Canadian-Style Gunboat Diplomacy

How an Expeditionary Military will grow Canada’s Soft Power

by Declan Hodgins, Editor

It is well established that since the Cold War, Canada’s military has been underfunded compared to other nations of similar international stature. In a recent defence review, the Canadian government raised planned defence expenditure from less than 1% of its GDP to 1.5%. While this continues to fall short of NATO’s 2% of GDP requirement, it is certainly an improvement. However, while this funding improves the size of our military, the Canadian Armed Forces continue to lack a key capability that the defence review ignores.

Canada’s military is severely lacking in expeditionary capacity. The logistical ability to project the power that we have across the globe, known in military circles as expeditionary capability, would allow the Canadian Armed Forces to significantly increase not only hard power, but also its soft power through enhanced humanitarian and diplomatic action.

              Even though Canada’s size and stature on the world stage would dictate that we would already have expeditionary capability, Canada’s military continues to be underfunded largely due to its two national mythologies. The first holds that we are a peacekeeping nation, rather than a warfighting nation. Second, the Militia Myth states that Canada need not have a powerful standing army, as it can instead raise a Citizen’s militia in times of war. These have served as excuses for politicians to cut funding for our military and kneecap its expeditionary capabilities. As a result, our military is currently in a dire state of readiness.

Our army, while decently sized at 3 mechanized brigades, has no significant standing airborne formations and no capability for amphibious assault. Our Navy is effectively a coastal defence force   given the absence of fleet replenishment ships. Our Air Force is small, old, and has few airlift and air refueling assets. Canada is virtually incapable of independent military action, and is really only able to contribute forces to coalitions led by larger nations.

By expanding our expeditionary forces, Canada will benefit from more than just an increase in hard power. The same assets that allow a military to be expeditionary are also ideal for supporting peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, and diplomacy, which are of benefit to our soft power.

Currently, Canada employs The Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) as a component of the Canadian Armed Forces that can deploy on short notice to assist with natural and humanitarian disasters. And while it has served admirably in places such as Rwanda and Nepal, until quite recently, Canada had to charter aircraft from a private company to transport them into theatre; a fact that serve as an embarrassment for a G-7 nation. Although Canada recently acquired five C-17 strategic airlifters, they are scarcely adequate for our needs.

While the acquisitions of the C-17s is a good start, Canada should continue to grow its Strategic airlift capability, along with associated tanker assets, to give the military a greater facility to respond to crises. Strategic airlift can play a key role in transporting disaster assistance forces into theatre after a natural or humanitarian disaster, and can later be used to airlift supplies into affected regions.

To complement increased strategic airlift assets, Canada should also consider the establishment of a standing Airborne force. The same rapid response capability and deployability that makes airborne forces ideal for expeditionary warfare also makes them ideal for disaster response.  In the past, the Canadian Airborne Regiment was often deployed in peacekeeping and disaster response roles. The capability lost when it was disbanded in 1995 has yet to be fully replaced.

After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami the USA launched Operation Unified Assistance, a disaster relief mission. One of the most valuable assets in that mission was the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship that had been on deployment in the Southwest Pacific at the time of the tsunami. The Bonhomme Richard had a reinforced squadron of transport helicopters, several landing craft, a fully equipped hospital, a massive freshwater generation facility, and a battalion of Marines with attached logistics – in other words –  the ideal disaster response force.

In countless occasions, amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers have shown their utility in the event of a natural disaster. The USA, with its fleet of 11 aircraft carriers and 31 amphibious warfare ships, has won itself considerable goodwill around the world through its ability to quickly and effectively respond to disasters. By acquiring Amphibious warfare vessels for itself, such as the French-built Mistral-class ships, Canada would have a potent tool not only for use in war, but also in responding to crisis events worldwide.

Many Canadians buy into the Canada’s two national mythologies and will assert the oft repeated claim that Canada is too small to have an expeditionary military, but this is demonstrably false. Australia, a smaller nation than we are, has a powerful and expeditionary military. Our GDP exceeds that of Russia, one of the greatest military powers on earth. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the nation that took Juno Beach should currently possess an amphibious warfare capability, especially when it would be so potent a tool for responding to all types of international crisis.        

If Canada wants to retain its international stature, it needs to expand its expeditionary capability. Advocates of a larger military for Canada need to stop solely framing the debate in terms of hard power. Conversely, advocates of a Canadian foreign policy based on peacekeeping and humanitarianism must realise that we can only effectively pursue that goal if we have credible expeditionary forces.

A more expeditionary military for Canada not only appeals to our proud history of warfare but also to our traditions of peacekeeping and humanitarian aid. Canada cannot continue to rely on hastily assembled ad-hoc formations and militia mobilization to meet its international goals. In modern warfare, a well-trained, educated, and equipped standing military is a must, whether it is peacekeeping, conventional combat, or anywhere in between.

When Oliver Cromwell stated that “a ship of war makes the best ambassador”, he was referring to the metaphorical “stick” in international relations. However, the quote is equally applicable in the context of soft power. If Canada adds a credible expeditionary capability to our military, we will be able to increase our clout on the full continuum of war and peace.

Declan Hodgins is a Third Year Business and International Relations student at the University of Western Ontario and has served as a Senior Editor of The General Assembly Publication since its inception in October 2017. He is also the President of Western Model UN. His areas of interest include Military History, Military Science, Partisan Politics, and Public Policy. He can be reached at