OTTAWA – Canada’s army has the ability to simultaneously help its NATO allies deter Russia on Europe’s eastern border while launching a substantial United Nations peacekeeping mission, top military officials and leading experts say.
The government’s decision last week to contribute 450 soldiers, light armoured vehicles and other equipment to Latvia to a 1,000-strong multinational NATO force has raised questions about whether the Canadian Forces can still make good on mounting a major UN peacekeeping mission – a core foreign policy goal of the Trudeau Liberals.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion insist the answer is yes.
Now, the commander of the army, as well as a leading Canadian peacekeeping expert who is helping to advise the government, are backing up those political assertions.
“We will be able to deliver whatever the government wants us to do,” said Lt.-Gen. Marquis Hainse, who turns over command of the army today to Lt.-Gen. Paul Wynnyk.
“There’s room to manoeuvre there, to contribute to somewhere else.”
Indeed, there’s room -but it won’t be easy, said Walter Dorn, a professor at the Canadian Forces Staff College in Kingston.
“The NATO commitment puts a strain on the number of forces that are available for UN deployments but I think we can do both,” Dorn said.
The benchmark for what’s sustainable for a Canadian Forces mission is essentially 3,000 military members deployed abroad at any given time, said Dorn, who cites the fact that a pool of 3,000 was needed for any given rotation to Kandahar in recent years, while a record 3,300 Forces members served in UN peacekeeping missions in the early 1990s.
Canada already has about 400 troops in Ukraine and Poland, and another 800 military personnel in Iraq and Kuwait, drawn mainly from special forces and the air force.
That means Canada could supply up to 1,000 troops to a UN mission and not be stretched too thin, Dorn said.
“Numbers up to 1,000 are sustainable for many years.”
Peacekeeping missions, or peace operations as the government now calls them, would likely draw heavily from the regular army.
Hainse said the army is broken into three different brigades of about 5,000 soldiers who rotate through a 36-month training cycle. The training cycle during the Afghanistan war was accelerated to 18 months, he said.
The end of the combat mission in Afghanistan in 2011, as well as budget cuts imposed in more recent years, resulted in the cycle being slowed. While Hainse said he wouldn’t want to scale it back any further, he was adamant the army can sustain multiple missions at once.
“There’s enough flexibility there to be able to cover a lot,” he said.
Sajjan said Wednesday that containing the spread of terrorism across Africa is a consideration as Canada mulls where it will contribute to a UN peacekeeping mission. Sources say Mali, where the French are leading a UN mission that has seen at least 19 peacekeepers killed this year, is one destination that’s being carefully considered.