When I joined the Canadian Forces (CF) in 2000, our main focus was still fighting against fictional countries from the Warsaw Pact. We used to breach defensive positions, establish them with the help of the engineers, conduct combat team attacks on prepared positions, etc.
But when the two towers went down on 9/11 our focus drastically changed. As we drove NATO into adopting the article 5 to support our American brothers and sisters, the CF knew that their current doctrines were outdated and were not ready to go fight an unconventional warfare (UW) like they would do for the next 13 years. It was the first time in the Alliance’s history that Article 5 has been invoked (source) as well.
This is the unconventional warfare definition drawn from the FM 3-05.201, (S/NF) Special Forces Unconventional Warfare (U):
Operations conducted by, with, or through irregular forces in support of a resistance movement, an insurgency, or conventional military operations.
Canada has been using Psychological Operations (PSYOPS) and counter-insurgency (COIN) while they were fighting the Taliban in Kandahar. Both PSYOPS and COIN can be seen as UW tactics, especially from the SOF perspective as they operate mostly in small numbers and often against a specific target. Even the Canadian Battlegroups and the ANA advisors, both regulars troops, were using those 2 tactics almost everyday as it was taught in pre-deployment training.
Out of the 13 years we have spent in Afghanistan, 6 were spent fighting the Taliban in Kandahar, one of the most dangerous place in the whole country. We quickly adapted our doctrines to be able to function properly in a role Canada hadn’t done since the Korean War in the early 50s.
Both the US army and the USMC took the time to help us train against IEDs and other situations we’d encounter in Afghanistan as they had more experience than us. This is where a strong alliance between the USA and Canada became important. As we would fight the same enemy on the same ground, it was obvious that the knowledge shared by our American brothers would save numerous Canadian lives.
But in 65 days, Canada will pull their last troops out of Afghanistan. With no more ‘’direct’’ enemy to fight as they have done the last 13 years, the CF are going back to a more conventional warfare (CW) doctrine. But will the CF really apply those new doctrines or not? This is a really good question and I think it will depend on the budget allowed for training. CW cost a lot of money as there is a huge logistical need to sustain the troops in the field for a longer period of time.
Before going further, let’s look at the definition of conventional warfare. This is drawn from the Princeton University website:
Conventional warfare is a form of warfare conducted by using conventional military weapons and battlefield tactics between two or more states in open confrontation. The forces on each side are well-defined, and fight using weapons that primarily target the opposing army. It is normally fought using conventional weapons, and not with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
The general purpose of conventional warfare is to weaken or destroy the opponent’s military force, thereby negating its ability to engage in conventional warfare. In forcing capitulation, however, one or both sides may eventually resort to unconventional warfare tactics.
But is it good or not? I believe it is but I sure hope all the lessons learned in Afghanistan are not going to be put aside. Those lessons could become very valuable in the event where any future wars would turn to a UW as the opposing country become weaker.
The main reason countries have Armed Forces is to protect their citizens and their rights against any outside or inside threats. One of them could possibly come from a country and not only from insurgents in foreign countries, so we need to be ready to fight back.
Combat veterans, but no CW experience
A good number of soldiers, who are now combat veterans, wouldn’t even be able to properly function in a CW, as most of their training was focused on the Global War on Terrorism (GWoT) fought in Afghanistan. This is very unfortunate but understandable at the same time, as the CF were stretched very thin as the combat deployments would come back every 2 years for most of the soldiers. Most of the money the National Defence had been poured into making sure our soldiers would be fully prepared to fight the Taliban. With a budget of 22.6 billion dollars in 2012, the money spent in Afghanistan was taking a huge chunk of the budget for logistical and operational reasons.
So while the Defence Budget was spent in Afghanistan, there was not enough money to keep the soldier back home trained to a certain degree in CW. There was still some sort of training made by the unit themselves to keep their soldier somewhat ready but nothing really serious. While pre-deployment would cover a small portion of CW manoeuvers, the remaining soldiers who were not scheduled to go would not get as much training.
I remember having privates and corporals in my platoon, who had between 2-6 years of service and 1-2 combat tours, that weren’t even qualified on basic winter warfare. We all know Canada is pretty cold in the winter eh! … So if anything would happen, these guys wouldn’t be ready. By having some CW training, this could be remedied pretty quickly. It is one thing to have combat experience in a certain type of warfare but we can’t neglect everything else. These soldiers would also become more proficient in their job as the knowledge they have would greatly increase.
Our home turf
Our current Arctic situation is another example where CW would be applied. With vast areas that are non-populated and where almost no vegetation survives, there is a good possibility that the typical ‘’advance to contact’’ with tanks and artillery would be the main tactics used on the battlefield. While younger combat veterans are trained to kick doors and to sweep for IEDs, most of them aren’t ready for that.
Canada has to defend more than 9,984,670 km2 or 3,854,085 sq. mi. Most of the future conflicts would be fought in urban areas, but we still need to be able to conduct operations in the open fields. This is where CW becomes handy, as we can witness through the past wars.
A big problem with a lot of military strategists is that they want to reinvent the wheel instead of using the past lessons learned. Our conflict in Afghanistan was the first one we took part in as a combat element since Korea. I do believe there is a way to mix both the CW tactics and what we have acquired in Afghanistan.
As a matter of fact, this should be the future doctrine Canada adopts to ensure both preparedness against any threats while keeping the recent experience acquired by their soldiers.
Learning from our allies
Canadian Forces and the US Armed Forces have a very good relationship as two powerful allies. Multinational exercises are done every year between the two countries to make sure North America could withstand any threats. This is, in my opinion, the best possible future for both our country as neither one nor the other would tolerate an intrusion on their own soil. It is also important to share our experiences with our main ally as we could benefit from different area of specialisation such as winter warfare, amphibious attacks, strategic bombing, etc thus making both nations stronger and easier to protect.
Only the future will tell us what the best doctrines are that we should adopt, but until then, I hope our great military thinkers do not forget the experience we’ve acquired by shedding blood in Afghanistan. There is, I believe, a way to balance both CW and UW. We just need to carefully plan our actions and draw the lessons learned from past conflicts.