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david pratt

To keep ‘weekend warriors’ relevant, give them a larger footprint in communities across the country

"Weekend warriors" are what they used to be called - but not so much any more. Canada's often-neglected army reservists have been tested under fire and in floods and the verdict is in: These guys and girls are pretty damn good.

About 20 per cent to 30 per cent of Canada's brigade group in Afghanistan are reservists. As one serving general told me, "We couldn't have done what we've done in Afghanistan without the reserves. We would have crashed and burned." The "we-them" mentality that once marked the relationship between the regulars and Canada's part-time soldiers has virtually disappeared. "When we hold a ramp ceremony at Kandahar," the general said, "nobody asks if the soldier was 'reg force' or reserves."

The reservists' performance shouldn't come as a surprise. For years, they've soldiered on with little fanfare in Canadian peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations. But it's not just on foreign deployments that the reserves are getting positive reviews. Recently, the Defence Minister showered praise on more than 200 local reservists involved in Canadian Forces' relief efforts in Newfoundland and Labrador after Hurricane Igor.

With Afghanistan winding down, it's time to rethink the role of Canada's army reservists and the support we provide them. The reserves currently have three tasks: a base for full mobilization, augmentation of the regular forces, and the army's footprint in communities across Canada.

Many who speak for the reserves see mass mobilization as the raison d'être of the institution. But how relevant is that role today? While predictions are tricky, few strategic analysts see any possibility of major state-to-state warfare in the coming years. More likely threats include terrorism, insurgencies, ethnic conflict, failed states and piracy.

In other words, we are likely to be in "nasty little wars" such as Afghanistan, not big ones. That's not to say we don't need to plan for army expansion. It just means our plans need to reflect current realities and not a Second World War-sized army. As one retired officer told me, "Total mobilization is a total waste of time."

The other two reserve roles - augmentation and footprint in the community - have proved their worth. Our army is simply too small to be able to fill all its needs using the regular forces, and the reserves are an important reservoir of critical skills from combat to civil-military co-operation, public affairs, logistics and geomatics.

The reserves ensure that the connection between the army and its citizens remains strong. So it's vital that our army be present throughout the country as it is in the 130 reserve units in 110 communities across Canada. An army garrisoned on a few large bases loses contact with the people it's intended to protect.

So it's time to have reservists step more fully into the role of homeland security with the regular forces involved largely in expeditionary efforts. The reserves have distinguished themselves in ice storms, floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters. And there's every reason to believe they would do equally well if faced with non-traditional threats from pandemics to attacks on critical infrastructure.

But if the reserves are going to be able to do what we ask of them, they'll need more resources and support than they've received. The Harper government's Canada First Defence Strategy flatlined reserves growth over the next 20 years and was silent about future roles. Recent defence cuts are likely a harbinger for what's ahead. Long-standing problems exist in recruiting, retention, training, equipment, post-deployment care and employer support. And there's no overall strategy to fix them.

Canada's reserves have done all we've asked and more. It's time we paid some attention to this venerable Canadian institution to ensure they'll be well-trained and well-equipped when we need them - and there's absolutely no doubt we will.

David Pratt, a senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, was minister of national defence from December of 2003 to July of 2004 and served as a special adviser to the Canadian Red Cross from 2004 to 2008.