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An 'embarrassing' gear shortage has Canadian troops in Latvia buying their own helmets

Jul 07, 2023Jul 07, 2023

There's a phrase soldiers use to describe equipment they've bought themselves to augment what the army gives them.

They call it Gucci gear, after the luxury fashion designer.

For Canadian troops deployed in Latvia, those private purchases have been decidedly more practical than luxurious — given the fact that they're taking part in more live fire training exercises meant to deter Russia from setting foot in the Baltic country.

They've been buying their own modern ballistic helmets equipped with built-in hearing protection that doubles as a headset. They've also personally purchased rain gear and vests and belts to carry water and ammunition. And the number of complaints about the ill-fitting body armour issued to female soldiers has been growing.

These purchases — usually made through online retailers — involve brand-name tactical gear or weapon accessories that make soldiers' existing gear more personal or more comfortable to wear.

Canadian troops in Latvia are grappling with more urgent equipment shortages as well. The battlegroup of roughly 1,500 soldiers, including more than 700 Canadians, lacks modern anti-tank weapons, systems to counter drones and a dedicated short-range air defence system to guard against helicopters and attack jets.

Those frustrations have only been compounded by the arrival of more allied troops — among them Danish soldiers who are in some cases arriving with Canadian-purchased gear that makes them better equipped than Canadian soldiers.

"In general, it was concerning verging on embarrassing to see the differences in issued soldier equipment between us and the Danes," said Lt.-Col. Jesse van Eijk, the Canadian battle group commander in Latvia, in a May 12, 2023 email obtained by CBC News.

"This was only exacerbated by the fact they were carrying more advanced Canadian-made Colt Canada rifles, mounting more advanced Canadian Elcan DR sights, and the fact that most of the systems our soldiers lacked were easily available on the open market and not some sort of closely guarded technology."

For more than three decades, the Danes have been using a variety of Canadian-made weapons, including the C7 assault rifle and the C8 carbine.

CBC News requested an interview with van Eijk, but he declined through the Department of National Defence. The department said in a written statement that his email was a response to concerns raised during a recent staff visit from the army's directorate of equipment and program management.

Acquiring better hearing protection for soldiers has been a long-term struggle for the army. Right now, many troops use yellow foam earplugs to protect their hearing from the din of artillery and heavy weapons fire.

The absence of appropriate ear protection was flagged to senior commanders in a 2019 capability deficiency report written by the army's infantry school, DND acknowledged.

In a written statement, DND spokesperson Jessica Lamirande said procurement projects are underway to provide soldiers with more modern tactical helmets, vests, boots, "converged rain suits, sunhats and hybrid combat shirts."

The department said the clothing is expected to be delivered next year.

DND awarded a contract in February for better helmets with ear protection for so-called "light forces" (special forces and other infantry). It says it will leverage what it learned from that contract when it comes time to replace all general-purpose helmets across the army.

The department also said it's working on buying new handguns for soldiers, new general-purpose machine guns and sniper rifles.

The DND statement did not directly address the complaints of soldiers or explain why it has taken more than three years to address concerns about hearing loss — which is accounting for an increasing number of disability claims coming before the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Ensuring the safety and well-being of our members remains a top priority," Lamirande said.

"Acquiring hearing protection for soldiers is a complex undertaking as it must balance noise reduction, weight, and the ability for users to effectively communicate."

When it comes to acquiring heavier weapons, Lamirande said the department has embarked on "a rigorous and systematic process" with a request for proposals going out this summer.

A new portable anti-tank system likely will be delivered next year, the department said, while the anti-drone and anti-aircraft systems are still in the "options analysis phase" and contracts for them are not expected to be awarded until next winter at the earliest.

NDP defence critic MP Lindsay Mathyssen said it's deeply troubling that Canadian troops in Latvia are not equipped to do their jobs.

"Not only is it embarrassing that they are buying their own equipment in the first place, but it is problematic that soldiers aren't provided with adequate safety equipment so they don't experience long-term damage to their hearing," Mathyssen said in a media statement.

"As well, it's unacceptable that the government still hasn't provided women with the equipment that is specifically designed to fit them. New Democrats will always stand for our armed forces to have the tools they need to do their jobs, especially those supporting nations defending themselves from the threat of Putin's invasion, and we call on the Liberals to swiftly provide all CAF members with the equipment they need."

Dave Perry, a defence procurement expert at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the defence department should understand contractors are facing a deluge of orders since the war in Ukraine erupted in full fury.

"Some of the things that we're looking to buy on an urgent basis for our troops, or pieces of equipment, are things that half the planet is trying to get its hands on right now as fast as possible," said Perry, whose organization has held conferences that are occasionally sponsored by defence contractors.

"So the longer that Canada delays making these decisions, the harder time it will have and the longer it will take for us to actually get equipment delivered."

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.