On Canada’s New Peacekeeping Brigade

Posted By October 5, 2004 No Comments

We normally refrain from offering direct advice to Ministers of the Crown – or indeed to any politician – unless our opinion is solicited. However, a custom is not a rule or a tradition, and so the occasional violation is permissible.

When one has been poor for a long time, it becomes hard to keep up appearances; holes in the sole of one’s shoes become uncomfortable and occasionally one will forget to hide the bottom of their feet when sitting. Fabric wears thin, rips become common and darning is not invisible. A frayed cuff or collar soon cannot be hidden, and patches were only fashionable in the 1970s.

Eventually, the pretences fail entirely, and one’s poverty (and much else besides) is exposed to the world. The Canadian military has been keeping up appearances for a long time – pretty much since the early 1970s – but the charade is rapidly coming to an end. The list of the woes of the Canadian military was perhaps best summarized by the Globe & Mail’s brilliant editorial cartoonist Brian Gable when he depicted an Iltis Jeep suspended beneath a Sea King Helicopter, coming to the aid of our stranded second-hand Upholder class submarine, HMCS Chicoutimi.

Our ragged military’s near-naked condition has finally become clear to all Canadians. The federal Liberals (the main cause of the military’s woes – although their felonious neglect has certainly been abetted by many others) have pledged to help out with some new fig leaves. One election promise that the new Minister of Defence, Bill Graham, has sworn to make good on concerns the creation of a 5,000 man “Peace-Keeping Brigade” for the Army. This is welcome news, but even as dishevelled a beggar as our military would do well to take this gift with caution.

Brigades in the normal military sense are operational units in conventional warfare and remain useful administrative and training organizations in peacetime. A brigade normally consists of a balanced grouping of battalions and regiments which become used to working closely with each other under a single command, so that the combat arms units and their support arms develop working relationships that enhance operational efficiency.

Brigades normally have long-time tasks and might have their equipment and component units tailored accordingly – Canada’s 4th Mechanized Brigade Group in Germany in the 1970s and ‘80s long remained oriented for mechanized warfare against the Soviet team, while the 2nd Brigade in Ontario was built around the Canadian Airborne Regiment and light operations in a difficult logistical environment – such as northern Canada.

The usual organization of one of our Regular Force Brigades through most of the Cold War consisted of three infantry battalions, an artillery regiment, an armoured regiment, with support from a Service Battalion (for supply, maintenance, etc.) and a handful of company-sized units such as a helicopter squadron or an ambulance company. The entire group had around 5,000 personnel and reflected our long experience in three major wars and a variety of Pearsonian-style peacekeeping missions.

By dint of enormous effort and generous dollops of imagination, the Army has kept the Brigade concept alive through decades of darning and patching. Our infantry, armoured and artillery units may have only about 1/3 of the raw combat power they mustered thirty years ago, but their three surviving brigade groupings have remained intact. Our Reserves are also lumped into Brigade groupings that reflect concepts for how they might be structured if ever mobilized.

Support units and major equipments have been peeled off, there have been critical shortages of fuel, ammunition and money for collective training, and personnel have been stripped out of combat units to be stuffed into overseas deployments, but we have still stuck with our brigade organizations.

Now the Liberals propose an infusion of 5,000 men into a new “Peacekeeping Brigade”. This is most welcome news, as the infusion of manpower and (hopefully) new equipments would be most welcome. However, there are several problems with the whole concept.

For the last couple of decades, the defence community has become used to hearing the word ‘peacekeeping’ used by any number of people without any military experience – let alone any experience on UN or multinational force deployment – to justify a diminished Canadian military. “What do we need tanks/submarines/fighters etc. for? We’re a nation of peacekeepers” – a refrain the author has heard on countless phone-in shows and speaking engagements. Likewise, the need for hard training and robust military units has been questioned as being unnecessary for “peacekeeping”.

A couple of years ago, one of those otherwise splendid “Heritage Moments” on television showed the arrival of a Canadian peacekeeper in Cyprus in 1964, inserting himself between quarrelling Greek Cypriots and Turks while bidding them to go quietly about their business. The reality was quite different. Sean Maloney’s excellent history Canada and UN Peacekeeping: Cold War by Other Means, 1945-1970 decisively argues that Canada engaged in UN peacekeeping for much more strategic reasons than selfless altruism.

Moreover, some memories of Cyprus in 1964 and 1974 are a lot bloodier than the Heritage Moment suggests: One acquaintance of the author recounted the successful machinegun ambush of a platoon of Greek-Cypriot national guardsmen by a troop of Canadian Ferret armoured cars, killing them all to rub in the lesson that we really did not like having anti-tank weapons fired at our vehicles. There are veterans of the supposedly disgraced Canadian Airborne Regiment with memories of episodes of similar violence from 1974; and some of our troops in the former Yugoslavia also took part in a lot of combat. (If one is to acquire Sean Maloney’s book on peacekeeping, pick up Maloney’s and John Llambias’ Chances for Peace as well — an illuminating collection of accounts from Canadian soldiers in the former Yugoslavia).

In a recent conference in Toronto, a number of Canada’s defence experts were gathered under one roof to talk about the future of peacekeeping… except that the word itself seldom came up and what was discussed were “interventions”, “stabilizations”, “reactions” and similar terms. One speaker, a particularly and deservedly prominent member of this community, did discuss peacekeeping – using imagery from the classic Monty Python “Dead Parrot” comedy sketch as he did so. Peacekeeping was a “dead parrot, and nailing it to the perch does not mean it is alive. It is an ex-parrot, it has ceased to be.

It was at that same conference that the Minister of Defence reminded what he thought would be a friendly crowd of his government’s promise to provide a Peacekeeping Brigade of 5,000 troops. To no great surprise (except, perhaps, his) the audience was not all that warm to the idea… perhaps because most of them were former soldiers who have heard the promises of Canada’s governments all too many times to believe them. Moreover, returning that which was taken away from them earlier, does not generally inspire much gratitude from the recipients.

Oh, the troops will be welcome all right – they are badly needed. But why hire a complete set of 5,000 – with officers and NCOs in their usual generous proportions? Why not add the funding necessary for 5,000 more privates and corporals, and use them to fill out the deflated battalions and regiments we already have? Might it be possible to have three full rifle companies per infantry battalion once more? Let us fill the skeletal battalions we have, rather than let them continue to starve while gazing with envy on a fat new one. Also, let us fill the sagging armour and artillery regiments we already have, the field engineer squadrons, and let us not forget the badly depleted service battalions either. Remember that these existing units possess vast experience in peacekeeping and such — so why create inexperienced new units?

In the pledge for a Peacekeeping Brigade –and given that modern peacekeeping demands well-trained and well-armed and equipped troops — does this mean the government was planning to dig up the money for a whole new brigade’s set of equipment? After all, 5,000 troops need trucks, armoured vehicles, radios, tents and a host of other necessaries. In previous peacekeeping missions we have also found that mortars, anti-tank missiles, thermal imagers, heavy machineguns and other items could be a very present help in time of trouble. More of these will certainly be needed.

It might be added that many of our soldiers think their body armour is inadequate (and who would know better?). They also think a more generous distribution of night vision goggles and GPS devices would be right handy. It would also be a good idea not to be red-faced again over the bright green “camouflage” our soldiers have to wear in dull brown desert environments in the future. Could we buy a brigade’s worth of desert camouflage too?

Nor should one ever forget the Reservists – the Federal Liberals did promise the kit and funding for several thousand of them for the promised peacekeeping brigade, and they could really use the funding for more training and equipment.

If, perchance, the Minister of Defence does get energetic about filling out the ranks, there are significant savings to be made in reducing the civilian component of National Defence Headquarters. Some serious reform in NDHQ is long overdue, particularly given the number of ‘general equivalent’ civil servants there. We trimmed the number of generals and admirals in recent years, but their civilian counterparts on the defence payroll grew in numbers.

All in all, we can make our Army look respectable again, and Ottawa really need not spend that much on tailoring if they are careful.