The Canadian military’s ongoing COVID-19 response raises longer-term issues of its role in supporting governments on the domestic front, write Adam MacDonald and Carter Vance. 

By Adam P. MacDonald and Carter Vance, March 26, 2020

Over the past week, a slew of drastic measures have been implemented across Canada to curb the spread of COVID-19. Public health authorities remain in a leading position for the time being, along with civilian government officials. However, provinces and municipalities are increasingly signalling that the time for voluntary compliance is over and that social distancing will be enforced by power of law.

Along with this trend, the military has been employed to assist civilian authorities dealing with the pandemic, raising questions of how and under what authority they may be asked to further engage. The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has not remained idle during the COVID-19 outbreak. Military aircraft have been used to repatriate Canadians from various parts of the world and quarantine them at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Trenton and the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has directed the CAF to begin preparations to support civilian authorities if called upon. The CAF has also placed restrictions on its workforce, prohibiting travel abroad and directing all non-essential personnel to work from home.

These directives are part of Operation Laser, a contingency plan to prepare the CAF to respond to a global pandemic by maintaining operational capabilities and readiness to support requests from the civilian government. These preparations operate along three ‘lines of effort’ - preserving and protecting CAF personnel; assessing military missions domestically and overseas; and preparing to support other government departments as directed.

These efforts demonstrate the dual challenge facing the CAF during the COVID-19 pandemic: 1) carving out capacity to support GOC requests; and 2) preserving capability to conduct day-to-day defence duties and operations. The CAF’s ongoing response raises longer-term issues of what roles and capacities are envisioned for the CAF in supporting governments on the domestic front, and whether this requires a re-think in core missions, force structure and capabilities.

The CAF could be tasked with two major roles in support of governments. First, the military could be deployed in aid to civil power during extreme circumstances, such as large-scale disturbances and unrest that public safety authorities cannot cope with. Second, and more likely, will be in the provision of services to assist civilian agencies, such as during natural disasters, as most recently exemplified in January by the CAF’s post-blizzard cleanup efforts in Newfoundland.

Aid to civil power would pose significant challenges for the CAF given limited human resources to conduct such duties, especially if asked to do so across multiple provincial jurisdictions and/or country-wide. This would most likely be a measure of last resort as Canadians are not used to, nor does the CAF have much experience with, the military operating within Canada in a constabulary capacity. The use of this power would conflict with the predominant political culture (within the public and the CAF) that the military does not conduct constabulary duties as well as possibly result in the curtailing and cessation of other defence duties and operations.

If, however, there remains a not-insignificant portion of Canadians not abiding by social distancing directives and/or existing public authorities are being stretched beyond their capacity, the CAF could be called in to assist.  Such action involving the CAF does not require invoking the Emergencies Act, unless there is a need for national coordination and leadership by the federal government.

Provision of services could manifest in a number ways. It is ultimately up to the CAF to determine how best to support the government based on the nature of the request and capabilities available. It is unlikely the CAF can provide large-scale medical assistance. The CAF possess a relatively small health-care capacity, largely consisting of limited medical staff and day clinics on major bases as well as the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), a mobile medical capability usually deployed to areas affected by natural disasters.

One possible mission, however, could be more limited deployments to vulnerable and isolated parts of Canada, such as in the Territories, where there are limited health-care and public systems that could easily be overwhelmed by a local COVID-19 outbreak. The military, furthermore, could use air and naval assets to ensure needed supplies are sent to communities that cannot be accessed by roads.

That being said, the effectiveness of these actions could be undermined by similar reservations as the above about military personnel operating in public spaces within Canada. This may be particularly acute in Indigenous communities in the Far North, where the military does have logistical reach but relations with local communities can be strained. In these instances, larger CAF missions would likely be reliant on partnerships with Indigenous leadership and existing community presence, most notably via the Canadian Rangers, to lend legitimacy to the mission.

The CAF could also leverage its non-medical human and infrastructure resources to support civilian authorities. Bases could be retooled as triage/quarantine centres as has been done at CFB Trenton. Specifically, reserve unit buildings could be used for this purpose as they are predominantly located in urban centres and are currently largely evacuated given work from home orders. Another possibility is establishing a contingent of soldiers and assets specifically mandated to support civilian authorities, similar to the United Kingdom’s ‘COVID Support Force’.

Outside of the specific tasks that the CAF may be asked to perform, the COVID-19 pandemic affects its capability preservation in a number of ways. First, as described above, there is the potential of diverting assets/forces for direct COVID-19 support. Ensuring forces are ready in a standby capacity appears to be a major rationale for cancelling the Canadian Army’s largest annual exercise, Maple Resolve. Second, there will be procurement delays of assets given the slowdown in the economy due to public health measures.

Third, there is the reassessment of overseas commitments and practices to protect the operational effectiveness of forces, including the early return of Canadian warships from operations in Africa and the Caribbean and cancellation of port visits and many exercises for warships still on deployment. The recall of a Canadian naval task group on the west coast over concerns of a possible COVID-19 case onboard one of the warships demonstrates the challenges, and consequences, of trying to protect operational personnel from health attrition.

Such moves are vital in preserving the forces needed to maintain essential defence operations during this time, as demonstrated by the recent intercept of Russian military planes off the coast of Alaska by American and Canadian fighter jets. Finally, moves to protect the health of its workforce has led to measures such as cancelling exercises, work from home orders and possibly delaying this year’s posting season which will effect training and administrative functions of the CAF. 

Providing assistance to civil authorities and nongovernmental partners in responding to domestic disasters or major emergencies is one of eight core missions of the CAF. As dangerous and unprecedented as the challenges Canada currently faces with COVID-19, the pandemic is part of a continuing trend of growing requests – a 1000 percent increase over the past four years – for CAF support to civilian authorities.

Many of these have been in the aftermath of natural disasters, which are becoming more frequent occurrences as frontline impacts of climate change are increasingly felt across Canada. Australia is tackling similar challenges given the demands placed on their military in dealing with this year’s wildfire season along with maintaining their traditional defence duties. This experience has led to discussions about whether the priorities, capabilities and capacities of their forces need to be re-evaluated in an altering security environment where non-military security challenges are becoming more prominent.

Defining roles and duties of the CAF is not solely, or even primarily, a technical, financial or capacity challenge, but more fundamentally is a political decision based on what Canadians believe the proper roles of their military should be. The CAF continues to balance carving capacity to support requests for aid to civilian government while preserving capability for ongoing defence duties; but the continuation of such trends will increasingly strain this careful balance, possibly to the detriment of both mission sets.

Adam P. MacDonald is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at Dalhousie University. Carter Vance is a graduate of Carleton University’s Institute of Political Economy and a former Junior Research Fellow with the NATO Association of Canada

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