Canada building global network of military bases in aggressive shift

A map of current and potential “Operational Support Hub” military bases. Illustration: The Breach

By Martin Lukacs, The Breach, June 29, 2021

The Canadian military has spent the past 10 years establishing a global network of bases in order to “project combat power” under the influence and leadership of the United States, documents obtained by The Breach reveal.

The bases in Kuwait, Senegal and Jamaica have been used as staging grounds for military operations and “counter-terrorism” trainings throughout Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. 

According to government documents obtained through access to information requests and interviews with key former Canadian military planners, the locations and small size of the bases were heavily influenced by U.S. military strategy.

The plans follow a U.S. shift toward what Pentagon planners have dubbed “lily pads”—smaller military bases that can serve as jumping-off points for larger-scale interventions.

Canada’s initiative “was launched to improve the CF’s ability to project combat power, security assistance and Canadian influence rapidly and flexibly anywhere in the world,” according to a directive from top General Walter Natynczyk in 2010.

The bases will serve Canada’s increasing role as an ally to the U.S. that is “small militarily, but with an outsized policing function,” former top U.S. military advisor Thomas Barnett told The Breach.

Barnett’s global blueprint for U.S. forces, known as the Pentagon’s New Map, helped inspired the location of the Canadian bases.

Jerome Klassen, a Canadian political scientist at University of Massachusetts Boston and research fellow at the MIT Centre for International Studies, said the bases are a stepping stone for a more aggressive Canadian foreign policy and a transformed military priming itself for a future of U.S.-led counterinsurgency wars in Global South countries.

“These bases will allow for Canadian military, policing and special forces operations on a permanent basis, and support large-scale surges of military forces on terms favourable to the United States,” Klassen said.


Project “Global Reach”

First initiated by the Canadian military under the Harper Conservatives in 2006, the plan for the bases—called “operational support hubs”—has been continued and implemented under the Trudeau Liberals.

Going under the project name “Global Reach,“ the Canadian government identified locations and began negotiating to open the network of bases. 

“While we have deployed and sustained forces over all parts of the world in the past few decades, our ability to deploy forces has been hampered by the lack of a forward base we could use to stage our deployment into the area of operations,” read notes from a 2010 presentation given by Major-General McQuillan to Canadian military command.

Initially conceived to be established in seven regions, to date they have been established in four—Germany in 2009, Kuwait in 2011, Jamaica in 2016, and Senegal in 2018.

Negotiation over bases in Eastern Africa, Southeast Asia and East Asia were begun by Canadian diplomats but never finalized.

A memo to Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay in 2010 describes how the bases are to be “located in a friendly country which is within tactical range of areas in strategic interest to Canada and Canadian Forces.”

“Hubs are ideally located near a major city served by an international airport and a sea port capable of strategic and tactical movement,” the memo reads. “The arrangement with the host country will be underpinned by formal agreement with the host nation and the military forces of that nation.”

The bases are modeled after Camp Mirage, the temporary base in the United Arab Emirates that Canada used from 2001 to 2010 to support its involvement in the war in Afghanistan, the longest running military occupation in Canadian history.

“If you look at Camp Mirage today, it is performing many of the functions that we would want our Operational Support Hubs to perform,” notes a Department of National Defense memo from 2010. 

According to Klassen, it was during the Afghanistan mission that the Canadian military began a transformation toward a new kind of warfare, with a more mobile, technologically-advanced, combat-hardened military, and enlarged special forces capable of engaging in surgical operations.

Significant increases in military spending, beginning under Prime Minister Paul Martin and continuing under Harper and Trudeau, have allowed for the purchase of new weapons systems, including tanks, fighter jets, warships, armoured patrol vehicles, and big strategic-lift planes that can move soldiers into conflict zones. The $50 billion for military hardware that the Harper government committed was doubled by the Trudeau government, when they announced more than $100 billion in spending over a twenty year period.

“These changes, together with the new network of bases, reflects a qualitative shift away from peacekeeping, the European theatre, and middle power functions towards a growing militarism on a global scale, focused on counterinsurgency, terrorism and so-called failing states in the Global South,” Klassen said.

Col. Daniel Smith, the current Canadian commander of three of the hubs, told The Breach in an interview that they could potentially support military operations at the scale of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan.

“They are designed to be scalable, to meet the requirements. If in any of those regions we needed to increase the scope to support much larger operations, it is absolutely possible. That’s one of the reasons why we maintain the relationships that we do.”

According to the military planning documents, the bases are intended to have a small “cadre” of staff that “can ensure the hub is ready to surge and support CF activity in the area.” 

“Clearly we don’t have the resources to establish seven hubs of the size of [Camp Mirage] just to stand around in case required,” one DND memo from 2010 noted. “One of the key roles of cadre hubs would be to plan for the activation of the hub to support a major operation.”

“We try to economize where we can,” Smith said. “Like right now we have limited numbers, but they’re still able to produce effects. But they can scale if need be.”

All government officials with whom the Breach spoke, including Smith, insisted the hubs are not military bases. “OSHs are not military bases,” reads a brief summary on the website of the Department of National Defense.

But Klassen said that Canadian political and military decision-makers are keen to avoid the stigma associated with military bases and are engaging in a public relations exercise.

“They recognize that this kind of global militarism isn’t popular in Canada, that it doesn’t have deep roots in Canadian society,” he said. “So they’ve come up with a propaganda term for their domestic audience, claiming what’s at play is a neutral logistical matter, instead of a deeply political and militaristic project.”


An “essential enabler” of Middle East operations

The base in Kuwait, where 120 military personnel serve, has been used as the launching pad for Canada’s operations in Iraq since 2014, and to move soldiers and materials into Qatar, Lebanon, and Jordan. 

The seven year, $1 billion campaign against ISIS in Iraq has seen Canadian forces deploy fighter jets, provide intelligence for U.S. airstrikes, and support fighting to recapture ISIS-held Mosul in 2017, which left thousands of civilians dead.

Under the Liberal government, the fighter jets were withdrawn—but starting in 2018, Canada became the leader of a NATO mission to train troops of the notoriously corrupt Iraqi army.  According to reports in the Ottawa Citizen, complaints from Canadian soldiers that they were training war criminals were dismissed by their superiors.

Klassen says the operations in the Middle East are part of a longer term shift toward deeper military cooperation with the United States.

“We’ve seen Canada moving toward participation in NATO- and U.S.-led operations where it makes a special contribution to U.S. objectives,” he said. “By providing policing, training, counter-insurgency or special operations, Canada is essentially playing an adjunct supporting role to U.S. empire.”

In 2018, Canadian forces began erecting a permanent building at the Kuwait base with more than a hundred rooms, in order to “build enduring support for the Operational Support Hub of South West Asia.”

To ensure the base’s longevity, the Canadian government has invested diplomatic energy into cultivating close relations with Kuwait’s repressive and authoritarian monarchy, with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Prime Minister Trudeau making repeated trips to the country.

A briefing note sent to Sajjan before he travelled to Kuwait in 2017 to meet with Kuwait’s Defence Minister highlighted the base’s strategic importance.

“The bilateral relationship with Kuwait is of significant importance to CAF operations in the region as Kuwait hosts the CAF’s Operational Support Hub.”

The base is “an essential enabler for any potential future operations,” he was told.

When Sajjan returned to Kuwait in the spring of 2018, he was instructed to deliver a “top message” to Kuwait’s defence minister that “Canada appreciates Kuwait’s continued support for Canadian Armed Forces Operations, including Kuwait’s agreement to host Canada’s Operational Support Hub.”

Along with the maintenance of the base, Canada has deepened military and economic ties with Kuwait, with the country being added in 2015 to a list that allows Canadian companies to sell them prohibited weapons.


“Closing the frontier”: the Pentagon’s New Map

The location of the network of Canadian bases was partially inspired by a map developed by a former top advisor to U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld that paints a future of U.S.-led asymmetrical warfare across Asia, Africa, and South America.

Thomas Barnett, a strategic analyst who developed the vision while serving under a taskforce to transform the U.S. military, describes a sweep of countries in a “non-integrated gap” in need of military intervention by the United States and other countries in the “functioning core” of the world. The map that has come to be known as the Pentagon’s New Map.

According to key Canadian military planners and military publications, this map—as well as Foreign Policy’s map indexing “failed states”—was the basis for Canada’s base locations.

In an interview, Barnett called his map “a moving frontier of globalization, similar to the American west when there was lots of counter-insurgency needed to extend security and certainty to regions experiencing unrest.”

“Africa is booming, Asia is booming, South America is booming,” he said. “We’re in a period like in 1865, where we’re closing the frontier, where we’re very ground-oriented. So we’re seeing a shift from big mass forces to small stabilization forces, from big bases to small bases that can surge—lily pads in the US, hubs for Canada. These distributed bases are cheaper, with small numbers that are able to train, do security, and go after the bad guy now and then.”

In this shifting geo-political terrain, there’s a key role for Canadian forces, according to Barnett.

“Canada is a most useful ally to the U.S.,” he said. “Canada is small militarily, but what you can have is an outsized role in the policing function, and do the U.S. a favour.”

Barnett’s map, with the locations of the Canadian bases charted over it, appears in an article written in a military trade publication by Lieutenant Col. Roy Bacot, a United States Air Force officer who was loaned to the Canadian forces team and served as the “Global Hub Team Lead” while they developed the bases plan.

Retired Canadian Col. Michael Boomer, one of the architects of the initial plan for Operational Support Hubs, acknowledged being influenced by the Pentagon’s New Map.

“We looked at the Foreign Policy’s map and Thomas Barnett’s non-integrated gaps,” Boomer said in an interview. “When you map over them, there is high correlation between the hubs, with the hubs covering a significant part of the non-integrating gap. We wanted 75 percent coverage.”

“We wanted a hub near, but not in the middle, of where we wanted to operate. We needed to exploit our capabilities, but without building huge bases,” he added.

“It was absolutely influenced by the United States, but that’s nothing new.”

Klassen said much of the military lingo is cover for realpolitik.

“They talk about counter terrorism, emergency response, and security ‘gaps,’ but at heart this is about managing geo-political crises in a way that supports western business interests, U.S. supremacy, and neoliberal policies,” he said.

“The term ‘failed states’ was concocted to justify the use of force in global affairs. It just always happen to be any Third World countries with a history of colonization that pose a threat to capital and geo-political stability and that have to be contained, managed and controlled. And increasingly it’s where Canada has business interests in mining, oil and gas, or finance and banks.”


U.S “keen to work with Canada”

As Canadian officials developed the bases, they’ve closely liaised with U.S. military and talked about “harmonizing” their efforts.

U.S. officials offered to let Canadian aircraft use American bases “anywhere in the world,” Col. Mike Boomer wrote in a confidential report from a 2008 meeting in Germany, as Canada opened its first base in that country.

This was an “extremely generous offer” that could be “extremely useful” in situations where Canada forces might “send an aircraft to a region in which the CF does not routinely operate.” 

On the recommendation of the Pentagon, the Canadian team later held discussions with the U.S. military’s command in Africa, known as AFRICOM. According to Boomer’s summary, the U.S. officials were “keen on working with [Canada] as both they and we establish new relationships in Africa,” and agreed to host Canadian officials on placements within AFRICOM.

“The opportunity to work with AFRICOM staff as they plan for future USA activities in Africa so that our respective approaches are harmonised is one that should be carefully considered.”

Over the last decade, U.S. military operations in Africa have soared, as the U.S. has opened of dozen of bases, conducted commando operations, and engaged in drone strikes across the continent.

Canada opened its own base in Dakar, Senegal, where a U.S. base is also located. It has used the base as a launch pad for operations in instability-wracked Mali, including a 2018 peacekeeping mission.

A dozen Canadian mining companies have $1.8 billion invested in gold mines in the country.

Canada has been sending military trainers to assist the Malian security forces as far back as 2011. In 2013, Canada helped support a French military deployment with its C-17 strategic airlift planes. 

As part of U.S.-led Operation Flintlock, Canadian military continues to train several African militaries, including the same officials who were involved in the overthrow of Mali’s government in 2020. 

Currently, the Dakar base is quite small, with no more than a dozen permanent officials, according to Col. Smith.

“Our goal is to improve their ability, and figure out how do we support the Forces better,” he said.

“It’s exciting to look back to 2010 and actually see how far we’ve come since it was just on paper. To see something go from concept to on-the-ground execution is a fascinating and wonderful thing. I see the promise being fulfilled. I can see us continuing to improve.”

Klassen does not expect any new Canadian government to veer off this path.

“As Canadian business has expanded continentally, and then globalized, it has induced a rethinking of Canadian foreign policy,” he said. “All the major political parties are now aligned around a new Canadian grand strategy that is integrated with that of the United States—managing the contradictions and crisis of global capitalism by disciplining any challenges from states in the Global South.”


Martin Lukacs | Martin Lukacs is an investigative journalist and the Managing Editor of The Breach. He's a former environmental writer for The Guardian, and has written for The New York Review of Books, Toronto Star, Walrus, CBC, and other Canadian publications. He's the author of The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent.


Posted June 30, 2021