In Canada’s difficult budget climate, the short-term must be balanced against the long-term. Doing so requires an assessment of the likelihood of various kinds of deployments. Given recent trends and the interests of the current government, it is hard to foresee the Canadian Forces being sent in significant size to a combat mission in the near future. Politics and economics are likely to keep the CF at home. Let me explain.

First, and, most obviously, any foreign deployment is quite costly, even if it is not to a country that is as landlocked and inaccessible as Afghanistan. The Mali mission, where the CF is providing some logistics to another country, has already cost millions of dollars. The Americans estimate that supporting one soldier or marine in Afghanistan for one year costs one million dollars, which means that a battalion would approach a billion dollars. It is not clear what the CF calculation is, but even at a third or a half of that, the deployment of a battlegroup for any length of time would be quite expensive. If one is already cutting the budget, the easiest choice is not to spend money on new operations, compared to the difficulties of cutting existing programs.

All of the current reports on the budget picture suggest that the Harper government will cut neither troop levels nor procurement of the big systems (the next fighter plane, the recapitalization of the ships), which means that operations and maintenance are already facing very significant cuts. Any new operation would mean cutting increasingly scarce dollars out of operations elsewhere. So, purely on budgetary grounds, it is hard to imagine a Canadian government sending more than a C-17 to an overseas operation.

Second, the Harper government quickly learned that combat was not good for domestic politics. The polls during the most kinetic times in Afghanistan were decidedly mixed. The popularity of the war varied across the country, certainly costing votes in Quebec. But as the Canadian Forces bled and killed in Afghanistan, Harper was struggling for a majority government at home. While Harper pushed for an extension of the mission in 2008, after that effort, he quickly put the war aside, rarely speaking about it, and definitely not putting much political capital into promoting the effort. Indeed, he took the 2008 parliamentary motion with its 2011 deadline and used it has a shield to deflect any consideration of an additional extension.

Since then, Canadian missions have been carefully designed to minimize risk. The training mission in Afghanistan is “behind the wire” even though NATO did not need such trainers in 2011. NATO was looking for more embedded trainers, as the Observer, Mentor, Liaison Team billets were never adequately staffed, and so officials at Mons were surprised to find 900 new bodies that needed to be put somewhere. The Americans did not mind swapping their troops out of the training billets, but the Canadian offer was not aimed at filling a pressing need. Instead, it was to fulfill an alliance commitment in a way that avoided combat, casualties, and other kinds of risks.

The Libyan mission was notable for being forward-leaning as compared to many allies, with Canada being one of the few countries willing to engage in “dynamic” bombing, receiving targets while in flight as opposed to more fixed, pre-planned missions. Still, the mission involved no ground forces, and the planes faced less risks than in the skies over Kosovo more than a decade earlier. So, there was some risk, but not so much as the Canadians faced in Kandahar.

Third, there is another consistent political element in the Harper government: to maximize control of the messaging and to limit the ability of others to affect how policies and events are portrayed. During the height of the Kandahar operation, the talking points for most of the personnel involved were still being written in Ottawa. The exceptions were the troops on the ground – there is no way you can muzzle a thousand or more soldiers who wage into combat with embedded media.

The logic of message management provides a consistent lens with which to view subsequent deployments. The media had much less interest in talking to trainers who were stuck behind the wire. The stories they could tell were not that compelling, compared to the soldiers engaged in combat in previous years. While the trainers could talk about how well training was proceeding, they had limited visibility on what was going on in Afghanistan, which, again, limited the interest of the media and the risks that someone might go off message.

The Libyan operation was permissible in these lights, as the mission was quite small – only a handful of pilots plus all of the support staff. Of course, the media would be most interested in talking to the few pilots, which again meant that it was fairly easy to manage the messaging. The C-17 mission to Mali has even less media exposure, as the pilots are even fewer, they see even less of the operation, so the message management is complete.

Sending a large contingent of soldiers means surrendering control of the messaging. Given the centralization of the communications of this particular government, sending a battlegroup abroad is the last thing it would want to do.

This is not just an academic perspective. When I brought up this topic with a senior army officer a little while ago, he motioned like he was in a wheelchair: that the next time the Canadian Forces go into combat in significant size would be when he was a senior citizen.

So, what does this imply for near-term planning? Perhaps the CF should be willing to cut the army’s troop levels, to focus training on domestic operations and plan for domestic scenarios, and perhaps not to invest in costly equipment in the near-term unless it is necessary for operations in Canada. These are difficult choices, of course, but the budgetary pressures are intense. Better to cut that which will not be utilized.

Alas, governments change, politicians forget the lessons of the last conflict or two, and leaders will be asked by allies to help out somewhere. The Prime Minister will probably say yes, and then ask the Chief of Defence Staff to make it happen. While the Chief may grumble, he will ultimately salute. Hopefully, he will not be compelled to do something like what happened in 2005: sending troops but not helicopters to Kandahar.
Stephen M. Saideman is the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University.