Politics·Analysis

The pandemic could end up changing everything — including the military

The pandemic is just the latest crisis involving civilian politicians asking soldiers to help out with disaster management. Down the road, this trend could lead to a wholesale reinvention of Canada's military.

Governments are getting used to calling in soldiers when domestic disaster strikes

A member of the Canadian Armed Forces arrives at Residence Yvon-Brunet a long term care home in Montreal, Saturday, April 18, 2020, as COVID-19 cases rise in Canada and around the world. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

It's safe to say that the Canadian military plans for just about everything.

It's also safe to say that nowhere in the dusty stacks of military strategies for various hair-raising scenarios shelved in the Department of National Defence (DND) is a plan for sending soldiers to long-term care homes to backstop failing provincial systems. Hospitals, maybe — not seniors homes.

But pandemics have a way of re-ordering priorities. Which explains how a niche project — one of those nice-to-have items of equipment the military keeps on its wish list — can suddenly rocket through the ponderous federal procurement maze in a matter of days.

Earlier this month, DND put out a request for proposals for delivery of a "biocontainment aeromedical evacuation system" — a gadget developed and refined by the U.S. Air Force in the aftermath of the Ebola crisis of a few years back.

Back in normal times (ie: a few weeks ago) such a specialized piece of kit — which is used to transport people infected with highly contagious diseases and is meant to slide inside C-17 Globemaster and C-130J transport planes — was far, far down on the list of procurement priorities for an air force that has struggled for more than a decade to replace its fighter fleet.

What is 'national security' now?

Nothing focuses the mind like a crisis, however.

Within the military and the larger defence community, there's a growing debate over whether the novel coronavirus pandemic, and governments' extraordinary responses to it, represent a watershed moment — or simply a ghastly one-off event that will soon be forgotten.

That debate is posing some large questions. Is this pandemic going to force Canada to redefine what we consider to be 'national security'? And if pandemics remain a lingering threat, how and when should the military be employed to respond?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters on Thursday. 1:12

If you ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he'll say the place for troops is not in nursing homes.

"We shouldn't have soldiers taking care of seniors," he said Thursday. "Going forward, in the weeks and months to come, we will all have to ask tough questions about how it came to this."

He was talking about the political and public policy decisions that left long-term care homes so vulnerable to a global pandemic. In Ontario, 573 residents of long-term care facilities have died of the pandemic — 75 per cent of the province's death toll. In Quebec, 1,045 residents have died — that's nearly 80 per cent of the provincial total.

The 'force ... of last resort'

It could be argued, however, that the provinces are simply taking advantage of a backstop the federal government offered when the military stood up its immediate response units (IRUs) across the country, under a mandate of providing "humanitarian support, wellness checks and natural disaster response."

A recent paper by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute put its finger on the relevant point by arguing that the military is a well the federal government has repeatedly drawn from over the last five years.

"The pandemic represents a symptom of a larger trend affecting the CAF, namely the increasing demand from Canadian governments for support during domestic emergencies," said the paper.

"The CAF has seen a 1,000 per cent increase in requests to assist civilian governments in supporting cleanup after natural disasters over the past four years."

Troops build a wall of sandbags to protect a home from the flooding Ottawa River in Constance Bay, Ont., on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Retired major-general Denis Thompson said the request for troops in nursing homes likely caught planners off guard.

"As they like to say, the military is the force — or choice — of last resort with respect to domestic operations," he said.

"The provinces are looking for strong arms to do some work. The military will plug the gap until volunteer organizations step up" to help in nursing homes.

Change may be coming to the military

It's not what most people expect the military to do, Thompson acknowledged. And that's the rub.

The country's top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, suggested last year that the increase in calls for military support for the government is prompting him to re-think the structure of the Armed Forces.

The pandemic could accelerate that re-evaluation.

Separately and distinctly, Thompson said, the lesson about having the right equipment at hand should not be forgotten.

"Our assumptions before the pandemic, that we would have the appropriate protective equipment in the civilian world, have gone awry," he said.

The aeromedical medical evacuation system, Thompson said, could be used on medical evac missions in the Far North, where civilian pilots might not be willing to fly.

Retired lieutenant-general Ken Pennie said casualty evacuation has long been part of the air force's mandate, but noted the new system is an "upgrade" for a special set of circumstances.

"Other than being more up to date, it is the ability to isolate that is new," said Pennie, the former commander of the air force.

The COVID-19 crisis has unleashed some outside-the-box thinking among people and institutions normally accustomed to safe, incremental planning and purchases. And it could change the way a lot of institutions in this country approach their work — including the military.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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