it was the Allied navies that were the constant and unchallengeable wall that stood against the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. Canada’s small but effective navy was part of that wall, ensuring both that a seaborne threat to our country would be stopped, and that the war-winning capacity of a thriving North American economy could therefore be deployed. This strategic reality has allowed Canada to contribute to the security of the NATO area and to move forces in support of Europe, in addition to providing for the maritime defence of North America. Essentially, North America, though not immune from attack, was then and is now immune from a seaborne invasion.

It is recognized that Canada has both limited resources and regrettably limited political capital to spend on the security of the nation. Essentially, governments tend to find more voter-friendly issues to focus limited tax dollars on than national defence and security. As a result, any defence plan needs to ensure, first the strategic security and well-being of the nation, and second how best to contribute to overall global security. In both cases, balance is always a sound strategic footing to ensure strategic surprises can be countered. Balance between the operational forces of the CF and within each operational force would ensure there remains resident in the CF the range of capabilities needed to secure our sovereignty as well as provide government the expeditionary tools that it may desire. But in formulating such a plan there is the need for a sound foreign policy foundation and a ready willingness for the CF to truly transform to meet the nation’s needs free from service bias. Kennedy notes:

One of the dangers of wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they soak up resources and intellectual bandwidth. It is said that generals always fight the last war. Another way of stating that is to say they believe the war they are fighting now will go on forever in some form. That belief leads to neglect of capabilities that appear superfluous for the current conflict. That is the true hollowing-out that extended warfare creates. It is an intellectual hollowing-out.”

To avoid falling victim to just such an intellectual hollowing-out, the leadership of the DND/CF must focus neither on a single operation, nor especially on a single service. Our leaders need to take a strategic approach to ensure that Canada has balanced capabilities. They need moreover to present the case to government, based on logical strategic analysis, of the panoply of actual and emerging threats to Canada. Only then will the government adequately resource the CF and not resort, as Senator Kenny has characterized it, to “defence on the cheap.” Finally, our Parliamentary leaders would be wise to take the sage counsel of Sir Wilfred Laurier from 10 November 1910:

Governments cannot live forever, for governments are born to grow and die as well as men... but mark my words, whoever may take over the reins of power [in Canada] will have to have a navy, as every nation with a seashore must have and has had in the past.”