What if the following occurred at a Prime Ministerial news conference?
Reporter #1: Prime Minister, there are reports that most or all of our ships at CFB Esquimalt on the west coast have left port. Can you tell me where they’re headed?
PM Trudeau: This is a normal military action. Ships must leave port regularly to make sure they’re operational.
Reporter #1: But where are they going?
PM: It wouldn’t be much of a training exercise if our sailors found out where they were going from your news report.
Reporter #1: But is this related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
PM: Ukraine is a long way from Esquimalt. Next.
Reporter #2: Prime Minister, we’re also heard there’s some effort to re-deploy Leopard tanks used in Afghanistan. Just from memory, we bought Leopards from Germany in the late ’70s and then there were some swaps and loans of tanks among NATO countries. Some have been seen in Alberta. Are they all in mothballs, scrapped, or sold – what’s their status?
PM: They’re old, but good equipment and great for training. I suspect there are a few at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick. There may be some in Alberta, and you know the tall tales about some used as monuments being driven off their pedestals and deployed.
Reporter #2: But where will they be refurbished, and will they be deployed? There’s at least a rumour they’re headed for Europe.
PM: I’m sure Canada’s Department of National Defence knows the best place to refurbish old equipment. In fact, Germany is an ideal place to refurbish tanks.
Reporter #3: Prime Minister, there seems to be some activity at old CFB bases in Lahr, Germany and in France as if those facilities are becoming ready to accept troops and equipment.
PM: Canadians have a long and distinguished history in Europe. We participate in D-Day observances, the Nijmegen March, and other events. I hope we’re going to have a significant presence in these events this year.
Reporter #3: Follow up Prime Minister. The Nijmegen March is in July, D-Day events are in June. Why are we getting ready now?
PM: We don’t want to be late. Next.
Reporter #4: But don’t you think, Prime Minister, that the Russians will think this apparent military action is related to their invasion of Ukraine.
PM: Come on. Kyiv is 2,000 km east of Lahr.
Reporter #4: Follow up, Prime Minister. There are also reports that CF18 aircraft have left Cold Lake, Alberta. Where are they headed?
PM: I don’t take direct command of Canadian troops. But I did hear that there may be a Canadian presence at a commemoration of the Greenham Common Women’s protest in Berkshire, England, that helped end the Cold War. I think it would be great if we helped commemorate that event, don’t you?
Reporter #5: Prime Minister, there are also reports of civilian Jeeps and military trucks being loaded on Canadian ships in Halifax, possibly accompanied by ground troops. What’s that all about?
PM: It may be humanitarian aid.
Reporter #4: For where?
PM: No doubt where it’s needed, and I’m sure the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), now part of Global Affairs, helped determine the best locations.
Reporter #5: Come on Prime Minister. This is a massive mobilization, unprecedented in peacetime in Canada. Level with us.
PM: You know, reporters often complain that we don’t have enough aviation fuel for our long-range patrol planes, rely on mostly volunteer Canadian Rangers in the north, and that we don’t provide enough training time for our women and men in uniform. Now we are training and you’re still complaining.
Reporter #6: Prime Minister, there’s a report in a local newspaper in south-western Ontario of military officers in uniform at the old GM Diesel Division plant in London. That’s where some of our Canadian-made armoured personnel carriers, or LAVs, used in peacekeeping were made. Are there any still there? Is the plant starting up again? Are LAVs being refurbished or what?
PM: That’s a private facility and I can’t speak for them. Ownership has changed a few times and I haven’t had reason to keep up with who owns the facility or their activities.
Reporter #6: But Prime Minister, surely you can tell us why Canadian Forces personnel have been spotted there.
PM: Look, there are about 100,000 regular and reserve forces in the Canadian military. You can’t expect me to know where all of them are at any time, or their purpose. I bet officers tour civilian facilities regularly to keep in touch. Next.
Reporter #7: Prime Minister, CBC Northern Services has a report of a large number of snowmobiles in transit, perhaps on their way to the Port of Churchill. Are these the Canadian Rangers?
PM: As you know, the Canadian Rangers have had a distinguished history in our North since 1942. They are now 5,000 strong and modestly paid for their time and wear and tear on their personal vehicles – many of which are snowmobiles. About half are Indigenous, Metis, First Nation, and Inuit and draw on their special knowledge of terrain and weather.
Reporter #7: But why would they be going to the Port of Churchill if they weren’t possibly involved in shipping out as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
PM: The motto of the Rangers is “watching.” No doubt they saw something while they were watching that is causing them to go to Churchill, or perhaps it’s an exercise.
Reporter #8: We’re hearing the word “snowball” on cell phone calls. Is this a code word?
PM: Thank you.
At the end of this hypothetical news conference, a few senior officers in Russia would wonder what was going on. Someone would ask for a briefing. That person would assemble information and present it. Rangers have old rifles. Ski-doos won’t work all that well when snow melts in Ukraine. Does the Leopard tank have reactive armour? Did Canada keep any cruise missiles it tested? What good is the LAV that won’t stop a 7.62 round? Can they beef it up with Kevlar? What ordinance does Canada have on its ships? Are the civilian Jeeps armoured or can they be? Did Canada retrofit its CF18s with heads up display and smarter weapons? Can Canada still launch rockets from Churchill? Did Canada keep any Bomarc missiles? Does Canada still have nuclear weapons?
Russian military, being of a military mind, would want to get to the bottom of these questions. Up the chain of command, someone would put a stop to the research by saying that Canada’s old equipment will not make a difference in Ukraine, even if it makes it all the way there.
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Yet, we would have created what Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz called “fog and friction.” That’s what you don’t know before a battle and what can slow you down. This news conference would chew up a few days of officer time wondering what we’re up to. Keeping the enemy guessing is better than telling the enemy that you won’t deploy combat troops. This kind of diversion was used to good effect during the Second World War when dummy radio traffic made the Nazis think divisions were being assembled to attack in several locations. The fictitious 4th Army in Scotland was going to invade Norway. The equally bogus U.S. First Army Group under General George S. Patton was supposedly going to invade over the shortest route to France, landing at the Pas de Calais. Radio traffic, inflatable tanks, canvass aircraft, and other subterfuge bolstered the fiction. An Australian actor playing British General Bernard Montgomery also diverted the Nazis’ attention. Fake paratroops, recordings of rifle fire, and phonographs with soldiers’ voices also distracted Nazis. Even after D-Day, the fiction about the Pas de Calais continued.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union didn’t tell us when they were going to fly their Bear aircraft close to our territory or when they sailed one of their submarines under the ice and into our Northwest passage. Why are we telling them what we won’t do? Why send them a list of the ordinance we’re sending to Ukraine? So they can prepare?
How did the lead-up to war include public statements providing complete disclosure of our intentions not to engage in an actual war? I’m not sure. Some of my old colleagues in the military and diplomacy say they’d be reluctant to spook Putin because he seems so unstable. Agreed. However, it’s easy to back off from the kind of mystery and threat that the PM could create in the new conference depicted above. He could just say that Leopard tanks and LAVs can’t be made operational after all, Rangers are on a local boat trip, and ships are headed to Bermuda and then back to their Canadian ports.
Yet the opposite is not easy – saying we won’t deploy combat troops and then reversing ourselves and sending them.
Worth a thought in the new world order.
Allan Bonner was the first North American to be awarded an MSc in Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Management. He trained in England and has worked in the field on five continents for 35 years. His latest book is Emergency! – a monograph with 13 other authors on the many crises that occurred during the pandemic.
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