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Barney Danson Add to ...

Irrelevant. That was the word former foreign affairs minister John Manley recently used to describe Canada's position in the world today. He might have been overstating matters, but the sad truth is he was at least partly right. The major reason is Canada's continued indecision, verging on paralysis, about the roles and equipment of the Canadian Forces.

This nation used to be a player. We had significant numbers of well-trained, well-equipped troops, and our voice was heard in Washington, in NATO and at the United Nations. Today, however, we are beholden to others — to the United States for the defence and security of North America, to other members of the UN for peacemaking and, if NATO thinks of us at all, it is only a diplomatic courtesy. We simply do not matter very much militarily or, as a result, diplomatically.

The government has been engaged in a foreign and defence policy review for years, its bureaucrats twisting and turning to find policies they can sell to the politicians, and ones the politicians can try to sell to a divided, fractious Parliament and public. In truth, Ottawa simply doesn't know what it wants to do, and our military decays more with each day of delay. We must break out of this trap by focusing on the roles we are certain we will play in the coming years, then deciding now what forces we need to do them.

Any international security review will certainly assign the following tasks to the Canadian Forces: the defence of Canada and North America; peacekeeping and peacemaking under the UN or other agencies; coalition operations abroad (when the government judges them to be in the national interest); and homeland security or relief operations at home in case of terrorist attack or natural disasters.

To handle these tasks, Canada will need a well-trained, well-equipped Canadian Forces, regular and reserve. We will need to spend substantially more money on defence than we do now, and it will greatly facilitate matters with our friends abroad if a parliamentary consensus were reached on such spending. Our military needs budget certainty for at least the next decade, and our allies need to know they can rely on us in a pinch.

This new funding should create a brigade of 5,000 men and women, ready for deployment at home and abroad. This is not a "peacekeeping brigade"; this is a real brigade trained for war. A war-trained soldier can do peacekeeping well, and everything up to and including fighting in a full-scale war. A peacekeeping gendarme in a blue beret, however, can only do peacekeeping. A small military like ours needs to maximize its capabilities.

This brigade will be useless if it is immobile. Canada needs heavy-lift air transport to be able to move troops and equipment within Canada and overseas. Our current fleet of Hercules transports is worn out and too small to carry the heavy equipment we now have and will acquire, and we must buy a bare minimum of six giant C-17s that can carry this equipment long distances. But air transport alone is insufficient. We need sea transport operated by the navy, good-sized ships able to carry personnel, heavy equipment, helicopters, and the supplies to sustain the boots on the ground. Such vessels will also give the navy the ability to operate overseas so it can continue to play the exemplary role it has in Persian Gulf waters for more than a decade.

Such a military posture would vastly increase Canada's capacity to play its full part in the world and to defend ourselves at home without being beholden to anyone. But we need to ensure that our friends abroad know we have this capacity, realize that it has broad support in Parliament, and can count on Canada to use it. Let's tell NATO, for example, that while we cannot provide everything, we can offer a well-trained brigade, plus heavy air and sea lift. Our allies can provide other components of a modern force; we will provide what we can and guarantee that we'll be there quickly. Of course, this doesn't mean that we must jump whenever the United States calls. We were right to stay out of Iraq in 2003. But it does mean that, if our government and people believe the country's interests are at stake in some crisis down the road, the Canadian Forces will be ready and able to play an important part.

Canadians want their country to be a real player on the global stage. We want the respect of our friends. This demands that we put up the money to make the Canadian Forces once again a real military of substantial heft with real teeth. Our national interest demands no less. Our pride in ourselves as a people requires this.

Barney Danson was minister of national defence under Pierre Trudeau from 1976 to 1979.

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