Reliance on Canadian Forces for COVID Response Lowers Military Preparedness Against International Threats, Committee Hears

November 23, 2020 Updated: November 24, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced domestic reliance on the Canadian Armed Forces, which risks lowering Canada’s military readiness against international threats coming from China and Russia, a parliamentary committee heard on Nov. 23.

As the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence continues looking into the impact of the pandemic on Canadian Armed Forces’ operations, an expert warned against unnecessarily overtasking the CAF.

Christian Leuprecht, a professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada, said CAF members deployed to respond to domestic emergencies miss out on their usual training, recruitment, and “support to operation,” which has created major security loopholes to the advantage of Canada’s international adversaries.

Notably, Leuprecht said Canada is vulnerable to Chinese and Russian cyberattacks, quoting the findings in the recent National Cyber Threat Assessments 2020 report (pdf), published by the Communications Security Establishment.

In this second biannual report, the government has, for the first time, identified China to be behind state-sponsored cybercrime targeting Canada.

Under Operation LASER, the CAF’s response program to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 1,700 troops were deployed to assist at overwhelmed long-term care facilities in Ontario and Quebec, and another 22,000 CAF members were put on standby.

Leuprecht told the committee that deploying armed forces to support long-term care homes depleted military resources that would normally go toward traditional tasks.

“To ensure domestic mission success … the CAF has to maintain an ongoing level of readiness, with a highly trained, well-educated roster of both specialized-capacity and generalists, and the equipment to support such operations,” he explained.

“As for the pandemic, since the CAF medical [team] supports its own members, it has to strip its own medical system to backstop external demand from select provinces. Should the CAF now expand its medical capacity? With no new resources, such questions raise the prospect of painful internal trade-offs.”

According to a report Leuprecht published in August, Canada has become more reliant on the military for responding to domestic emergencies over the past decade. From 2011 and 2020, the CAF participated in 30 missions, compared to six between 1990 and 2010. The military took part in 10 weather-related missions between 2017 to 2018, versus 20 between 2007 and 2016, and only 12 such missions between 1996 and 2006.

“The Emergencies Act sets out the overall management structure for federal response, the provinces have primary responsibility, and any federal government backup is to be coordinated through the minister of public safety, who under the act is responsible for ordering the Federal Emergency Response Plan,” he said.

“Provinces have come to view the CAF as their first resort rather than their last.”