Friday, October 15, 2004

It's Crunch Tme

Dear Members of the Defence Committee:

It is crunch time and the country will be looking to you for leadership in the wake of the undeniable evidence that the Canadian Forces (CF) has been starved of resources for decades. It truly is time to put aside political rhetoric and hyperbole for the sake of Canada's future security, sovereignty, and status in the world. Your newly appointed committee is starting to sit in deliberation of the most serious state of unpreparedness in which Canada has found itself since the late thirties. While it will still be debated, there is no useful purpose in rehashing how we got to this state and who is guilty of what. The time has come for all-party action.

The plain and simple fact is that the CF is at the lowest state of combat capability in its history, and at a time when the world has become more dangerous than at any time since World War II. To be sure, we do have some good equipment; but we don't have nearly enough, and it is poorly supported, due to lack of funding for operations and maintenance. We have a bow-wave of equipment replacement requirements that is sweeping over the deck and will quickly swamp any bailing effort. This is, in no way, an indictment of the courage, loyalty, dedication and perseverance of Canadians in uniform. They have given and continue to give much more than could reasonably be asked of anyone. They have taken on tasks made virtually impossible through lack of equipment, personnel and training and, somehow, keep pulling it off. They perform these miracles at enormous cost to themselves and their families. This can-do attitude is the CF's greatest strength, but it also lets government (Liberal and Conservative) off the hook. If we're doing so well, why do we need more money?

In the past several years, members of every element of the CF have died due to lack of equipment and/or training. We lost soldiers in Afghanistan, partly due to lack of adequate communications equipment and vehicles. We lost a fighter pilot in Cold Lake in a survivable ejection made fatal by the lack of repeatedly postponed modification to the seat harness. Although the jury will be out for some time, we now also have HMCS Chicoutimi. There are many other examples that could be quoted and argued, but, simply put, enough is enough. Every time something catastrophic happens; media, government and Canadians wring their hands in dismay and fret over what has become of us. After a couple of weeks, the fretting dies down and we get back to our normal state of somnambulism in a world where our enemies are wide awake. To think that Canada does not have enemies would be dangerously naive. They are the same enemies that face our traditional allies.

This brings in the relationship that your committee's work must have with the committee on foreign affairs. At the moment, our foreign affairs strategy is cloudy, at best. We cling to the hope that the United Nations will magically re-invent itself into what it should be. That's not going to happen. We exhort other nations to step up to the plate, while we hide in the dugout. We alienate our traditional allies and trading partners. We knee jerk from crisis to crisis in a vacuum, devoid of any national strategy. A clear vision of where we fit in the real world and where we would like to fit is essential. A coherent and logical foreign affairs strategy will lead the way to a coherent and logical defence and security strategy.

There is an enormous capability within Canada for strategic studies that would assist you in your deliberations. This capability has been largely ignored in the past because, in some circles, it was deemed to be coming from out-of-touch retired senior officers. As one of those officers, at a more junior level, I can tell you that what is offered is centuries of collective experience and wisdom from soldiers, sailors and airmen who have been "there" and who have seen first hand the effects of neglect in foreign policy, defence and security matters. Many of these officers also have decades of experience, out of uniform, in areas of current concern. The only axe that we have to grind is the one that compelled us to serve in the first place. That is the strong desire to make Canada the best and safest nation on earth, and one that is truly looked up to and respected by the rest of the world.

Canada's level of respect has slipped drastically for anyone who has taken the time to look through clear glasses. Canadians in uniform are very highly regarded for their personal qualities, knowledge and professionalism. The same cannot be said for how we are perceived by our allies, when it comes to our contribution as a nation. To be sure, we do superb work in isolated cases, such as Afghanistan. Efforts like that bring the rest of the Army to its knees; just as a combat deployment of a mere six CF-18s would bring the fighter force to its knees. Our people in exchange and co-manning positions are often embarrassed, in the presence of their host forces, at our apparent lack of national resolve and commitment. We must change that perception and the only way to do that is to change the reality.

There are many areas where an immediate infusion of money could be put to effective use. An example would be some of the equipment programs that have been lagging badly, such as strategic airlift and strategic sealift. What will be required is a sustained year-over-year increase in defence spending to make our capabilities eventually match the expectations and realities that will derive from a well-developed national strategy. In my view, this will likely take twenty years. The CF's capacity to recruit and train has been so severely debilitated that it will take a slow-starting, accelerating and determined effort to catch up. At the moment all the trainers are committed doers; and there is no one left to train the trainees. They sit around waiting; get into mischief; and eventually leave in boredom. Breaking the logjam in training and stemming the tide of early attrition should be high priorities. The expertise and experience that has walked out the door has a direct impact on combat effectiveness and safety. With cutbacks in equipment, flying hours, field training days and sailing days, the warrior spirit that is at the heart of our capability is eroded. A decreasing "quality of work" becomes a decreasing "quality of life", and the effects can be insidious and serious.

The work of recovery of the Canadian Forces will take much longer than any of you will likely sit in Parliament, but you can be a part of starting it. The more balanced makeup of your committee over previous Parliaments gives you an unique opportunity to make strong and non-partisan progress in a very difficult and critical task. I urge you most strongly to take advantage of every resource at your disposal to bring some vision, hope and solid planning to Canada's national defence and security programs. Our survival as a sovereign nation depends on it and Canadians are depending on you. Good Luck!

Laurie Hawn, CD
Lieutenant-Colonel (retired)


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