Canada’s army, navy, air force form a unified military


Canada is the only country in the western world that has a single unified military instead of an army, navy and air force. This unified military, named the Canadian Armed Forces, came into existence on February 1, 1968 just as the separate Canadian Army, Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force ceased to exist. The Canadian Armed Forces is now almost always referred to as the Canadian Forces or simply the CF.

The man most responsible for pushing the unification of the Canadian armed services was Paul Hellyer, the minister of national defence from 1963 to 1968. Hellyer followed a trend begun by earlier ministers in the late 1940s to unify assorted functions of the three Canadian services. One of the best early examples was the military’s medical services which in some bases in Canada simply matched each other. These early unification experiments were carried out both to seek greater efficiency and to avoid the waste of money.

Hellyer was a former member of the Royal Canadian Air Force and a successful businessman before he entered politics. He had come to believe that unification of the three services would save money that could then be used to purchase better equipment. He also wanted to end rivalry within the military. He thought that having a single service commanded by a single Chief of the Defence Staff would end bickering and lobbying by the army, navy and air force against each other for more money. These ongoing rivalries made it difficult for the government to manage the defence budget, to determine what were the real threats to Canada, and to decide what Canada’s primary defence obligations were.

Hellyer also believed that the CF should be transformed into a single force like the United States Marine Corps that would fight on land, at sea, and in the air. This would allow its three branches to train and fight together and purchase equipment that all three might use together. He believed that such combined arms operations would increase the fighting ability of the new Canadian Armed Forces.

The process began in 1965 when the Canadian Army was changed into Force Mobile Command (FMC). Its ranks, structure and tasks were essentially the same as the Canadian Army’s had been, primarily the defence of western Europe as part of NATO and peacekeeping operations. But FMC also included that part of the Royal Canadian Air Force whose job it was to support the army with fighters and bombers, reconnaissance planes and light cargo hauling. The most important part of this scheme was that the land force and the tactical fighter squadrons of the air force would train and fight together.

Those parts of the air force which were regularly assigned to train (and if necessary fight) with the navy were assigned to the new Maritime Command which was based on the old Royal Canadian Navy. This meant that Maritime Command would include all ships and naval training facilities as well as fixed-wing anti-submarine aircraft and ship-borne helicopters of the former air force.

A new Air Defence Command was to assume responsibility for Canada’s continental air defence commitments as part of the North American Air Defence Agreement (NORAD) which had been concluded between Canada and the United States in 1957-58. Air Transport Command would operate long range air passenger and cargo services for the Canadian Armed Forces. Training Command would recruit and train all members of the Canadian military – land, sea and air – then send them on to the other commands. Material Command would assume all storage and supply duties. The headquarters of the two fighting commands – FMC and Maritime Command – were moved out of Ottawa to, respectively, St. Hubert (Quebec) and Halifax. The support commands remained in Ottawa at National Defence Headquarters with the Chief of the Defence Staff and his staff. All personnel of the new Canadian Armed Forces were initially made to adopt the army’s green dress uniforms and fatigues and the army’s ranks.

Unification began to wear away within its first decade. In 1975, an Air Command was created in Winnipeg, which took back and grouped together all of the CF’s air assets. In the late 1970s and early 1980s traditional uniforms were restored for the navy and air force. Naval ranks had been restored earlier.

In 1995-96 deep cuts in the Canadian defence budget forced the Canadian Forces to close the headquarters in Winnipeg, St. Hubert and Halifax and transfer their chiefs to Ottawa. Today the forces remain united although inter-service rivalries continue. A new unified command structure has been put into place for both Canadian and overseas (or expeditionary) operations. The first is called Canada Command or CANADACOM while the largest of the expeditionary commands is called Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command or CEFCOM. It is noteworthy that none of Canada’s allies has followed the Canadian example.

Next Installment: Peacekeeping Turns into War: the Balkans

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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