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CANADIAN ARMY – Army Modernization

CANADIAN ARMY – Army Modernization

 BY RICHARD NGHIEM

MODERNIZATION

Equipping Canada’s Army for conventional warfare in the 21st century

Since the start of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ to seize Kyiv, annex the Donbas, and secure a land corridor to Crimea, war planners from countries all around the world have worked meticulously to harvest all possible relevant lessons from this modern warfare experience. Nearly two years later, it is safe to say that some very clear conclusions can be made.

From the perspective of Canada, the main lesson from this conflict is simple: its armed forces, as is, are completely unprepared and poorly equipped for 21st century conventional warfare and are incapable of fighting high-intensity conflicts. Most, if not all, of the types of weapons which have been instrumental and game-changing in the war in Ukraine are completely absent from the CAF’s current arsenal. Such potent combat systems that Canada lacks include shoulder-launched surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles, short- and medium-range ground-based air defence (GBAD), portable guided “fire-and-forget” anti-tank missiles, long range rocket artillery, self-propelled howitzers, loitering munitions, armed ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) drones, mobile shore-based anti-ship missile launchers, long range land attack cruise missiles, and a properly functioning submarine fleet. While these capability gaps and deficiencies in military combat equipment have long been well known problems for the Canadian military, they have become increasingly glaring and obvious due to the current war in Ukraine. With countries from all around the world shipping large amounts of desperately needed arms and heavy weapons to the government in Kyiv to help it defend its democracy and sovereignty, Ottawa has awkwardly struggled to supply the Ukrainian armed forces with anything of significant military value.

Some defence analysts will surely contest this statement and point to the four M777 155 mm howitzer systems, 20,000 rounds of 155 mm ammunition, 8 Leopard II main battle tanks, and Carl Gustaf and M-72 shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons Canada has provided to Kyiv. But these armaments are either too few in number or totally obsolete, thereby making them of little use on the battlefield. Examples of outdated equipment include Ottawa’s shipments of reusable Carl Gustaf and one-shot disposable M-72s. In addition to being unguided weapons that can only be used against stationary, short-range targets, both of these munitions, even at extremely limited distances, cannot penetrate the armour of a typical, average modern-day battle tank. This combat ineffectiveness has already been demonstrated on the battlefield in Ukraine on numerous occasions with Canadian supplied anti-tank missiles failing to destroy Russian T-72 tanks at short range distances and even at point blank range.

The Canadian military, however, probably to the surprise of many young Canadians, was not always in this decrepit state. During the Cold War, it possessed massive stockpiles of shoulder-launched surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles, effective portable anti-tank weapons, a reasonably extensive GBAD system, and a competent submarine force. To exemplify this, the CAF once had thousands of tripod-mounted TOW (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wireless-guided) missile launchers to help NATO counter the Soviet Union’s numerical superiority in tanks.

However, due to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the vaunted Soviet military, most of Canada’s TOW weapons were sold off or dismantled, with only a small, limited contingent of 40 systems placed in storage as a reserve. In addition to the divestment of basically all of its anti-tank capabilities, the CAF’s entire ground-based air defence system, stockpile of shoulder fired surface-to-air missiles, and fleet of Iroquois-class air defence destroyers were also decommissioned. These cuts further extended to Canada’s undersea fleet with most of its submarines being retired from service. As a result, the Navy currently only has a token force of four submarines.

This massive widespread demobilization of the CAF during the 1990s and 2000s, overall, was not just a result of a lack of perceived military threats from Russia or any other country in the world, but also America’s new status as the world’s first true global hegemon. Three decades of absolute US military dominance, after the end of the Cold War, and a favourable unipolar Washington-backed liberal world order did not do Canada’s military any favours. With America’s overwhelming power and guaranteed security umbrella over all of North America, the federal government in Ottawa along with the majority of Canadians easily became lulled into believing that there were no dangers or threats to Canada; and if one were to arise, U.S. forces would immediately come to its defence. Consequently, defence free riding has been Canada’s policy for the last thirty years, resulting in draconian cuts to the CAF, not just in terms of personnel and capacity, but more importantly, its fundamental conventional warfare combat capabilities which is clearly demonstrated and highlighted in the previous paragraph.

CAF members participate in Exercise LETHAL WEAPON in order to prove the new concept of adding anti-armour capabilities to the MRZR Credit: Private Jennifer Froome, CAF

ASYMETRIC WARFARE IN AFGHANISTAN 

Nonetheless, some analysts may still argue that Canada has not completely outsourced its security to the U.S. and point to the CAF’s involvement in the War in Afghanistan as evidence that the Canadian military is still able to unilaterally carry out offensive combat operations. This conflict, however, was highly asymmetrical in nature with the Taliban lacking any kind of air force or heavy armoured units. It was not a true test of the CAF’s ability to effectively conduct high intensity conventional warfare. In fact, it was due to this particular conflict that Ottawa began to view the likelihood of future massed tank-on-tank warfare and of having to face hostile aerial threats to be extremely low. With destroying tanks or enemy aircraft not being a main priority at all, the procurement of main battle tanks, modern “fire and forget” anti-tank missiles, and new portable, shoulder fired surface-to-air munitions were deemed unnecessary. Canada’s military planners instead preferred to invest heavily in self-protection measures, particularly in armoured personnel carriers that could withstand roadside bombs.

This misguided and unnecessary high-risk focus on IED resistant vehicles at the expense of new conventional weapon platforms was clearly highlighted by Canada’s 2017 blueprint for future defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged. Besides mentioning guided anti-tank missiles and air defence capabilities only once, the document does not even place them among the 21 main priorities for the Canadian Army. Furthermore, these outlined concerns and goals, for the most part, still revolve around counter-insurgency missions, similar to those in Afghanistan, instead of great power competition in the 21st century and future high end conventional conflicts, similar to the one taking place in Ukraine right now. The lasting and highly profound impact of all of these decisions and policies is that Canada now lacks any real effective fighting force that is capable of helping NATO defend Europe against further Russian aggression.

HIGH-END CONVENTIONAL CONFLICTS

Consequently, in response to this dire situation, it is imperative that DND officials first truly embrace the reality that future operating environments will most likely not be permissive in nature, but rather highly contested and degraded. This changed strategic mindset will gradually enable civilian and military leaders to completely overhaul the 21 main priorities, set out for the Canadian Army in the defence policy, and rebuild the service with a main focus on conventional war fighting.

However, to quickly rectify fundamental combat capability gaps that the CAF faces right now, DND should first analyze the ongoing war in Ukraine and how the supposedly ‘inferior’ Ukrainian military has somehow managed to effectively fend off Russia’s massive invasion force for nearly two years, reclaim significant amounts of territory, and mount a large-scale counteroffensive. With Ukraine being similar to Canada in that it is not a military power by any means and does not spend much on its defence, Ottawa can learn a great deal from Ukraine about how to punch above one’s weight. DND officials and analysts, consequently, upon having carefully studied and paid close attention to how Ukrainian forces have fought, must take particular note of the devastating combat effects that U.S.-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles have had against Russian armour. These weapons, of the shoulder-launched ‘fire and forget’ variety, have been utilized very successfully by small, nimble Ukrainian infantry and anti-tank teams which have been able to stealthily maneuver and constantly ambush Russian tanks with devastating ‘hit and run’ attacks. As a result, despite having vastly fewer main battle tanks (MBT) than the Russian Army, the Ukrainian armed forces have still been able to resist and repel numerous armoured assaults with cheap, but equally powerful weapons.

This is due to the fact that unlike Canada’s current arsenal of TOW, Carl Gustaf, and M-72 anti-tank systems which either still rely on second-generation wire guidance to eliminate targets or are unguided, America’s FGM-148 Javelins possess the latest, state-of-the-art ”fire-and-forget” guidance systems which allow troops to shoot and quickly relocate, leaving the missile to seek out and destroy enemy tanks on its own. These advanced munitions are also highly effective in that instead of trying to destroy modern day tanks by penetrating their thick frontal armour or layers of reactive armour on their sides, they hit tanks from above as the armour directly on top of the turret is usually very thin. There is also far less reactive protection. As a result, Javelin anti-tank missiles are famously known as ‘one shot, one kill’ weapons and the battlefield evidence in Ukraine, supporting this statement, is nothing short of overwhelming. Thousands of obliterated Russian tanks, with their turrets completely blown off, litter towns, cities, countryside roads, forests, as well as the vast grasslands of the Donbas region. Overall, taking into account the immense utility and devastating combat effects of these token-price shoulder-launched ‘fire-and-forget’ munitions against multi-million dollar Russian tanks, high-ranking CanadianDND officials should heed the usefulness of these overlooked cost-effective weapons and incorporate them into Canada’s own Army. As a result, thousands of new anti-tank missiles, preferably FGM-148 Javelins, should be acquired as quickly as possible. These weapons in the hands of regular infantrymen would be a perfect complement to Canada’s existing fleet of TOW missile equipped MRZR all-terrain vehicles which could also be expanded as well as they have proven to be highly effective in Ukraine against Russian armed forces.

Ottawa, however, despite this new procurement priority, must not fall victim to the increasingly pervasive belief that the MBT has become obsolete, which many defence experts have started to argue. Tanks are constantly being upgraded with active protection systems and continue to provide a combination of force protection, firepower, and mobility, unmatched by any current or projected future ground combat vehicle. Not only that, to use the current destruction of Russian tanks in Ukraine as evidence that MBTs are obsolete is very misguided as these armoured vehicles have long had a serious ‘jack-in-the-box’ design flaw that their Western counterparts and other MBTs around the world do not have. This well-known design issue of Russian tanks is that they carry their supply of up to 40 shells in their turrets, which means that even an indirect hit can cause secondary explosions and the entire ammunition magazine to explode, decapitating the tank.

Consequently, while the purchase of hundreds of cheap and cost-effective ‘fire and forget’ launchers along with thousands of Javelin munitions must be a top procurement priority for DND, the maintenance and upgrading of its current tank fleet of Leopard 2A4 and 2A6s to all Trophy system-protected Leopard 2A7 MBTs should also be prioritized. With fiscal constraints being as tight as they are for DND, the prioritization of new Javelins and cost-effective tank upgrades are perfect for the Army as they provide substantial, additional firepower at a very reasonable price. More importantly, from a combat mission point of view, these procurement projects will significantly enhance Canada’s ground forces’ ability to properly support NATO against any further military aggression by Russia into the Baltic States, Poland, or NATO’s newest member state, Finland.

Besides the Javelin, another cheap, but effective shoulder-fired lifesaver for Ukrainian forces has been the Stinger surface-to-air missile. Just as it was the scourge of Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s, where the U.S. delivered it in masses to Mujahedeen fighters to shoot down Soviet attack helicopters and low flying jets, the Stinger has returned, newer and better, to haunt the Russian air force once again, this time in Ukraine. President Biden, over the last five months, has dispatched thousands of these lethal weapons to Kyiv to aid it in its fight against Moscow. With an effective engagement range of 15,000 feet and an infrared seeker warhead that tracks and hones in on an aircraft’s heat signature, usually its engine, Stingers can destroy almost any helicopter or jet that flies below 12,000 feet. They are also highly portable and simple to use, meaning that regular Ukrainian infantry soldiers, national guardsman, part-time reservists, and even volunteer militias can be able to use them to down multi-million dollar aircraft. As a result, over the course of the conflict in Ukraine, these shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles have been successfully used to, so far, shoot down hundreds of Russian helicopters, ground attack aircraft, and fighter jets along with hundreds of drones.

The current success of U.S. supplied surface-to-air Stingers against Russian aircraft, thus far, serves as a lesson of the Ukraine war that any successful or effective ground-based air defence arrangement must be layered and include not only mobile long-range SAM (surface-to-air missiles) batteries, but also individually operated shoulder-launched missiles.

CANADA MISSING GBAD

The federal Liberal government’s purchase of a National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) from the U.S. for Kyiv has highlighted a glaring combat capability gap in Canada’s military: the absence of its own GBAD system. Hard questions are now being asked about why such equipment isn’t being bought for the Canadian Army which has been without anti-air weapons since 2012. According to Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Wayne Eyre, this long-standing deficiency is due to the fact that while frequent incursions by Russian Tupolev bombers and Su-35 fighter jets into Canada’s northern air defence identification zone and sovereign airspace over the Arctic have dramatically increased each year since the end of the Cold War, they have generally been deemed by Ottawa to be not a real threat. Up until its invasion of Ukraine, last year, Russia was perceived to be a second-tier security risk to terrorism. This naive strategic assessment along with the foolish assumption that the Canadian Army and its allies would have air superiority in any battle and not have to worry about enemy air attacks, over the last three decades, therefore resulted in little investment in air defence. Even after 9/11, the Canadian government, instead of retaining whatever few remaining GBAD systems it had left to defend the country against similar attacks, completely divested itself of them.

Overall, having witnessed and observed all the critical roles that air defence systems have played throughout the conflict, from denying the Russian air force complete control over the skies of Ukraine to intercepting hundreds of cruise missiles to shooting down thousands of suicide drones, it is imperative that Ottawa finally wakes up and realizes that air and missile defence are not ‘optional luxuries’ that it can choose to have or not have, but rather strategic military assets, critical to the future of warfare in the 21st century.

The Canadian Army must receive a significant short-term infusion of additional funding in order for it to take drastic steps now to quickly stand up a fully functioning, extensive, multi-tiered, and multi-layered GBAD system. This vital networked apparatus must not only be capable of defending Canadian troops on the battlefield against conventional aircraft and long-range precision guided munitions, but also of protecting the homeland and major cities from ballistic and hypersonic glide vehicle attacks.

To achieve this, short-range air defence platforms like the Stinger and Boeing’s new upgraded Avenger GBAD system along with medium- and long-range SAM batteries such as the NASAMS, THAAD, and the Patriot PAC-3 must be procured.

Israel’s Iron Dome along with Germany’s IRIS-T are also examples of other viable platforms that could be purchased. These assets, when collectively used, will be able to effectively detect, track, intercept and destroy a wide range of threats including enemy fixed and rotary aircraft, UAVs, and incoming cruise missiles.

LONG-RANGE PRECISION FIRES

While the desperate need for anti-tank missiles and tactical ground-based air defence is very real, the importance of these capabilities is far from the only lesson Ottawa should heed from the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian War. The conflict has also demonstrated the proliferation and immense value of long-range precision fires.

It is imperative that Canada immediately acknowledge the overwhelming importance of long-range precision fires and make them a top procurement priority. The significance of such combat systems is indisputably supported by the fact that Kyiv’s forces, supported by more than two hundred American M777 155mm howitzers as well as twenty HIMARS systems and other Western guided artillery systems, have been able to not only liberate significant portions of Ukraine, but also mount a significant counteroffensive along the entire frontline. Leveraging its more accurate and mobile howitzers as well as longer range guided rocket systems, Ukraine has been able to severely disrupt Russian supply lines, destroy dozens of vital ammunition dumps, obliterate pontoon bridges, deny incoming reinforcements, annihilate large hostile armoured forces, and decapitate numerous C2 nodes.

This real-life demonstration of the effectiveness of guided artillery, particularly mobile GPS guided rocket systems, exposes one of the biggest capability gaps in the Canadian military. With its limited arsenal of 37 towed M777 155 mm howitzers, the CAF lacks not only long-range fires, but also mobile, self-propelled fire support assets.

To rectify this weakness, Ottawa must immediately procure the very same weapon platforms which have proven to be so effective against Russian forces in Ukraine in not only destroying tactical and strategic level targets, but also evading counter battery fire. These include America’s famed GPS-guided High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and Excalibur shell-equipped M109 Paladin self-propelled 155mm howitzers as well as France’s new next-gen mobile 155 mm CAESAR artillery units.

To be able to help deter adversaries like Russia or China and effectively support NATO in future combat operations, investment in long-range precision fires is imperative, and HIMARS, in particular, is the cornerstone to it all. Besides being technologically advanced, relatively cheap, and easily sustainable, which is key for a small military like Canada’s, this artillery rocket system can fire all the latest precision guided munitions including Extended-Range Guided MLRS rockets, the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) and the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). These weapons can accurately strike high value tactical and strategic land targets as well as warships at sea from nearly 500 km away. HIMARS is also a wheeled chassis instead of a tracked vehicle, allowing for a more rapid shoot-and-scoot capability as well as unmatched mobility and transportability.

LOITERING MUNITIONS

Canada’s military, after observing the Russia-Ukraine war for almost two years, must fully appreciate the importance of and procure large amounts of loitering munitions. The continuous supply of U.S. Switchblades and Phoenix Ghosts to Ukraine has been nothing short of critical in destroying Russian armoured forces and hampering Moscow’s general advance.Furthermore, from a tactical point of view, the benefits of these weapons are not only that they are small and therefore more difficult to shoot down, but that they can easily engage beyond line-of-sight ground targets such as entrenched soldiers or high-value, mobile air defence radars and missile launchers with great accuracy. Additionally, their compact size allows for soldiers to potentially carry several of them, significantly magnifying the firepower of an infantry unit. This interesting combination of characteristics and capabilities of loitering munitions in addition to their cheap prices should be especially appealing to a country like Canada which does not spend much on defence and has a small army. Frankly, these weapons would give the CAF the most ‘bang for the buck’ as they can be procured in massive amounts and be utilized in highly effective mass attacks which can overwhelm even the most advanced GBAD systems and cause significant combat damage. Such ordinance is already available to Canada if it is willing to invest in this emerging capability and includes U.S. Switchblades, Phoenix Ghosts, and Locusts, as well as Israel’s Harpy loitering munition.

C-UAV

However, for every new offensive weapon that it fields, the Canadian Army must also adopt credible countermeasures to foil a similar attack against it. Consequently, with the procurement of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV), ‘suicide’ drones, and loitering munitions, DND needs to acquire various directed energy weapons such as lasers and high-power microwave counter-drone systems. Such an emphasis on counter-drone warfare is particularly critical right now as the threat of fully networked autonomous weaponized drone swarms becomes increasingly prevalent around the globe.

While lasers should definitely be a technology that the Army invests in as it is far less expensive on a ‘cost per shot’ basis than missiles or any other air defence system and is not inhibited by magazine depth, high-power microwave systems, such as THOR should be the service’s main focus. This is due to the fact that unlike lasers which are limited in their multi-target engagement capabilities, high power microwave systems like THOR can knock out large groups and even swarms of drones with broad disruptive beams. Nonetheless, systems like THOR are by no means a silver bullet and are still likely to be integrated within layered defences along with lasers and traditional missile defences. With the use of drones by foreign adversaries on the rise, the need to protect against them with every possible defence technology available remains high.

CONCLUSION

In an increasingly unstable and unpredictable world, all of these capabilities are critical to the Canadian Army as, in the future, they may be called to bring the fight to remote and far away regions around the globe.

While the Canadian Army may be well versed in combined arms warfare and capable of fielding a small force in support of a coalition fight, it is far from being ready to operate in a high-intensity 21st century conventional war setting. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has clearly showcased this and exposed many glaring deficiencies and capability shortfalls in Canada’s military. While it is not too late to fix these issues, action must be taken now and swiftly. Such steps include the Army taking note of all of its weaknesses, procuring cutting edge defence technologies it needs in a timely manner, and adjusting its doctrine and training to fully exploit the latest military hardware. By executing these measures, the Canadian Army will have a much greater chance at being able to effectively assist NATO in a major conventional conflict with a near-peer adversary as prescribed in Strong, Secure, Engaged.

However, while these proposals would greatly enhance the modernization of the service branch, they ultimately must have the approval of the federal government and the Prime Minister. This is unfortunate as since the end of the Cold War, both the Liberal and Conservative Parties have adopted a defence policy of not procuring capabilities unless they are absolutely necessary to achieve a given mandate. Until this attitude changes, the Canadian Army will continue to have the reputation of being an old, antiquated force, operating in the wrong century. More dangerously, it may possibly be ordered to go into a future high intensity war, completely unprepared. Just like how it went into a desert war in Afghanistan wearing green camouflage uniforms and in unarmored vehicles.

Richard Nghiem is a Regular CDR Contributor

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