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International Affairs, Trade and Investment

Canadian International Military Operations in the 21st Century

Martin Auger

Issue | What does the future hold for Canadian international military operations in the 21st century?

Synopsis | The international security environment is unpredictable and volatile. Canada is responding by investing in its military capabilities and being increasingly involved in robust multinational military interventions abroad.

Timing | The Canadian Forces is currently engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan and Libya. After a decade in Afghanistan, the Canadian mission is in transition, shifting from a combat to a non-combat role this year. Simultaneously, Canadian CF-18 fighters are engaged in Libya on their first combat operation since Kosovo (1999).

In the past, the Canadian military has been required to be flexible and prepared to meet a range of contingencies, from peacekeeping and peace enforcement to counter-insurgency operations and full-scale war. But what does the future hold for Canadian international military operations in the 21st century?

The international security environment remains unpredictable and volatile. The number of armed conflicts has increased by 25% worldwide since 2003.1 This is mostly due to a rise in intrastate conflicts in many regions of the developing world. Although the threat of large-scale conventional war now appears remote, complex and lengthy low-intensity conflicts involving ill-defined and non-state forces are widely expected to foster insecurity around the world.

Additionally, new and complex threats stemming from failed and failing states; transnational criminal and terrorist networks; political, ethnic and religious extremism; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; global power shifts; climate change and environmental degradation; international competition for energy and for scarce resources; and global demographic growth will continue to strain international relationships and may trigger conflict in several regions. How will Canada continue to meet these security challenges in the 21st century? How will it choose to protect its interests?

Canadian soldiers on patrol outside a small village in Panjwa’i District in Afghanistan, 21 September 2010.
Canadian soldiers on patrol outside a small village in Panjwa’i District in Afghanistan, 21 September 2010.
Image: Corporal Shilo Adamson, Canadian Forces Combat Camera/© 2010 DND-MDN Canada.

Investing in Military Capabilities

Over the last decade, Canada and its allies have responded to the changing international security environment by investing in their military capabilities. Canada’s defence budget was increased significantly, from around $11 billion in 2001–2002 to about $21 billion by 2010–2011. Canada is currently the 13th largest military spender in the world and the 6th largest among NATO members,2 even though Canadian defence spending is below the NATO target of 2% of GDP.

The Canadian Forces is also undergoing a major recapitalization program. Billions of dollars have been spent on various defence procurement projects, and more are planned. Efforts have been launched to replace and refurbish defence infrastructure and to increase the size of the Canadian Forces to 100,000 personnel. These types of investments have strengthened some of the Canadian Forces’ operational capabilities.

Multinational Military Operations

Canada and its allies have also responded to the changing international security environment by becoming increasingly involved in robust multinational military interventions abroad. Although Canada’s participation in peacekeeping missions has declined over the last decade, as a member of international organizations such as the United Nations and military alliances such as NATO, Canada has participated in a number of complex and challenging international military operations. In 2010 and 2011, for example, the Canadian Forces made significant contributions to the disaster relief operation in Haiti, to the multinational armed intervention in Libya, and to the international campaign to enhance maritime security in the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the waters around the Horn of Africa.

Canada's Mission in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan remains Canada’s main military effort. This ongoing mission is the largest and most dangerous combat operation undertaken by the Canadian military since the Korean War.

It is estimated that, by the end of 2011, approximately 41,000 Canadian Forces personnel will have served in Afghanistan since the start of the mission in 2001. There are currently more than 2,900 Canadian Forces personnel in Afghanistan. As of 1 April 2011, 155 Canadian soldiers had been killed and more than 1,800 had been wounded. Canada has sustained, after the United States and the United Kingdom, the third largest number of fatalities among the 48 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) countries in Afghanistan.

Although Canada’s combat mission is scheduled to end in 2011, up to 950 trainers and support personnel will continue to be deployed until 2014 to train Afghan National Security Forces. The mission in Afghanistan has had a far-reaching impact on the Canadian Forces and its capabilities, enhancing its state of readiness and its combat experience, not to mention creating a new generation of veterans.

Robust multinational operations such as the Afghanistan mission can be complex, lengthy, dangerous and costly. They also involve a high degree of interoperability with allied forces and often result in combat and casualties. Although the framework of future deployments remains unknown, Canada will continue to face a range of military challenges in an unpredictable and volatile international security environment.

Further Reading

  1. Human Security Report Project, Human Security Report 2009/2010: The Causes of Peace and the Shrinking Costs of War, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, 2010.
  2. Bill Robinson, “Canadian military spending 2010-11,” Foreign Policy Series, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, March 2011.

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© Library of Parliament 2011