PANJWAII, Afghanistan — Canadian troops will soon swap one barren desert for another, as many Afghan veterans deploy to Canada’s Far North late this winter for the first major Arctic exercise after almost 10 years of fighting insurgents in South Asia, according to the new commander of the Canadian army.
About 600 infantrymen based in Quebec and Alberta will be the first to trade Afghan temperatures that can run as high as 60 C for the -40 C that are common during the winter in Canada’s North. It is part of a strategy to keep young soldiers in the army by giving them fresh challenges, said Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin.
The move also dovetails nicely with the Conservative government’s frequently stated priority to protect the country’s northern frontiers.
“The Arctic may not seem very exciting to older guys because they have done it before, but to the vast majority of the army it will be new,” Lt-Gen. Devlin said after talking up the North in a town hall with frontline troops at a particularly austere forward base in Panjwaii.
“They will have to learn how to wear our winter gear, move in the snow, be in the harness of a toboggan, light a stove outside their tent without burning it down and to do surveillance and sovereignty operations in the Arctic. To a young guy who has not done it before, it is different and with that difference will come a level of excitement.”
While acknowledging that the move coincided with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s announced intention to bolster Canadian sovereignty in the North, Devlin said that the military purpose of such exercises was to bolster morale and provide meaningful training.
“I don’t think the army needs to go back to basics, but I think there are some skills — winter warfare would be one good example — where we haven’t had the ability to conduct training for some time,” he said.
Two soldiers were already in Brazil learning jungle warfare, while some soldiers would be trained for air mobility operations using Canada’s new fleet of Chinook helicopters. There would also be more mountain warfare training and a taste of amphibious operations because Canadian troops had to go ashore in Haiti and in Timor.
“I do not mean that every year we will have guys going ashore across a beach,” Lt.-Gen. Devlin said, “but it would be useful for our army to have an understanding of the complexity of these operations.”
Still, the question that has been most on soldiers’ minds for some time has been where Canada might next send them overseas.
“The army doesn’t need a pause. I’d like you to note that,” Lt.-Gen. Devlin said. “The army is very flexible. If there is a window before we go out again, we will exploit it for training. If there is no window and we are going out the door, I assure Canada that the army will be ready to go.
“I think that the next conflict will be different than this conflict. Our training plan will adjust for ‘a war,’ rather than ‘the war,’ and that will involve a bit of uncertainty.”
Equally uncertain is the level of funding for the Armed Forces post-2010.
“I believe that there will be some resource challenges in the years ahead,” Lt.-Gen. Devlin said. “Part of this is due to the fact that we have enjoyed a certainty of mission and funding to allow the current mission to be as successful as it has been. That additional funding will definitely come to an end in 2011.”
There have also been persistent rumours here that Ottawa and NATO will soon agree on a training role for Canadian troops in Afghanistan when the combat mission ends next July. If this were to happen, a contribution of about 400 trainers is the number mentioned most often.
“What does 400 trainers mean?” Lt.-Gen. Devlin said. “Are you looking for the heart of one battalion or are you looking for 400 NCOs (senior enlisted personnel), which is the heart of a lot more than one battalion?”
Canada still has about 1,250 more infantry on the books than was intended, but that number was dropping and the army remained in good shape after eight years in Kandahar, Kabul and then Kandahar again, the general said.
“The army has what I call warrior spirit,” he said. “We have a new level of confidence, a new level of skill and a new level of professionalism. We are a professional army capable of full spectrum combat operations and proud of what we have done in combat in Afghanistan. We are proud of the pride that we have instilled domestically and the influence we have gained internationally.”