Politics·Analysis

How the war in Ukraine showed that Canada is ill-equipped to fight a modern army

Donated Javelin and Stinger missiles have given Ukrainian forces the ability to stop Russian armour and deny the Russians air superiority. Canada used to have such missiles but gave most of them up — and now it finds itself without the gear it would need to fight a modern army.

Canada's focus on opponents like the Taliban left it short of portable anti-tank, anti-aircraft systems

In this image released by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry Press Service, Ukrainian soldiers use a launcher with American Javelin missiles during military exercises in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Dec. 23, 2021. (Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service/The Associated Press)

Ukraine's claim that its forces have destroyed more than 300 Russian tanks and more than 1,000 armoured personnel carriers should be taken — like all wartime estimates — with a grain of salt.

But Ukrainian forces have surprised the Kremlin and the world with the ferocity of their resistance. One major factor in that success has been the FGM-148 Javelin shoulder-launched anti-tank missile, being supplied to Ukraine by the U.S. and the U.K.

U.S. President Joe Biden this week announced the shipment of 9,000 more of the anti-tank systems, which he described as "portable, high-accuracy, shoulder-mounted missiles that Ukrainian forces have been using with great effect to destroy invading tanks and armoured vehicles."

Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have found the weapons particularly irritating. Last week, he ordered his defence minister Sergei Shoigu to deliver any captured Javelins to pro-Moscow separatist forces in the Donbas.

This is the first major war between developed countries in a long time, and war planners everywhere are studying it closely.

For Canada, one lesson stands out. Canadian forces possess very few guided anti-tank missiles and none of the shoulder-fired variety that have been used so successfully by small mobile teams of infantry hunting and ambushing Russian armour in Ukraine.

Canada also lacks the shoulder-launched Stinger missiles that have been used to down Russian aircraft.

From Cold War to cutbacks

Once, Canada possessed more guided anti-tank missiles and had stocks of shoulder-launched guided anti-aircraft missiles.

Canada's last portable surface-to-air missile was retired in 2005. It wasn't replaced in part because the Taliban didn't have an air force.

"Many countries, Canada included, saw a change in the kind of conflict they would be involved in from the mid-90s through to the mid-2010s," says retired vice-admiral Darren Hawco, who was head of force development for the Canadian Armed Forces.

Canadian soldiers help a comrade, center, get on a helicopter after he was injured in an IED blast during a patrol outside Salavat, in the Panjwayi district, southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan on June 7, 2010. (Anja Niedringhaus/The Associated Press)

It was the era of asymmetrical warfare, of fighting groups like the Taliban which lacked aircraft and heavy armour and had few beyond-line-of-sight weapons.

"Countries like Canada said that the likelihood of massed armour-on-armour Cold War-type warfare is extremely low, and so many countries de-prioritized these kinds of weapons in favour of enhancing self-protection measures," said Hawco.

Canada's military planners preferred instead to invest in armoured vehicles that can withstand roadside bomb attacks, or counter-battery radar that can pinpoint the source of incoming mortar rounds. Blowing up Russian tanks wasn't a priority.

The result, said Hawco, is that Canada lacks "a sufficient quantity of modern anti-tank weapons today."

Relying on older soldiers' memories

As Canada's infantry lost its anti-tank weapons, they also lost the skills to use them, which in turn affected their ability to train the Ukrainians, according to a 2016 service paper presented at Canadian Forces College. 

"The lack of expertise in Infantry Battalions to employ Direct Fires was highlighted during the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment's recent deployment on Op UNIFIER to the Ukraine," says the paper. Operation Unifier is the Canadian Forces mission to train Ukraine's armed forces.

"As part of their mentoring role they were expected to be able to train the Ukrainian forces on the proper employment of anti-armour weapons against modern tanks. While successful, they were only able to do this because of residual capability from soldiers who served in Anti-Armour Platoon."

Younger soldiers who had come of age in the lightly-armed Canadian infantry of the 21st century didn't have the same training as their older counterparts.

So-called "Saint Javelin" stickers employ a meme that's popular in Ukraine these days. (SaintJavelin/Instagram)

TOW, the tank killer

Canada once had large quantities of tripod-mounted TOW guided missile launchers — a big part of NATO's answer to Soviet superiority in tanks.

John McLearn served 44 years with the Canadian Army from Afghanistan to Bosnia and the Middle East, mostly as an Infantry officer and pioneer. He remembers an era when anti-tank guided missiles were standard kit.

"A Canada-based battalion would have eight TOW missiles in it, all within the anti-armour platoon. The Germany battalions" — the ones expected to face Russian tanks — "had 18 TOW missiles each."

But as the Cold War wound down, most of Canada's TOW weapons were sold off or expired. The rest were put into storage and were only brought out and redistributed when Canada deployed troops to Latvia in 2017.

A Lebanese army vehicle fires a TOW-II missile in the village of Taybeh, near Baalbek, eastern Lebanon, on June 10, 2015. (Bilal Hussein/The Associated Press)

TOW missiles are not cutting-edge. They lack the latest "fire-and-forget" guidance systems that allow the user to shoot and run, leaving the missile to find the tank on its own.

The oldest TOW systems use second-generation wire guidance that requires the shooter to keep the sights locked on the tank until impact. Newer ones use more sophisticated guidance systems. All of the TOWs in Canada's arsenal have been upgraded and employ technology newer than the old wire guidance systems.

TOW missiles are a proven tank-killer out to a distance of almost 4 kilometres — but Canada has very few of them.

"There are approximately 40 systems left. They've been brought up to the most modern standards," said McLearn.

Canada recently purchased from the Israeli company Rafael a small number of Spike anti-tank missiles — a true fire-and-forget weapon launched from a tripod — but only enough to equip its Special Operations Regiment for deployment to Iraq.

The Hail Mary option

Defence against tanks is "layered" and uses different weapons at different ranges, McLearn said. Tanks that are far away can be targeted by Canada's CF-18s or by its deadly M777 howitzers. 

TOW missiles are used on tanks that are closer. But many of the Russian vehicles being destroyed in Ukraine are being targeted at very close ranges — often 300 metres or less.

Canada has provided two types of shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons to Ukraine — the reusable Carl Gustaf and the one-shot disposable M-72. Both are unguided devices that fire projectiles in a straight line.

A destroyed Russian tank is seen after battles on a main road near Brovary, north of Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 10, 2022. (Felipe Dana/The Associated Press)

The 84mm Carl Gustaf can be very effective at short ranges, although it's hard to use on a moving target. The smaller M-72 (Canada donated 4,500 of them to Ukraine this week) can't defeat the armour of a typical modern battle tank, said McLearn — making it the last line of defence in what he called a "Hail Mary" situation.

But M-72s can be very effective against thin-skinned support vehicles such as fuel tankers, tank transporters and lighter personnel carriers. As Ukrainian forces have shown, targeting those vehicles can quickly take the steam out of an enemy advance.

Canada's 2017 blueprint for future defence policy — "Strong, Secure, Engaged" — mentions guided anti-tank missiles only once and does not place them among the 21 priorities laid out for the Canadian Army. 

Instead, those priorities show a continued focus on the counter-insurgency missions of recent years, with a call to "modernize the fleet of Improvised Explosive Device Detection and Defeat capabilities."

A premature 'peace dividend'

Another shoulder-fired lifesaver for Ukrainian forces has been the portable Stinger surface-to-air missile.

The Stinger was the bane of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, where the U.S. distributed it to mujahedeen to take down Russian helicopters and the occasional jet fighter.

Russian aircraft have improved greatly since then — but so has the Stinger. President Biden announced the dispatch of hundreds more to Ukraine on Wednesday.

Former Canadian fighter pilot Murray Lee, who has written about Canada's lack of ground-based air defences, said this country once had both shoulder-launched and vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft systems — but no longer.

"We were looking for the peace dividend, as most Western governments were, and the government of the day decided we don't need this equipment," said Lee. "So we got rid of it and didn't worry about replacing it. The counter-insurgency war didn't have an air threat."

Off-the-shelf Stingers

Gen. Wayne Eyre, Canada's chief of defence staff, has said that air defence is a priority for him. Lee said the lesson of the Ukraine war is that any revised air defence posture should include portable, shoulder-launched missiles.

The Stinger missile, he said, can be bought off-the-shelf and soldiers can be trained to use it in a day or so. 

And while an expensive, stand-alone anti-aircraft system like the Patriot can be disabled in a single attack, having many Stingers distributed among units spreads the risk.

U.S. Marines launch a Stinger missile at the Capu Midia Surface to Air Firing Range on the Black Sea coast in Romania, Monday, March 20, 2017. (Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press)

Lee said Canada doesn't need to choose between short-range, portable systems like the Stinger and long-range systems like the Patriot. As with anti-tank defence, air defence is layered, so small short-range systems like the Stinger can play one role, while Patriot installations — which can hit incoming cruise missiles over the horizon and targets 24 kilometres off the ground — can play another.

But Lee said shoulder-launched guided missiles are an increasingly important tool in modern warfare. They also have the benefit of being highly transportable, making them easy to share with friends and allies.

"You could put 100, 200 Stingers on crates in a C-130 [transport aircraft] and get them there in a heartbeat."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now