Their soldiers have been bloodied in Kandahar, and Canadians are hankering for the halcyon days when blue-helmeted soldiers patrolled UN-brokered ceasefires between compliant belligerents. When asked about their military priorities, respondents to a Nanos poll conducted for The Globe and Mail ranked traditional peacekeeping as the highest. The problem is, that would require turning the clock back 30 or 40 years.
The belligerents today are often warlords, terrorists or militia groups that rarely play by anyone else's rules. Afghanistan itself is an international stabilization mission under UN mandate. Canada has a moral duty to help where help from the international community is desperately needed; places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where mass rape is being used as a weapon of war. The reality is that if Canada is to help, if it is to continue to play a military role beyond its airspace and coastal waters, then it will need battle-ready soldiers and state-of-the-art weaponry.
After traditional peacekeeping, support for North American security co-operation is rated the next highest priority for Canadians. Yet hardware essential for such co-operation, and for the third priority listed - Canada's exercise of sovereignty in the Arctic - are aging out. Otter and Aurora aircraft, and many of the Coast Guard's ships, need to be replaced. More urgently, in 10 years or less, Canada's CF-18 fighters will be grounded and its destroyers will be in dry-dock. Because of constraints on federal spending, the question of replacement is sometimes portrayed as an either-or debate. The implication being that Canada can afford to be strong and free either in the air, or at sea - but not both.
A case for the F-35
In such a competition, the Air Force is seen to have an edge over Maritime Command, in that the government has already announced its plan to acquire 69 F-35 stealth fighters at a cost of $16-billion. To critics, including the Official Opposition, the F-35 is a costly bauble with little practical use; cutting-edge technology, for sure, but an artifact of Cold War-thinking. There is also concern the technology, no matter how advanced, will soon be made obsolete by unmanned aerial vehicles.
Yet there is a stronger national sovereignty and North American security case for the F-35 than for warships. Al-Qaeda has repeatedly tried to attack civilian airlines, not cruise ships or commercial shipping. Russian TU-95 bombers occasionally test Canada's responsiveness in the Far North. Canada's geography is vast, as a country with more coastline than any other, 202,080 kilometres of it, according to the CIA World Factbook - but because much of it inaccessible to surface ships for most of the calendar year due to ice, air capability is critical for national sovereignty.
It is also critical to security co-operation with the U.S., which has ordered 2,500 of the F-35 fighters. Canada could try to save money and purchase a less advanced fighter, but ask yourself: If everyone else is flying stealth fighters, would you want to be the one flying an aircraft everyone else can see? And everyone else will be flying F-35s. Besides the U.S. Air Force, Britain, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Turkey and Australia have all ordered the aircraft. Sales to Israel, Japan and Korea are also likely. If there were a serious danger that the F-35s would be quickly made obsolete by UAVs, how is it then that professional military advice, and government procurement policy, throughout the Western alliance has been steadfastly in favour of the aircraft?
We can't skimp on warships
But it should not be an either-or proposition. Canada needs fighters, but it also needs warships. One option would be to replace Maritime Command's aged destroyers with reconfigured frigates, although Canada's strategic interests suggest a new generation of destroyer, in the class of the $8-billion (Australian) trio of warships being built for the Royal Australian Navy, is necessary. Without destroyers, Canada's capability would be reduced. It would no longer be a candidate to lead multinational, allied fleets - such as Combined Task Force 150, which Canada commanded in 2008, in the Gulf of Aden. Put it this way: If Australia, a country with little more than half the population of Canada, can afford both stealth fighter purchases and the procurement of destroyers for the Royal Australian Navy, Canada can do the same.
So where will the money for all this new hardware come from? The military needs to play its part. It cannot be a complacent recipient of massive government spending at a time when other federal departments are being squeezed, and indeed when Canadians themselves are feeling the pressure of a shambling economy. If Canada's military is to grow in capability, then it also needs to find ways to sharpen its focus, and one way is to reduce its bureaucracy. That means to eliminate some of the 12,000 uniformed soldiers and 28,000 civilians employed at National Defence headquarters. It must also move to reduce and consolidate the number of bases across Canada, 26 plus numerous stations and other facilities.
Canada can no longer be a nation of traditional peacekeepers, because the world needs something else. It's something Canada can provide, but it first must take some tough decisions. Given its modest size, Canada's military is burdened with enormous infrastructure. This overhead weighs heavily on its future.