November 1, 2013

Reviewing Canadian troops

Peter Black, Canadian Dispatch

---- — It’s called Veterans Day south of the border and Remembrance Day in Canada and in other nations in the British Commonwealth and elsewhere around the world.

For the first time in a dozen years, Nov. 11 comes with no significant number of Canadian soldiers deployed on a mission overseas, either in a combat, training or peace-keeping role.

The last of the nearly 1,000 Canadian troops assigned since 2009 to the United Nations-led mission to train Afghan security forces will be returning home in the next few weeks.

Apart from that, according to government statistics, small numbers of Canadian military personnel are deployed on UN missions around the world, from Haiti (39), to Mali (40), the Sinai Peninsula (28) and Kosovo (5). A Royal Canadian Navy ship is on anti-terrorist patrol in the Arabian Sea with a crew of 250.

Back on home soil, Canadian troops are involved regularly in marine operations, including search and rescue, and in time of civic disasters, such as the massive flooding that struck Calgary back in June, where some 2,200 soldiers came to the rescue.

With the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Canada’s first real combat mission since Korea, and the seemingly extreme reluctance of western forces to get involved in further “boots on the ground” missions around the planet, the federal government has launched a revamp of army operations called Defence Renewal.

Spending on Canadian Forces is the largest single item in the federal budget (as it is in the United States and pretty well all industrialized nations), some $18 billion. It’s spent on 68,000 personnel in uniform, plus about 25,000 civil servants.

What’s more, the federal government is committed to huge expenditures on new fleets of fighter jets, helicopters and ships to replace the current inventory of aging machines. This summer, for example, retired and active personnel got together for a big celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the acquisition of the Sea King navy choppers.

The government announced the “renewal” last year and reaffirmed it two weeks ago in the Speech from the Throne (the government’s statement of its plan presented at the beginning of a parliamentary session).

The thrust of the initiative was summarized thusly: “To be effective, our military must have more teeth and less tail ... (and) put front-line capability before back-office bureaucracy.”

The team examining how to slim down the military without losing its vaunted effectiveness released a “charter” last month to outline the broad strokes of the plan. At the same time, defense officials announced what amounts to the first strike of renewal, the cutting of some $1.2 billion from the personnel budget and the retraining or reassignment of duties.

Defense analysts, including former senior commanders, say the real problem is the huge accumulation of officers and non-combat personnel to manage Canada’s Afghanistan mission — the most massive and costly in decades.

A recent report by one such former commander noted that since 2004 the Canadian Forces added nearly 5,000 posts in the national capital region alone, most of them working at defense headquarters, not on the ground.

As one senior defense official put it, the military needs to reduce the “bloated” corps of management at defense headquarters, where “too many people are bossing to few soldiers.”

In the meantime, while the government faces redefining the role of a bulked-up military, the Canadian Legion is facing the opposite problem. Age and mortality are reducing at a steady rate the number of veterans on its membership rolls.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are now only about 90,000 surviving veterans of World War II, from the one million-plus who served, with an estimated average of 50 dying every day.

Whereas 30 years ago legion membership topped 600,000 across the country, today it has dwindled to fewer than 300,000.

There’s been some uptake with the supply of relatively young veterans of Afghanistan, but as Remembrance Day approaches, and people gather at cenotaphs in the towns and cities of the country, there seem to be as many questions about the future — and the past — of Canada’s military as there’s ever been.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at