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From Minor Power to the Major Leagues

November 13, 2007

Some 100 years ago, the British Royal Navy constructed the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought, which also allowed other navies to start from scratch and play catchup, as the Germans, Japanese, and Americans proceeded to do. America’s current monopoly on high technology has given it unprecedented military and international prestige, but such easily accessible weaponry can also fuel the imperial desires of other powers, whether friend or foe. Most Western states are struggling to replace or at least maintain old Cold War style inventories, most notably in the news have been Germany, Australia, and Canada. For simplicities sake we will focus on Canada’s armed forces.

Like most small powers, Canada is a mirror of the US armed forces in miniature. It maintains the three standard arms: air force, navy, and army. By clinging to this industrial age establishment, she finds it increasingly difficult to replace Cold War era weaponry, including aircraft, helicopters, armored vehicles, and ships. She is also failing to take advantage of the New Warfare of the Digital Age .

A case in point is her navy. Canada currently maintains a destroyer/frigate force, a handful of submarines, and a few logistics ships, while planning to build an amphibious type warship in the near future. Perhaps by focusing on maintaining the most potent of these, her submarines, she could carry out the bulk of her maritime missions at far less expense and with less procurement headaches. By arming them with cruise missiles, the submarine can be considered on par with and a threat to the most powerful of warships. To a small navy, the modern undersea boat can be considered a capital ship, cruiser, destroyer, anti submarine vessel, and patrol ship.

Rather than spending precious funds on refitting elderly frigates, which also require advanced and expensive helicopters, as is her current plan, she could use the same funds to purchase new subs to replace the “lemons” she already has, and perhaps even expand the fleet. (See my article titled “An All-Submarine Navy“)

As for logistics and troops transports, this could be effectively performed rather inexpensively by maintaining a sizable merchant marine. Such a task could be accomplished by offering tax incentives and occasional government contracts. Some specialized vessels such as fast cruise ships or freighters could be built to military specifications, and called from commercial service in a national emergency. Fitted with guns and helicopter landing decks, some merchant vessels could be used as patrol ships, as often occurred in the World Wars.

As for airpower, there is ample proof from the various Gulf Wars, that precision missiles and bombs have greatly magnified the firepower of individual fighters and bombers. Single attack planes can now do the work formerly required of whole squadrons from as recently as the Vietnam War. The West has become so proficient at aerial combat, it has been decades since they have lost a fighter in air to air combat. With so many high performance jets still in the hands of non western militaries, it would be foolish to completely downplay the need for dogfighters in a future war, however.

The Canadian Air Force has over 100 very expensive F-18 multi-mission fighters equipped for all forms of combat. In the future, a force of 50 could be maintained strictly for the air superiority role for greatly less cost. These could be backed by several hundred COIN (counter-insurgency) aircraft for air support of the troops. Preferably these would be as light and cheap as possible, such as the subsonic Hawk family of attack/trainers. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) also could be bought for the same missions, as such planes increase in capabilities.

Most nations already have sizable commercial airlines, which could be mobilized for military service in an emergency, and also supply a cadre of reserve air force pilots. Commercially built planes have been utilized for many defense purposes, including air tankers, maritime patrol, troops transports, and could conceivably become long range bombers when fitted with launchers for long range cruise missiles.

If our present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is the need for generous numbers of infantry. Current Western practice is for technology to replace manpower as much as possible, but the facts remain that no nation can long survive if the majority of its populace doesn’t have a stake in its survival and security. This isn’t a call for the return of conscription, but efforts could be made to vastly increase manpower pools, which may include such politically incorrect schemes like hiring mercenaries and increasing ROTC training in schools and colleges.

Canada’s Army has a strength of 62,000, which is almost scandalous considering far poorer Latin American countries generally deploy between 200-300 thousand troops on active duty. One solution might be to integrate reserve and active forces, as do the Israelis, while maintaining a small cadre in service at all times. To pay for an expanded Army, it will be necessary to scrap quantities of World War 2 style arms like tracked armored vehicles, self-propelled artillery, and attack helicopters. By concentrating on a single weapons programs at the expense of others, as we saw with navy submarines, much savings can be gathered without noticeable loss in battle efficiency.

Helicopters, which provide a unique form of mobility have been utilized successfully in all wars of the past 50 years, and could become a cavalry force in its own right, plus provide air support, and troop transport.(See my article “An All-Helicopter Army“) Likewise have fairly inexpensive wheeled armored vehicles proven adequate substitutes for main battle tanks in the Middle East Wars.

A recurring theme for victorious powers in history has been to keep warfare simple, and this lesson holds true today. Computer technology, available everywhere and off the shelf should be utilized for updating antiquated defense establishments which struggle to replace old fashioned weapons of the last century. A minor power such as Canada’s could conceivably transform itself from a force dependent on major allies for defense, to a major regional power with a greater voice in world affairs.

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