For Ukraine to continue resisting Russia’s war of aggression, Western military aid is essential. According to the Honourable Andrew Leslie, former Member of Parliament for Orléans, and retired LGen of the Canadian Armed Forces, this crisis also demonstrates that Canada needs to step up to the plate and improve military readiness.
As part of this endeavor, we must address the many funding, personnel, and procurement challenges that face the CAF, such as providing efficient leadership. In a war that is more dangerous than the Afghan conflict, Leslie emphasizes the importance of ensuring that the CAF is combat credible, in order to ensure the safety of our armed forces and citizens.
Leslie also touches on Canada’s decision to send four Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, why the West is reluctant to provide Ukraine with F-16s, the funding, personnel, and procurement challenges facing the CAF, and the extent to which the West is willing to aid Ukraine.
When the United States was asked about whether they would send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, President Biden simply said no. What do you think that signifies, in terms of how far the U.S., and maybe other western countries, are willing to go to support Ukraine?
The United States and like-minded allies are willing to go as far as they can, without triggering a slightly vague line Putin has drawn in the mud – the F-16s and tanks were initially declared as part of that red line – vis-à-vis him threatening the use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons in Ukraine. Now, it was made publicly clear that should Putin use weapons of mass destruction, he can expect retaliation. Let’s not forget that NATO was set up as a nuclear alliance, and its initial posture was that if Russia were to invade Europe, the West would use nuclear weapons as a first strike. It was only later, as conventional forces grew on both sides, that the conventional option, which, even though it is tragic and horrendous, is preferable to someone throwing nukes around.
The flip side of the discussion is that Ukraine needs more armoured capabilities because they are losing soldiers at a horrific rate. While Russia is sustaining deadly casualties at seven, eight, or nine times that number, Putin and his generals do not care. They are sending poorly armed, barely trained elderly men, who served their time fifteen to thirty years ago, who are dying in large numbers but take the occasional Ukrainian with them. Ukraine is being bled; a couple hundred of its armoured vehicles are already destroyed. Thus, its forces need replacements and new technology, ergo, Zelenskyy’s requests for tanks. So, when you have the single most combat-experienced army in the world fighting for their lives, the most important thing they need are fighters or tanks. Now, another reason why fighters are not being sent is because of the danger of sending military aircraft into one of the most heavily defended air combat zones in the world. The survival rate of aircraft in that theatre of operations, regardless of what side you are on, is very low. The real striking power is currently being done by long-range artillery, high mars, triple seven guns, and similar weapons systems.
Minister Anita Anand said that sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine accounts for Canada’s need to maintain its military readiness. Do you think this is the case, and what impact would our contribution, along with that of our allies, have in the short term for Ukraine? Some commentators have suggested that Canada should have sent more tanks.
Canada has 112 Leopard 2 Chassis, which were bought to protect our soldiers in the Afghan War. Tanks bring a variety of things to the battlefield, such as firepower, mobility, as well as shock action and protection. The Leopard 2 also has twenty more tonnes of armor than the T-72 tank, which Russia uses. Out of Canada’s stockpile, 82 are gun tanks, whereas the remaining 30 are either armoured engineer vehicles, or towing, recovery, and repair vehicles. Out of the number of gun tanks, the Canadian Army needs between 60 to 70 to operate. Since 2015, the Liberal government has underspent on defence, averaging $2 billion a year of unused funds, but did not create the conditions to spend that money. The cumulative total of unspent funds is now $15 billion. This is why the Armed Forces is short 10,000 people, why many pieces of equipment are sidelined, why many buildings in a state of disrepair, and why we have not signed contracts for advanced weapon systems.
We are only sending four tanks because we do not have enough vehicles that have the spare parts and are properly functioning. The incremental cuts resulting from not spending the money promised since 2015 is a direct precursor to this decision. Out of all the nations contributing armoured vehicles, we are sending the smallest number. I agree with Gen. Hillier and Dr. Saideman that we should have sent more. We probably should have sent a squadron, which in the Canadian context is around 18 to 20 tanks, but, unfortunately, we have a limited capacity. In reference to Minister Anand’s statement that we had to keep some tanks for NATO contributions, we need to understand that this is a contribution. Tanks were the Ukraine president’s number one request, and we are sending them in cooperation with NATO, as are other member states. Let’s also not forget that a variety of folk, amateurs mostly, said the tanks were dead and will not be used in Canada. Of course, they will not be used in Canada, just like American tanks will not be used in the U.S. The same goes for British and French tanks in their respective territories. Tanks are needed to protect our soldiers, and are a vital component of the Combined Arms team, which are desperately needed by Ukraine’s army, which currently has the most combat experience in the world.
In an op-ed for the Globe and Mail, Professor Michael Byers, when making his case for Canada to send its Leopard 2s to Ukraine, claimed that unlike Poland and Finland, who border Russia, Canada will unlikely need these tanks again, stating that they are better used in Ukraine rather than sitting in storage. What are your thoughts on this statement? Also, considering Canadian commitments overseas, such as the NATO Latvia brigade, which Canada leads, could they benefit from using Leopard 2s if they are not already?
I disagree vehemently with the good professor. Canada did not buy tanks to be used in Canada, and they are needed to protect our soldiers as part of the Combined Arms team. Such a team is built by professionals who understand their craft, which takes years of training and development, an understanding of military and tactical history, and a keen awareness of where your country might wish to contribute forces. If you are going to contribute forces overseas, you need to protect the Canadian soldiers taking part in them, inside the vehicles with which they are going to conduct the fight. To those who claim that we will never fight again and that we will only participate in peacekeeping, how is that theory working out?
What did Ukraine think about that sort of logic, which is that of the appeasement faction, who contributed to this disaster we are seeing unfold on the international stage? We need to make sure that the CAF are combat capable, and that if they are involved in a fight, they can win. We also need to ensure that we spend the money required to better protect our soldiers so they can operate these tanks, which will better protect our infantry as part of that Combined Arms team. Can we use Leopard 2s in Latvia? Absolutely. We are going to be responsible for a brigade group. There should be a full battalion of Canadian tanks there, and they should be there as soon as possible. Why? To provide a viable deterrence to whatever happens next. In our international missions, we had tanks in Former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. The value of our soldiers as individual Canadians is worth the relatively slow expenditure, which you can achieve by successfully investing in and maintaining their tanks.
The Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre recently stated that Canada is not ready for future challenges, as the global security situation deteriorates. Since we need to desperately address issues the CAF faces, such as underfunding, low personnel, acquiring necessary capabilities, et cetera., where do you think we should start? Do these issues set any precedent in Canadian history, or is there a similar era we can derive lessons from?
In terms of precedent, there is the First World War, the Second World War, and today. In both world wars, the Canadian Armed Forces were at a desperately low level. A variety of politicians created peace dividends and decided to underfund their armed forces. We should not forget that when Putin decided to invade Ukraine last February, he believed that NATO could not deter or stop him. The tens of thousands of dead, hundreds of billions of dollars wasted, enormous environmental impact, millions of refugees on the move, respect for the rule of law diminishing, and like-minded thugs eyeing the possibility of invading their neighbours is thanks to those who wish to appease the monsters: the political classes in most western democracies. The CAF is at such a low state of readiness because people did not want to spend the money needed to maintain their capacity at a credible or operationally effective degree. The lesson from this is that if you promise defence funding, then place it in your budget, and parliament will approve it. For goodness’ sake—spend that money.
Let’s use air defence missiles as an example. The CAF has been asking for a ground-based air defence system for about fifteen years. The money was there, going back to the $15 billion that the Liberals have not spent on defence. Ottawa could have easily afforded the one or two billion dollars required. Right now, the Canadian Army is the only military in the world without an air defence capability. I am not just talking about NATO forces, but, to my knowledge, the rest of the armies in the world. We do not have short-, medium-, or long-range capabilities. We do not have shoulder-held, track-mounted, or vehicle-mounted systems. However, over a weekend, the Prime Minister two weeks ago went to buy a medium-range system for Ukraine. While it is a wonderful investment, why didn’t he buy them for Canada’s forces as well? They have not gotten out of the practice of spending lots of money, and there is room in the budget. So, until we get leadership that takes national defence seriously and realizes the value of contributing significant capabilities to a coalition of friends, I do not see much hope in the status quo. If, after seven years, you continue to underspend by $2-3 billion per year, that is either deliberate or incompetence.
As Army Commander in Afghanistan, what observations or insights did you derive from our procurement process? In what ways have your experiences informed your understanding of some of the issues inherent in our procurement system?
At the start of the Afghan War, the Canadian Forces’ readiness was higher than it is now. Even though the armed forces then were smaller and had less funding, they also had several UN and NATO operations under their belt. Additionally, the procurement system was superb. In about four months, we bought seven C-17 aircraft, and in five or six months, we initiated the procurement program for the Leopard tanks, and sent the first ones to Afghanistan within a year. We also bought triple seven guns – of which we just sent a paltry four to help Ukraine – on a handshake with the United States Marine Corps within weeks.
Furthermore, we bought new weapons systems for our soldiers, and new protective vehicles to assist them in defeating mines and IEDs (improvised explosive devices), as well as ballistic protection, new helmets, target acquisition radar, new helicopters, et cetera. The system works when three things happen. One, when cabinet is seized to the issue, things can move quickly. We should not forget that the procurement system’s success during the Afghan War was thanks to both a Liberal and a Conservative government. Frankly, the ministers involved were superb in telling their departments what to do. Two, you need a public service that will do what Ottawa wants to accomplish. In this case, the Liberal and Conservative governments ensured that the public service’s tendency of creating obstacles to defence procurement was either diminished or eliminated. Three, you need an aware public that sees and understands the value of what their government is doing and knows who is emotionally involved. However, all three of these requirements are absent right now.
During the initial period of Canada’s participation in Afghanistan, between 2003 and 2011, the CAF was in a similar state of low readiness as it is today. However, a Liberal government and a Conservative government stepped up to the plate, delivering firm and specific instructions to the public service for acquiring the necessary defence capabilities, and the Canadian people were thankful, responsive, and supportive. Right now, we have a much more dangerous war, with Russia rampaging across portions of Europe. The ripple effect from this war is also far greater than that of Afghanistan. Ukraine is essentially fighting NATO’s fight, however, I am not suggesting that NATO intervene, because that would potentially trigger a nuclear response from Putin.
Nonetheless, we – including Ukraine – must stop Russia. Any government’s principal duty is to keep its citizens safe, not just for today, but also tomorrow. Canada has a much greater role to play in the world. We are a G7 nation, with a GDP larger than Russia’s, but we have less than thirty-five soldiers deployed on UN operations right now, whereas we used to have thousands, despite having a smaller armed force. Our readiness and the state of our equipment are as bad as I have ever seen because the government has not been paying attention to the Department of National Defence, and how they can ensure that the armed forces are better able to serve and protect our country, our friends, and allies. We need to talk about investing in defence capabilities, including surveillance so we know what is going on in the North, which will help stop possible incursions by Russia, who could start drilling in our pristine waters. None of that has happened yet, and it is time that Canada stepped up to the plate.