OTTAWA — The Harper government is considering joining NATO’s rapid reaction force, but doing so could mean spurning a traditional ally whose been courting Canada to be part of its formation.
Defence Minister Jason Kenney has acknowledged the government is discussing whether to become part of the alliance’s high-readiness force, meant to deploy quickly in the event of a crisis.
He cast the idea as response to Russian aggression in eastern Europe.
But a series of documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act show the idea has been debated for almost two years, before the crisis erupted in Ukraine.
Interest in volunteering for NATO’s rapid reaction unit — expected to be 30,000 strong — or even a smaller very-high-readiness task force has left some analysts wondering how much of it is election posturing.
While they’re not surprised the government is talking about it, analysts say — aside from helping staff a NATO field headquarters in Poland — the actual deployment of troops to the rotating task force could be a couple of years away.
Dave Perry, of the Canadian Foreign Affairs and Defence Institute, said a proposal by Britain to create a joint expeditionary force, or JEF, outside of the alliance is more in keeping with the Harper government’s style and attitude towards international relations.
The Cameron government has been very assertive, proposing prior to last year’s NATO Summit in Wales that Ottawa sign on to establish the 10,000-man force until at least 2018, according to a briefing prepared for former defence minister Rob Nicholson dated July 25, 2014.
Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands and Norway had already signed on.
The formation would not only train together, but participating countries could “respond operationally to a number of contingencies ranging from humanitarian assistance to war fighting.”
Nicholson refused to sign the letter of intent, but said “Canada would like to continue active discussions,” according to a letter sent to Britain’s defence secretary, Michael Fallon, which was also obtained by The Canadian Press.
Given the small size of Canada’s army, Perry said it’s unlikely the Harper government would cough up troops for both NATO and the British venture.
Ever since NATO’s reluctance to reinforce Canada in Kandahar during the Afghan war, the Harper government has shied away from the alliance, pulling out of joint programs and becoming one of the loudest voices for administrative reform, Perry added.
“NATO as a whole has a hard time deciding on doing things, so if there are coalitions of the willing — so to speak — that can use NATO infrastructure, that can sometimes be a better solution,” he said.
“That way you don’t have to get a consensus opinion to go out and do things.”
Steve Saideman, an international affairs professor at Carleton University, said the military’s post-2014 plan — written prior to the war against the Islamic State and the Ukraine crisis — was tilted towards NATO.
“Item No. 1 was to continue commitment to the U.S. and NATO,” said Saideman, an expert on the alliance. “Committing to the (rapid reaction force) is interesting … because it shows the military was thinking down the road about the (force) and sticking with it.”
He suggested actually deploying troops could be even further away than 2016 because other nations have already lined up to take their turns in the rotation and Canada has been tardy in making its decision.
“Canada could be one of the major partners, three, four, five years down the road,” he said. “I think the delay has a lot to do with Harper’s angina with NATO.”
Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press