Thursday, December 29, 2005

Reaching to find substance

Babble on.

A couple of days ago, Harper and the Conservatives released the latest portion of their ambitious plan for retooling national defence in Canada. Disappointingly, it lacks the substance of earlier proposals tabled in Trenton and Winnipeg.

“Canada’s military capacity in this region has been allowed to atrophy. The capacity of the Pacific naval fleet, based at CFB Esquimalt, and our Pacific air force presence at CFB Comox, has been allowed to deteriorate. British Columbia, which is in an earthquake zone, is now the only region of the country without a regular land forces presence,” said Mr. Harper.

A number of measures were announced to secure Canada’s sovereignty on Canada’s West Coast under the “Canada First” defence strategy, including:

  • Increasing Pacific navy personnel levels by about 500 regular force personnel to meet Pacific Fleet requirements and to bring CFB Esquimalt up to full strength;

  • Improving the Pacific fleet by purchasing a new replenishment ship and a new transport ship, upgrading existing frigates and submarines, and initiating a longer term frigate/destroyer replacement program;

  • Restoring a regular army presence in British Columbia with a new rapid reaction army battalion of 650 regular force personnel, which will be air deployable, to be stationed at CFB Comox;

  • Establishing new air force surveillance capability with a new long-range unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) squadron with about 100 personnel to be stationed at CFB Comox, in addition to upgrading Aurora surveillance aircraft;

  • Improving air force squadrons at CFB Comox and throughout the West by deploying new fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft at CFB Comox and CFB Winnipeg, and upgrading fighter aircraft at CFB Cold Lake, and;

  • Providing new territorial batallions with 100 regular and at least 400 reserve force personnel each, to be prepared to respond to emergencies in Canada’s major urban areas, with battalions in the West to be stationed in the areas of Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, and Winnipeg.

Looking at this announcement point by point leaves me underwhelmed.

Increasing personnel levels to fill existing manning requirements in the Pacific Fleet is an excellent idea. But the shortage isn't of raw Ordinary Seamen and Naval Cadets, it's of seasoned PO2's and Lieutenant Commanders. You can't hire folks like that straight off civvy-street, so I'm left wondering what this announcement amounts to in the short term.

Bolstering the Pacific Fleet itself also seems positive on the surface, but without further explanation, I'm not about to get too enthusiastic. New replenishment ships are already in the works, as is a new "transport ship" (the Conservatives are understandably shy about calling it an amphibious assault ship or a hybrid carrier given the Liberal scaremongering from the last election). Upgrading our frigates and subs sounds good, but how are they to be upgraded? Are the Victoria-class diesel-electrics getting quality air-independent propulsion (AIP) refits that would allow for under-ice operations in our Arctic waters? Is FELEX going to receive some much-needed political attention and priority? Or are we just talking about a new coat of paint? And as far as a long-term replacement for our air-defence destroyers and frigates, there's no shortage of options. Shouldn't we figure out if air-defence is a role we want our Navy to play before we devote a pile of resources to a long-term destroyer replacement? Especially given the amount of coastline we have to protect ourselves, and the limited nature of our defence budget? CADRE might be a needed program, but the policy discussion needs to take place first.

A regular-force army presence in British Columbia is a must, and the Conservatives are to be lauded for recognizing that fact. But is CFB Comox the ideal location? Sure, there's already a military airfield there to facilitate deployment in the event of an emergency, but as the esteemed Mr. Donovan has said in this comment to a Katrina post:

I hope Wonderdog isn't suggesting that the response should be pre-positioned in the area... if that happens, they simply become part of the disaster, not assistance to it.
The response teams can't just come in and jump on local infrastructure, either - that's what's broken... so there has to be places for them to eat, sleep, and poop. Don't have that - and the responders become casualties.

Having your response teams become casualties in a crisis isn't the best of ideas. This also applies to the mixed regular- and reserve-force battalions conceived of for urban locales such as Vancouver. Depending upon the disaster, their utility may be less than we'd hope.

Upgrading the Auroras and standing up UAV squadrons is a good idea. But Harper already announced the UAV idea as part of his Arctic sovereignty announcement, and keeping the Auroras in the air isn't exactly revolutionary (what else could you do other than buy new maritime patrol aircraft?).

SAR aircraft upgrades are already progressing - albeit not at the pace anyone would like - but putting more assets in Winnipeg isn't exactly new either, considering it was Winnipeg. Upgrades to the CF-18 fleet would be most welcome, considering they currently can't patrol our own airspace sufficiently, nor can they take part in coalition operations abroad. But again, keeping our current equipment useful isn't really much of a thunderbolt, is it?

The last point in the announcement - for mixed regular- and reserve-force "regional battalions" to be stationed in major urban centres - leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, I've felt for years that part of the reason the CF gets next to no real support from the Canadian electorate is that they're largely invisible to most of the population. Basing front-line operational units very visibly in cities across the country would raise awareness of military matters in your average Canadian, and that's a good thing (contrary to the spectacularly moronic opinion of this intellectual midget). So is having a greater focus on disaster relief and emergency response. On the other hand, do we really need a new army unit in Calgary when we have 1- and 3PPCLI, the Strathconas, and 1CER - among others - already in the province? Looking strictly at military capabilities, this is window dressing.

I understand the need to dribble out policy announcements bit by bit in order to manage the news cycle and keep the Grits on the defensive. Really, I do - and I applaud the CPC staff for sticking to it. But that doesn't mean I don't find the piecemeal approach terribly frustrating.

Where's the overarching defence policy that gives these announcements context? I can see the specific proposals, but what is the plan?

Babble off.


At 6:50 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we can rest assured that the military will be extensively improved if the conservatives win.. Of course to avoid looking "crazy" and like "war mongers" I think they have decided to take a moderate approach on defence spending... unfortunate, but i don't worry - well, aside from the worries of another Red parliament

At 2:10 a.m., Blogger lance said...

I don't think Comox is a bad place for the first responders to be in the event of a Vancouver quake.

Firstly, it's bedrock, not the delta sand that Vancouver is on.

Secondly, it's far enough away that any major earthquake in the Vancouver area isn't going to destroy it. It's high enough that a tidal wave won't either.

The infrastructure for the base is already there. Better than building a new base out of Hope or Sannich. Besides, it's likely that Hwy 1 and 10 would be completely destroyed anyway, so Hope is out anyway.

It's also a quick boat or plane ride to Vancouver. I don't know how bad the damage would be in Vic. so you can't really depend on that as a jump off point.

And it may just be my rankism, but I think the LS/MS/PO problem is much greater then the Officer problem. I believe that the CF is still way top heavy in all branches.


At 9:20 a.m., Blogger wonderdog said...

Taking my name in vain? I can't recall the Katrina comment in question and I missed that response, but I agree that you don't want to position your responders where they will be at risk, for obvious reasons.

The naval part of this bothers me, simply because of my oft-stated position that we need a policy discussion (as you say). This stuff is expensive and has a very long service life.

I don't see it as vital that a regular army unit be stationed in BC (although I can see plenty of good arguments for placing one there). From a cost-effectiveness standpoint, it is better to avoid having units stationed here and there. That's not a firm objection, but I smell a certain appeal to the local economy in this announcement, to be frank, and I'm beginning to wonder if the CPC defence plan isn't rife with the same regional benefits (pork) considerations that have long plagued defence in this country.

The territorial battalion idea is kind of strange. The first priority should be effective reserves -- that's a prerequisite to being able to form a battalion of this kind. Without them, it's paper tiger. Not much of a posting for the 100 reg force personnel, continually taking to the field as a cadre for an ill-equipped, undertrained and understrength unit.

Effective reserves are actually a pretty expensive proposition. You need to give them the equipment to train on first, which has been largely absent since the early to mid 90s when it was all stripped away to support peacekeeping commitments. I'm a big proponent of reserves but we can't pretend that they cost nothing.

Nothing but criticism from me, as always. :)


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