“VIMY PAPER 44–COVID-19 AND THE CANADIAN ARMED FORCES: OVERVIEW, ANALYSIS, AND NEXT STEPS”

Further to this post,

Will COVID-19 Kill the Canadian Military? Its Budget, that is

here are the beginning and end of an analysis at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute that raises important questions, by Adam MacDonald and Carter Vance:

Executive Summary

Like governments and public institutions across Canada, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have enacted a series of drastic measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are two primary, inter-linked but distinct objectives underpinning these moves. First, to protect its personnel and assets to preserve capability to fulfill defence duties during the pandemic. Second, and relatedly, to carve out capacity to support governments in their efforts to combat the pandemic if requested.

As unprecedented as the COVID-19 pandemic is, it represents the continuation of a larger trend in terms of ever-increasing demand for CAF support to domestic emergencies. Answering these requests is perfectly reasonable, as providing assistance to civil authorities during domestic disasters or major emergencies is one of eight core missions of the CAF as outlined in the current defence policy. Furthermore, a recent poll by Ipsos, commissioned by the CDA Institute, indicates 9 out of 10 across the entire country are supportive of the CAF being called upon to assist governments in their fight against COVID-19. But such domestic demands question the organization’s’ ability to meet these requests alongside others defence duties.

Once the current conditions of the pandemic have passed, a Royal Commission or other high-level review should be initiated to look at Canada’s COVID-19 response from a whole-of-government perspective. Such a review will touch on many aspects, including but not limited to public health, federal-provincial responsibilities in terms of emergency management, and the effectiveness of social programmes in responding to the economic fallout.  The issues outlined in this paper make it clear that such a review must also include a separate report about the CAF’s domestic role and the distribution of duties, mandates, and resources for the organizations in Canada’s security communities.

The CAF will always be ready to defend Canada and help Canadians through a crisis, but are they properly mandated and should they be tasked with the increasing domestic duties they have been asked to take on? Is a more dedicated force, either functionally tasked to do so within the military, or a new civilian agency a better fit to meet the growing demand from domestic emergencies?  These are questions that do not have easy answers. Further, they are not exclusively or even primarily questions of logistics, funding or technical capabilities. Above all, they are questions that must be answered by policymakers and the public at a more overarching political level and rest on fundamental beliefs about what their military is for.

Introduction 

Like governments and public institutions across Canada, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have enacted a series of drastic measures, many unprecedented in the history of the organization, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are two primary, inter-linked but distinct objectives underpinning these moves. First, to protect its personnel and assets to preserve capability in order to fulfill defence duties during the pandemic. Second, to carve out capacity to support governments in their efforts to combat the pandemic if requested.

Balancing between these priorities is no easy task. However, as recently stated by a Department of Defence (DND) spokesperson: “The Canadian Armed Forces does not see any greater threat to ourselves or Canadians than what has been described by health authorities.”[i] The priority is and should remain on determining the best ways for the CAF to protect its personnel, ensure core (non-pandemic) defence duties are maintained, and prepare options which best leverage the organizations’ resources and competencies towards any requests made by governments.

The COVID-19 pandemic, represents the continuation of a larger trend in terms of ever-increasing demand for CAF support to domestic emergencies, questioning the organizations’ ability to meet these requests alongside others defence duties. Such matters are not simply technological, capability and/or budgetary in nature. These are political questions about what Canadians’ think the military’s role should be to confront and operate within an ever-evolving security environment with a growing impact on the domestic front. The military’s mandates, roles and responsibilities should be reassessed and thoroughly reviewed when this pandemic is over, as part of a re-evaluation of the resources and relationships between all of Canadian’s national security agencies.

This paper will start by examining the rationales, goals and details of the measures undertaken by the CAF to date due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The second section will outline the possible ways in which the CAF could assist governments and civil society within the current context. The third section provides an overview of the publicly available requests made thus far to better ascertain the nature and extent of the demand for direct COVID-19 support which is and could be placed on the military. The longer-term trends and challenges due to the pandemic to the CAF comprises the fourth section [note the discussion of the role of the Reserve Force]. The final section will emphasize the need for a post-pandemic review and highlight certain issue areas which should be taken into consideration…

Conclusion

Once the current conditions of the pandemic have passed and day-to-day life in Canada resumes in the context of whatever level of new normality emerges, a Royal Commission or other high-level review to look at Canada’s COVID-19 response from a whole-of-government perspective should be initiated. Such a review will touch on many aspects, including but not limited to, intelligence gathering and sharing (both within Canada’s intelligence community and between other countries in multi-national intelligence organizations such as Five Eyes[lxv]), public health, federal-provincial responsibilities in terms of emergency management, and the effectiveness of social programs in responding to the economic fallout.  The issues outlined in this paper make it clear that such a review must also include a likely separate report about the CAFs domestic role and the distribution of duties, mandates and resources for the organizations in Canada’s security communities.

The CAF will always be ready to defend Canada and help Canadians through a crisis, but are they properly mandated and should they be tasked with the increasing domestic duties they have been asked to take on? Is placing such burdens on the CAF fair to its members and the public and what are the public’s expectations of its military? Is a more dedicated force, either functionally tasked to do so within the military, or a new civilian agency, a better fit to meet the growing demand from domestic emergencies?  These are questions that do not have easy answers. Further, they are not exclusively, or even primarily, questions of logistics, funding, or technical capabilities. Above all, they are questions that must be answered by policymakers and the public at a more overarching political level and rest on fundamental beliefs about what their military is for.

For too long, the question of what Canadians expect from their military, and to what extent they are comfortable with military personnel operating on the Homefront in peacetime, has gone without serious consideration. Rather, this drift into serving as the de facto disaster response option for the federal government has been a result of reflexive policy-making without a clear vision of the future. The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first scenario to raise these questions, but it could prove definitive in charting the path forward.

One has a nervous suspicion that this Liberal government will be much inclined to give priority to the CAF’s domestic emergency operations over their traditional military/defence ones. And one really does wonder how much of the very large funding for such things as new RCAF fighters and new RCN frigates (far and away the most expensive procurement program) will be there over the next several years as federal deficits and the debt balloon. Will the Liberals succumb to the temptation to orient the CAF as a largely constabulary force as opposed to a combat-capable one?

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

5 thoughts on ““VIMY PAPER 44–COVID-19 AND THE CANADIAN ARMED FORCES: OVERVIEW, ANALYSIS, AND NEXT STEPS””

  1. This from UK’s RUSI has much of relevance to Canadian Forces going forward from COVID-19:

    Mark Collins

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  2. Compare what Canadian Armed Forces have been doing so far on COVID-19 with US National Guard (reserves, regular forces doing a fair bit too, US forces admittedly have much greater medical capabilities than CAF):

    Mark Collins

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  3. Now this–where else will flooding hit?

    Mark Collins

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