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Thanks, Mr. Ben-Tahir, but ...

In a recent opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen, Idris Ben-Tahir, according to the Citizen “ an information scientist, has served as an officer with the RCAF (reserve); as a staff officer and command editor with Air Transport Command Headquarters in Trenton, Ont.; and on the staff of the chief of Air Doctrine and Operations at NDHQ, Ottawa”, comes out in support of General Hillier’s recent “decade of darkness” comment.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ben-Tahir’s defence of General Hillier is a mixed bag of good, valid points and some incorrect ones.
In essence, he blames Canada’s current defence woes on Paul Hellyer, who was Lester B. Pearson’s Defence Minister in the early ‘60s – 45 years ago. The Ruxted Group is no great fan of Mr. Hellyer but he is only one ‘player’ in the political debacles which characterized Canadian foreign and defence policies in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Prime Ministers Trudeau and Chrétien, especially, must shoulder most of the blame.

He says: “During the long Cold War, there were three radar nets strung across the breadth of our country: Pinetree, Mid-Canada and Distant Early Warning (DEW) lines, alerting about any intrusion into our airspace.” But he forgets that these were old fashioned, relatively short range radars – the far fewer, modern radars in service today provide more and better coverage at a fraction of the cost. More is not always better, Mr. Ben-Tahir.

He also says: “Fighter-interceptors: Canucks, Voodoos and Hornets scrambled to verify a "bogey" unknown, or checkmate a "bandit" intruding Soviet bomber, escorting it out of our airspace.” This ignores the fact that the manned bomber threat is much reduced – we do not need as many interceptors fueled, armed and ‘ready’ at air bases across the continent. Fewer, much more capable Hornets, supported by AWACS aircraft, will do the job better and more economically.

But, we must not ignore this operational requirement because the Russians aren't nearly playing as nice today as they were immediately in the afterglow of perestroika and democratic reform. Putin is reasserting old hard line ways more and more. A Russian Bear bomber was escorted away from the border in September of last year as were others in 2003 and in 1999. The Russians aren't sleeping, nor should we.

Fighter aircraft responding to a conventional Russian threat, however, has been largely superseded by the reality of modern terrorism. This was brought home with sharp clarity on 9/11 when two USAF F-15s were launched from Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts - - too late to stop the tragedies in New York and Washington. We need sufficient ‘ready’ aircraft at enough locations in order to be able to cover our airspace effectively - unless one really likes the idea of US planes "escorting" flights of interest over Canadian airspace.

On balance, however, new, more capable systems, with better reliability, availability and maintainability can do much more with fewer and fewer actual aircraft.

Mr. Ben-Tahir notes the deleterious effects on the morale and reputation of the Canadian Forces and its leadership of the Somalia incident (and subsequent inquiry) and the Airborne Regiment hazing incidents. Very true but it must be countered with the positive effects: a new generation of leaders vowed, “Never again!” They set about transforming the Canadian Forces – a much needed process which is ongoing today.

Mr. Ben-Tahir zeroed in on one serious problem when he said: “In the 1960s the army had six regular infantry regiments, but now only the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Royal 22nd Regiment (The Van Doos) remain. We juggle, or rather recycle, the soldiers constantly to meet our international obligations.”

The juggling is a serious problem but it is not a function of how many ‘regiments’ (each with a different cap badge, customs and traditions). It's about the battalions within those regiments: we have far too few battalions and the battalions we have are too small. We need thousands of new, young, tough, superbly disciplined, well trained and properly equipped soldiers in the infantry – probably in 10 to 15 battalions, many at full strength (1,000± soldiers). We also need thousands of new soldiers in the other arms and services which fight alongside and support the infantry.

The ‘Regiments’ do matter, however. The Canadian Army has decided to base its internal organization on a variation of the Anglo-Indian regimental system. It could not be otherwise. We are a bilingual nation and there is no way that a one-size-fits-all ‘unitary’ or numerical system could work – the French speaking battalions would always be ‘different.’ It makes good sense to exploit the differences to encourage healthy competition between units – to improve skills and performance. Our ‘regimental system’ does this, but with only three infantry regiments it does not do it as well as it could and should.

Increasing the number of regiments is highly desirable but it cannot happen until the infantry itself is much larger. Our British cousins just went through a painful exercise in regimental amalgamation (the creation of The Royal Regiment of Scotland from six other regiments). The lesson is that single battalion regiments are too expensive – not just in dollars for uniforms but, more importantly, in effective, operational personnel management.

We do need more regular regiments – five to seven of them. Each needs to have two or more regular battalions and a ‘depot’ wherein recruit training is conducted – for that regiment and for other army support branches. But that must come as part of an urgent process of beefing up the infantry and the other arms and services.

Not only do we need more battalions in more Regiments, but we need units with new and different attributes to provide our government with flexibility and options for dealing with 21st century issues. Units like the Canadian Special Operations Regiment and an expanded and fully manned Disaster Assistance Response Team are examples of what the Canadian Forces needs in addition to the traditional types of units represented by our current Regiments.

The Ruxted Group thanks Mr. Ben-Tahir for getting some of the CF’s problems out into the public eye, again. When concerned Canadians speak others must listen – when enough concerned Canadians speak maybe the whole nation will listen. We caution, however, that it is important to focus on the real, current problems – not all of which are holdovers from Paul Hellyer’s ill-conceived ‘integration/unification’ programme of 45 years ago.


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