By BRUCE CAMPION-SMITH, Toronto Star
OTTAWA—Canada’s military is gearing up for a busy period of overseas deployments but the big task of ferrying troops and supplies to these dispersed missions could stretch defence resources thin, experts say.
With ongoing commitments in the Middle East and Ukraine, a newly announced force for Latvia and an expected mission in Africa, providing logistical support for these widely spread operations could be more than armed forces is able to handle, said retired general Lewis MacKenzie.
“What will make it borderline impossible is the logistics support,” MacKenzie said.
“Forget about asking whether we have the combat arms capability. It’s whether we have the logistics capability to support them properly,” he said in an interview.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is currently on a five-country fact-finding mission in Africa as the Liberal government weighs options for a peace support mission in the region.
But defence analyst Dave Perry said the challenge for Canada’s military won’t be finding troops for that new mission but supporting them in the field.
Having significant operations ongoing in five sites across the globe — Latvia, Iraq, Kuwait, Ukraine and Africa — would test military logistics to keep provisions, gear and troop rotations flowing, he said.
“It’s fairly taxing on the forces’ support capacity,” he said in an interview, noting that the Royal Canadian Air Force has just five CC-177 Globemaster III heavy-lift transport aircraft.
“When you get into doing a lot of missions, a lot of times it’s the logistics and support people that get worn out the fastest,” said Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marked National Peacekeepers’ Day last Tuesday with a pledge that Canada would be doing more on that front.
“Moving forward, we will increase Canada’s support to United Nations peace operations,” Trudeau said in a statement, renewing his pledge to boost personnel and training to UN peace support missions.
Part of the mandate that Trudeau gave Sajjan was to have the Canadian military do more to help the United Nations respond quicker to emerging conflicts.
As well, Sajjan’s mandate letter spelled out the desire to see Canada lead an international effort to improve and expand the training of military and civilian personnel deployed on peace operations.
Canada currently has just 31 military personnel attached to UN peace operations. Almost 10 months into their mandate, the Liberal government still has not increased that number. But academic Walter Dorn expects an announcement soon.
“To be fair, they’ve spent a long time thinking about this issue and now it’s time to act,” said Dorn, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada Canadian Forces College.
Sajjan’s Africa trip is meant to “help inform Canada’s re-engagement in peace operations,” according to his office.
Sajjan, himself a veteran of Canada’s Afghanistan mission, is accompanied by Roméo Dallaire, the retired lieutenant-colonel who led United Nations forces in 1993 in Rwanda, and Louise Arbour, former Supreme Court justice and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Sajjan’s officials have cautioned not to read too much into his schedule, which will take the group to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Dorn sees three countries as potential locales for the new mission: Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic. He said the Canadian forces has the capacity to have up to 3,000 people deployed worldwide without much difficulty, including 300 to 1,000 on a potential operation in Africa.
A sizable contingent could be deployed to Mali, where French and Dutch forces are already active. Smaller numbers could go to the other sites in perhaps a headquarters or support role.
Exactly where the deployment happens must be dictated by Canada’s own interests, Perry said.
“The government of Canada and the Canadian forces working on its behalf can go do good in the world in any number of its places,” Perry said.
“Beyond that, is there a particular mission set where there’s a closer connection to a Canadian national interest,” he said.
After engagements in Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia, Dorn said that Canadians understand that such operations can be dangerous.
“There will be times when our peacekeepers will need to shoot, but I think the public will understand that we are in these conflict zones and that it’s sometimes necessary to use force,” Dorn said.
Perry prefers to use the term “peace support” rather than peacekeeping.
“Most of these places . . . there is no peace to keep,” Perry said. “There is a very real probability that the Canadian people we send over there are going to be in harm’s way.”
Current and pending deployments for Canadian troops
Ukraine: Some 200 troops are deployed in Ukraine until at least March 2017 as part of Operation Unifier to teach local forces skills that include weapons training, marksmanship, and ethics training as well as explosive ordnance disposal, combat first aid and logistics.
Mediterranean Sea: 250 sailors onboard the frigate HMCS Charlottetown deployed on Operation Reassurance, part of a NATO effort to bolster its presence in eastern European countries in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Iraq/Kuwait: Just over 800 personnel are deployed on Operation Impact, Canada’s contribution to the fight against Daesh extremists. Special forces soldiers are in northern Iraq training local peshmerga forces. Additional personnel are in Kuwait, where an air-to-air refueller and two reconnaissance aircraft are based.
Latvia: The Liberal government has pledged a new force of 450 troops that will form the core of a battle group in the eastern European country. The soldiers are expected to arrive in early 2017.
Africa: The government is in the midst of planning a new deployment for Canadian forces to support peace operations in Africa. Defence experts say this new force could number up to 600 personnel.