About Those F18s: Trudeau, Operation IMPACT, and the New Vision of Canada’s Military Engagement Abroad

By Adam Patillo

The announced departure of Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets from the Middle East by Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau came as a shock to many Canadians. To be sure, withdrawing from the combat mission in Iraq and Syria was a campaign promise of the Liberals—it was expected; just not in the way it unfolded. The congratulatory courtesy call from President Obama on the night of the election was hardly the avenue you would expect the incoming Prime Minister to utilize in announcing the withdrawal of his nation’s military from an important international multi-party coalition. With one campaign promise fulfilled so quickly, many marijuana users were surely brandishing their bongs in reveled anticipation.

Gibes aside, the unspecified end of Canada’s combat mission in the Middle East—Operation IMPACT—has left many guessing what the future of Canada’s military engagement abroad will look like. For starters, the demise of Operation IMPACT will in all likelihood involve the complete withdrawal of the entire Joint Task Force-Iraq contingent: 6 CF-188 fighter jets, one CC-150T aerial refueller, two CP-140M Aurora surveillance aircraft, and 600 support personnel. While critics may argue that Canada’s relatively small contribution to the 15 member US-led coalition is unlikely to bear significant operational impacts, they miss the symbolic importance of Canada’s military engagement. It’s not only what we Canadians believe in, it’s what we can afford.

Canadians have long prided themselves as peacekeepers; protectors of the vulnerable, and mediators for the defenseless. When all prospects of peace fail, Canada should do its part in the ‘dirty business’ of war as it has throughout the last century. To expect others to bear the toughest burden of conflict is out of step with Canadian character; a faithful friend who vanishes at the first sign of trouble quickly loses utility.

ISIS’s advances across Iraq and Syria are tantamount to cultural and physical genocide and constitute an affront to human dignity.  Mass executions and the destruction of UN heritage sites are becoming staples of their governance. These events have not gone unnoticed by the Canadian public. A March 2015 poll showed that nearly two thirds of Canadians supported the deployment of fighter jets against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. As it turns out, actively combatting the infectious spread of ISIS is fully in line with Canadian values. It’s also incredibly important that Canada meaningfully contributes to a mission that has in effect united the resolve of all 15 members of the UN Security Council; an alarmingly rare feat in itself.

One thing Canadians can continue to feel proud of is what will remain of Operation IMPACT; the 70 commandos from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) training Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq. This force-multiplier contingent has received widespread praise from Canada’s allies (including the United States, who said Canada was “punching above its weight”) and its trainees alike. These men are the absolute best our country has to offer. It’s no small wonder that upon hearing news of Canada’s withdrawal from combat operations, Kurdish leaders in Iraq expressed dismay and remorse. Nevertheless, a campaign promise is a campaign promise.

There’s also the issue of affordability. Trudeau has promised to make right the years of neglect inflicted on the armed forces by the Harper government. He may be on to something. Throughout the Harper years, Canada spent around 1% of GDP annually on defence ($18-20 billion), far short of its 2% NATO commitment. Years of low spending has resulted in desperate need across the armed forces; new aircraft, ships, and trucks only scratch the surface of critical requirements. Historically, Canada has circumvented the budget problem with ‘bang for buck’ operations abroad. These typically encompass the hyperactive engagement of numerically small military contingents to a variety of international missions. In this way, high participation trumps low spending; at least this is the logic.

Canada has enthusiastically sent troops to numerous countries around the globe since 2000, including Haiti, Libya, Afghanistan, Honduras, and Jamaica amongst others. In 2015, Canada is projected to spend just 0.89% of GDP on defence, the lowest level since the 1930s. Ironically, not since the days of Pierre Trudeau did Canada meet its 2% NATO obligation. Such defence spending is nearly unfathomable in contemporary terms, yet may find more relevance than ever given Russia’s recent military posturing.

Moscow’s annexation of Crimea has led Canada to send 200 soldiers as trainers to the Ukrainian army for a period of two years, and that’s just Eastern Europe. Russia’s sudden military engagement in Syria has dramatically complicated the objectives of the US-led coalition in the Middle East, and demonstrated the Kremlin’s resolve for global power politics. The remnants of Operation IMPACT will feel the repercussions of Russian engagement. Russia’s recent completion of a massive Arctic military base should rightly warrant concern among claimants to Arctic territory—Canada included—and signal that attempts to rein in Russia’s aggressive posturing through sanctions and moral outrage is utterly failing.

Trudeau triumphantly declared “We’re back” on October 20th following his landslide electoral victory, and he wasn’t talking about the Liberal party in power; he was speaking to an imaginary international audience—the conceptual masterpiece of his own political party—that had apparent difficulties in reconciling Canada’s inherently peaceful character with its aggressive militarism under the Conservative government.

The times have changed. Opportunities for purely peaceful engagements are fleeting beneath our feet. As our new Prime Minister seeks to make good on election promises and promote the “Real Change” of his campaign, it’s important for Canadians to set realistic expectations for the ‘return to roots’ military policy Trudeau has laid out. The world is not as it was yesterday, nor will it be the same tomorrow. Old areas of stability are becoming flashpoints, and old rivals are rearing their ugly heads. If Canada solely adopts an observer role in the conflicts to come, we may in fact watch the world burn. The challenges ahead require the full spectrum of Canadian commitment, not backwards steps flagrantly publicized for political gain. We’re better than that, and we’d be well to remember.


Adam Patillo is a M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, and is currently completing an internship with geopolitical forecasting firm Wikistrat. Adam completed his undergraduate studies at Simon Fraser University in International Relations, and is working towards a degree in Intelligence Analysis and Terrorism Studies from the American Military University. His special interests include Middle Eastern Security, especially as it pertains to Israel and its security environment.

Originally published by iAffairs Canada

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