Under Operation LENTUS, the Canadian Armed Forces' umbrella for domestic operations, the CAF executed Operation Laser, the CAF's response to the worldwide pandemic. The most important takeaway is one that has not been widely observed or reported. The greatest asset the CAF consistently provide in support of domestic ops is operational capacity, that is, the capacity to plan and execute, especially supply chains; logistics officers who know where to find stuff; the capacity to get it from here to there; and the managerial capacity to execute, if need be, without having to rely on other partners or equipment.
Most other departments consist only of strategic—that is to say policy—and tactical components, service delivery. The large, trained and experienced operational capacity that DND brings to bear to connect the strategic and tactical components and the necessary capacity not to have to rely on others to execute make the CAF unique in Canada.
That exceptional capacity enables the CAF to respond to critical demand, supporting the Public Health Agency of Canada with warehouse inventory to ascertain how much PPE there is, where it is, and optimize its distribution by flying PPE around the country to ensure no one runs out; or with going into 54 long-term care homes.
However, that capacity is also a moral hazard and it comes at a cost to the CAF, its members and the taxpayers. To assure domestic mission success for a diversity of short-fuse requests, the CAF have to maintain an ongoing level of readiness with a highly trained, well-educated roster of both specialized capacity and generalists, and the equipment to support such operations. As for the pandemic, since the CAF medical system supports its own members, it had to strip its own medical system to backstop external demand from select provinces. Should the CAF now expand their medical capacity? With no new resources, such questions raise the prospect of painful internal tradeoffs.
Over the past decade, Canada has become more reliant on the CAF to respond to domestic emergencies that are growing in frequency. The chief of the defence staff himself has testified before this committee that it's now almost routine, saying, “We have, I think, [for] the last three years, deployed to support provinces in firefighting and managing floods. It's...becoming a routine occurrence, which it had not been in the past.”
Commentators close to the military fend off an increase in the domestic deployment of the armed services. In December 2019, the commander of the Canadian Army cautioned, “...if this becomes of a larger scale, more frequent basis, it will start to affect our readiness.” CAF leaders wanted to see the armed forces' combat role preserved. The CAF have vehemently resisted anything other than a combat role since the 1950s.
As domestic operations become more frequent, what are the real costs and benefits to the CAF? First, I'd like to make the point that assigning domestic operations exclusively to the reserves, for example, would elicit an extremely negative response from the reserves because they have campaigned consistently for a mobilization role within the combat arms. Operation Laser, the CAF's response to the pandemic, reinforces the trend towards dependency by provinces and the federal government on the CAF. It was highly asymmetric. More than 1,700 troops were deployed for over two months across two provinces and another 22,000 put on standby. These 1,700 troops were doing non-traditional, non-military tasks. These are not normal Operation LENTUS-related tasks, such as forest fires or floods; they are dangerous tasks that require logistics and engineering support. But here, an armoured reconnaissance regiment was taking care of the elderly and doing social welfare calls.
These are not traditional military roles. Is this what the military should be doing? Should the CAF be backstopping abject provincial failure? Is this deployment sound policy?
Every member of the CAF deployed in Operation LENTUS is missing on force generation, training, recruitment and support to operations.
The CAF's initial reports on Operation Laser show an overwhelming need to address relatively straightforward care management weaknesses that better inspection and more aggressive remedial action by provinces could have averted. Indeed, better systems elsewhere explain why the CAF had to backstop only 54 long-term homes rather than the 400 there are across Ontario and Quebec. There were thousands of willing volunteers, yet we called in the CAF.
The Emergencies Act sets out the overall management structure for the federal response. The provinces have primary responsibility, and any federal government backup is to be coordinated through the Minister of Public Safety who, under the act, is responsible for coordinating the federal emergency response plan. The military is supposed to be called upon only when demand exceeds provincial capacity. Yet provinces have come to view the CAF as their first resort, rather than their last. In three recent cases, the provinces drafted and gained approval of requests for assistance before their own resources were exhausted. Newfoundland has entirely disbanded its emergency measures organization, further increasing its dependency on the federal government. Should the armed services have to deploy overseas in a crisis, CAF resources might well be unavailable for domestic operations. Even now, we got lucky. Imagine a call-up for the CAF for forest fires or floods alongside the pandemic and how quickly that might have overwhelmed resources. Therefore, just because they are capable, the CAF are not necessarily the optimal provider of emergency assistance. Much of the requirement appears to be for general labour for which the armed services are a very expensive source. Three inferences follow:
First, the trend of requests for assistance being made by the provinces and approved by the federal government before provincial resources have been exhausted is disconcerting. But this is ultimately a political problem, not a policy one.
Second, the Royal Canadian Air Force should continue to be the go-to source for aviation assets to support domestic operations. A separate fleet of federal government aircraft on standby would be inefficient and costly. Who would operate such a fleet? Only Transport Canada has a separate fleet of fixed-wing and rotary aviation. Chinooks and Griffons are earmarked for LENTUS-related tasks, but that is not their primary function within the CAF. Every regional joint task force has an immediate response unit to move large-scale on 24- to 48-hours' notice. No other organization in the country has that capacity.
Third, the expectation and requirement for the armed services to become involved in overwhelming disasters, such as the 1997 Red River floods and the 1998 ice storm, is unequivocal.
The CAF are a force of last resort. It is inappropriate to use the CAF to displace civilian capacity and labour. If there is a safety or security issue, yes, the CAF should go. But requests for provisions of service should be filled by civilian contractors or the Red Cross. Organizations other than the CAF have tents, sandbags and capacity for long-term care facilities.
The CAF have a well-defined responsibility for domestic operations. “Strong, Secure, Engaged” identifies disaster assistance as one of the eight core missions of the CAF. On the one hand, demand for CAF's assistance with domestic operations is highly likely to persist and to increase. On the other hand, the analysis raises three problems to be addressed.
Number one is how to address the moral hazard created by the federal government backstopping provinces that underinvest in emergency response capabilities and then call prematurely for federal assistance.
Number two is levelling asymmetries associated with implementing the federal emergency response plan. That requires more and better staffing for emergency response within other areas of the federal government, which is a habitual problem.
Number three is how to surge general or semi-skilled labour in an emergency. There are four models Canada could follow.
First is an alternative civilian organization. However, without a dedicated day job to occupy most of its idle time, an agency such as the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency turns out to be quite inefficient, large, bureaucratic, expensive and not very agile.
Second, the federal government could mobilize volunteer and skilled labour, but this raises a host of legal issues.
Third, in anticipation of potential scarcity in the CAF support for domestic operations in the event of large or urgent international defence commitments, the federal government could incentivize modest emergency services organizations that are similar to what we have in Australia and Germany with real operational capacity.
Fourth and finally, the best option may be for the federal government to reprioritize along with a slight formal expansion of the CAF to support their domestic role, and create a combined capability of about 2,000 regular and reserve soldiers to focus on improving infrastructure in remote first nations communities. This combined force would spend most of the year liaising, planning and preparing to deploy to the community in the summer, which could be postponed or rescheduled if they were called out, for instance, to a flood, a wildfire, a pandemic, or whatever it might be.
Such a dedicated domestic role has precedents in the 1920s, 1930s and post-war period. The Royal Canadian Air Force was tasked with mapping and charting Canada. During this process, the RCAF generated skills and planes for bush pilots. Only twice since the Second World War has the CAF reprioritized for major combat: the Korean War and the war in Afghanistan. These can thus be made to reverse the logic from seeing domestic operations as disrupting normal CAF planning activities to actual combat tasking being a plausible but an unlikely disruptor.
Finally, there are some people who think that CAF need a new service in addition to regular and reserved forces, a quasi third service. This is not recommendable. It would raise a myriad of legal and institutional hurdles.
There are two takeaways. First, the CAF need to rethink their posture. For decades they have prioritized expeditionary combat, but the CAF should reverse the logic and prioritize domestic operations. This would also have the advantage that it would make CAF spending more palatable to Canadians.
Second, the CAF must prepare for a future where mission success is not contingent on help from allies. Allied assets may well be tied up elsewhere or have other priorities, but on domestic operations especially allies will expect the CAF to pull their own weight. For Canada the pandemic is thus an object lesson in military autarky. It turns out that the organization has much to learn and relearn.