Canadian Army cancels major training exercise to prepare for COVID-19 call out

The Canadian Army is cancelling one of its most important training exercises as military commanders seek to protect the Canadian Armed Forces from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maple Resolve at CFB Wainwright is the Army's largest annual training exercise

Canadian soldiers use sandbags, wire and metal siding to build a defensive position in the dirt surrounding CFB Wainwright during Exercise Maple Resolve in 2015. The Canadian Army has cancelled this year's exercise. (Brent Roy/Radio-Canada)

The Canadian Army is cancelling one of its most important training exercises as military commanders seek to protect the Canadian Armed Forces from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision to cancel Exercise Maple Resolve is a turn for the Armed Forces, after chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance told The Canadian Press last week that training would continue as it was considered essential for ensuring the military can do its job.

Held each May at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright in Alberta, Maple Resolve is the Army's largest annual training exercise, involving thousands of soldiers from Canada as well as the United States, Britain, Australia and France.

The exercise also includes artillery, armoured vehicles and aircraft to simulate a large-scale military operation and is considered essential for ensuring the Army is ready to defend the country from attack or conduct a major overseas mission.

In an interview in December, Canadian Army commander Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre underscored the importance of the training exercise as he raised concerns about the growing number of times the military is being called out to help with disaster-relief efforts in Canada.

Yet Eyre announced on Twitter on Tuesday that he was pulling the plug on Maple Resolve this year because of COVID-19, writing: "While this may impact our higher-level warfighting ability short-term, it will protect the force and keep us poised to conduct operations."

Exercise Maple Resolve is only the latest military activity to be halted as the Royal Canadian Navy is also recalling two of its vessels from Africa, where they were supposed to have participated in two international exercises that have since been cancelled due to COVID-19.

Even before Maple Resolve was cancelled due to COVID-19, the military was preparing to take a hard look at how to respond to the skyrocketing number of requests for assistance with climate-related emergencies to prevent an impact on such exercises.

The military has seen a 1,000 per cent increase over the past four years in the number of calls for help with floods, snowstorms, fires and other emergencies, many of which occur in the spring and fall — the prime windows for military training.

The Armed Forces is happy to pitch in and assist provinces and communities struggling with emergencies given its mandate is to protect Canadians, Vance said in an interview with The Canadian Press last week.

"Where it really gets into crunch time is we're using the force for something that we dearly love to do ... but we're doing it at a time when the force should by rights be focused on the arena of warfare, which is what it's for, what it's designed for and that nobody else can do," he said.

The increased frequency and scope of requests for assistance also puts a heavy burden on individual troops, Vance said. In some cases, those troops may also be facing situation where their own homes and families are being affected.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the federal government was preparing to launch a major review of North America's defences against everything from traditional threats such as ballistic missiles to cyberattacks, misinformation campaigns and attacks on Canadian satellites.

Natural disasters will also figure in the discussion, Vance said, including whether government needed to boost the capabilities of the military, including the reserves, which often play a key role, or civil organizations that are also tasked with responding to emergencies.

"So we're going to look hard at this as part of this next tranche of planning."