By: Bruce Campion-Smith, The Toronto Star
OTTAWA—Canada's military is facing a critical few weeks as the federal government weighs renewed deployments to Iraq and Ukraine, ponders the fate of a long-awaited peace mission, lays out a new vision for the armed forces and decides the budget to pay for it all.
It all sets the stage for what promises to be a busy year for Canadian soldiers — one that could leave supply lines stretched — as they continue ongoing deployments in eastern Europe, the Middle East, embark on a new mission to Latvia and finally move ahead on the peace mission that could take them to Africa.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan used his oft-repeated line Tuesday that the Liberal government is taking the time it needs.
“We want to make sure that we actually spend the time to get the analysis right and that it goes through the appropriate government process before we make any announcements,” Sajjan said after a cabinet meeting.
In the meantime though, the defence department hangs in limbo as it waits for announcements.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Dave Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Military deployments to Ukraine and Iraq are due to expire in March though observers expect both missions to be extended.
The former Conservative government dispatched 200 Canadian troops to Ukraine in 2015 in a non-combat role to train local soldiers, as part of efforts to bolster eastern European countries in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It’s expected that a renewed mission in Ukraine will be announced soon.
“Canada is dedicated to the future good fortune of Ukraine. I am preparing options for the government to consider,” Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, said last week.
Vance said the military has also laid the groundwork to continue its deployment in Iraq, where some 200 special forces soldiers are helping train and advise Peshmerga troops in their fight against Daesh near Mosul. The military operates a hospital near Erbil that has treated 100 patients since November while an air-to-air tanker and surveillance aircraft operate out of airfields in Kuwait.
“Canada is committed to this coalition and options will go before government on how to stay committed to it,” Vance said.
The big question mark continues to hang over the Liberals’ peace mission. After an announcement last August that the government could deploy up to 600 soldiers and 150 police officers on such a mission, a flurry of fact-finding trips to Africa by cabinet ministers, and promises of a decision by Christmas, the file has gone quiet since Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president.
Vance said the world has “changed a little bit” since planning for the mission began and said the government now needs to weigh those changes before deciding where troops are best deployed.
“The government has options before it but I think we’re finding that kind of set piece decision-making doesn’t work very well sometimes in a very, very fluid world where things are changing,” Vance told reporters.
“Where will coalition efforts occur next? What are our allies doing? What do they think?” Vance said.
Since taking over, Trump’s administration has turned up the heat on NATO member nations to pony up more for defence. The Liberal government has made the case that it matters more what Canada — which ranks near the bottom of the spending list — does with its military rather than simply measuring the bottom line. But that dynamic could be forcing the government to reframe its peace mission to account for U.S. concerns.
“I guess it’s understandable that the government wants to wait and see how the security environment unfolds given the U.S. election,” Perry said.
“They may be looking to make sure that any kind of operation we do is connected as much as it possibly could be to a broader alliance,” he said.
Still, the delay in an announcement has likely meant that plans conceived last fall will have to be updated,” Perry said.
“The mission doesn’t sit static, frozen in time while Canada decides whether or not we’re going to participate,” he said.
The other two big pieces of the defence puzzle are the upcoming budget — expected in the coming weeks — and the defence policy review which will lay out a new blueprint for the Canadian Armed Forces for the next 20 years.
According to the government, that strategy will deliver “a modern, more agile and better-equipped military.” It’s expected to touch on everything from procurement process, to whether the navy should have subs, what kind of fighter jets are required for the air force to how the military looks after its personnel.
“What are the capabilities that are required for this and what investment is going to be needed,” Sajjan said during a visit to NATO headquarters earlier this month. “Yes, we will be investing.”
But Perry said the military — which has a budget of $18.6 billion in 2016-17 — needs more money just to maintain the status quo.
“Unless the government directs them to do fewer things than it’s done before, they can’t make do with the existing funding,” he said.