A Canadian Rangers reset would help Armed Forces keep pace with a changing North
Canada should train Rangers to the basic military standard of Army Reserves, writes Robert Smol
This column is an opinion by Robert Smol. He holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from the Royal Military College and served more than 20 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, retiring as a Captain in the Intelligence Branch. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Across southern Canada, there are numerous Army Reserve regiments, Naval Reserve divisions, and Royal Canadian Air Force units with part-time and full-time reservists trained and ready to serve in wartime. Then there are the Canadian Rangers, the vaunted mainstay of this country's determination to ensure our sovereignty over the resource-rich and increasingly disputed regions of Canada's North.
For more than a decade this sub-component of the reserves has been promoted by governments and the Forces as a symbol of Canada's commitment to stand on guard in the Arctic. The Army's FAQ page on the Rangers says: "They are part-time reservists who are responsible for protecting Canada's sovereignty as well as defending her coastal interests ... Canadian Rangers provide a military presence in support of Canada's sovereignty."
Conveniently absent from the public affairs flimflam is that the Rangers are the only element of the Canadian Armed Forces which cannot be sent directly into any form of combat. Quite appropriate, as they receive almost no actual military training.
Canadian Rangers are currently considered "trained on enrolment" due to their assumed knowledge of local populations, terrain and weather conditions, but are entitled to undergo a basic training course of up to 10 days. Ranger Patrol Commanders, elected by their fellow Rangers, are entitled to another 10 days of training.
Beyond this, Rangers receive 12 days of "patrol sustainment training" each year, which the Canadian Army says "may involve advanced levels of first aid, flood and fire evacuation, search and rescue, disaster assistance, communications, marksmanship exercises, navigation, and setting up bivouac sites (igloos or tents)."
Rangers get no training in defensive and offensive army tactics, or winter warfare. The Canadian Army states, "While they support Canadian Armed Forces tactical maneuvers and other operations as guides or terrain experts, they are not tactically trained."
The Rangers also have limited access to military equipment. A program to replace their aging Lee-Enfields with C-19 rifles began in the second half of 2018, but the official Ranger website still lists the 1940s-vintage firearms as part of their equipment. Ranger uniforms consist of a ball cap, combat pants, and a red sweatshirt or jacket. Ranger patrols on occasion end up using their own privately owned vehicles, such as snowmobiles, on training and exercises (they get reimbursed for wear and tear).
Rangers are not soldiers, so let's stop assuming that, somehow, they are. They are involved in important activities, including search-and-rescue and community services, but without the Rangers there would be no substantial loss to Canada's actual "boots in the snow" military defence posture in the North.
What certainly stands to be lost without the Rangers is the government's public affairs charade. The image of the (tactically untrained) Ranger on their (privately owned) snowmobile, a rifle (not for use in combat) slung on their back, riding across the open tundra could no longer be played up to a naive Canadian public to leave the impression that Canada has a permanently stationed, crack northern army fighting unit.
Many of the Rangers, especially those from remote Indigenous communities, have substantial knowledge of local terrain and wilderness skills that make them very useful to the Forces on a casual, ad hoc basis. This can be helpful when the Forces occasionally conduct training or search-and-rescue in the North.
But should such knowledge of northern Canada, and how to navigate and survive its open wilderness terrain, be in any way incidental to and outside of our regular army's core skills and knowledge?
Take away the Rangers and their public-affairs mystique, and it would be totally up to our actual military to protect – or continue to largely ignore – the Arctic. Today, Canada's permanent northern military contingent has a few hundred technical and support personnel, the CFS Alert signals intelligence facility, RCAF 440 Transport Squadron (flying four Twin Otter transport planes), and a small part-time army reserve detachment in Yellowknife.
Small contingents of Canada's regular military do make an appearance in the far North every year in a series of exercises under the banner of Operation Nanook, which are often heavily focused on the logistical side of military operations in the Arctic. But Canada has no full-time, operational combat military unit permanently stationed in the North.
Which is certainly not the norm when it comes to smaller NATO and allied nations straddling the Arctic. Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland all maintain highly trained, regular combat units in their remote Arctic territories.
And the operational tempo of these fighting units, on land sea and air, has been increasing in response to actions by Russia and China in the region. Russia held major military exercises in the Bering Sea near Alaska in August, for example, and reportedly a joint exercise with China in the Arctic Ocean. In September, 1,200 military personnel from the U.S., U.K., Norway, and Denmark held joint military exercises in the Barents Sea, the first organized by the British Royal Navy in 20 years.
In the face of this changing North, the Canadian government needs to properly train and professionalize the Rangers to the basic military standard of our Army Reserves. Or, following the military lead of our smaller Scandinavian allies (not to mention the Russians and Americans), permanently station combat military units that specialize in surmounting the unique challenges involved in operating, navigating, surviving, and fighting in the cold, inhospitable Arctic climate.
A re-organized and better trained, equipped and armed Canadian Ranger contingent could certainly be a valuable part of safeguarding Canadian sovereignty in the North. Provided, of course, that Canadian Rangers are willing to train as soldiers – and that the Forces are willing to train them.