Canadian Defence in Focus: 2023 Recap and Prospects for 2024

Christopher Ankersen, Charles Davies, Marcus Kolga, & Cleo Paskal

With 2023 drawing to a close, the CDA Institute conducted insightful discussions with our esteemed fellows to examine the most impactful developments in Canadian defence and security throughout the year. We also delved into the challenges ahead for Canada in the coming year, identifying key priorities and considerations for 2024.

Christopher Ankersen

Foreign interference, military Capacity shortfall, and the defence budget

Three developments stand out in my mind, not only because they have their significance in and of themselves, but I think they’re emblematic of a larger problem. The first is the notion of foreign interference in Canada, on two counts in particular. One is the significant foreign interference by the People’s Republic of China, in the wider electoral process in Canada, and even more widely than that, within the diaspora politics within Canada. Second, along that same line, was the handling of and the reaction to the Indian state-sponsored assassination of a Canadian citizen in Canada, and the revelations that came out.

These episodes chip away at the notion that we live in a fireproof house, and that defence and security have to be seen in a much wider aperture than perhaps Canada is used to looking at. The other dimension that came out of those two incidents is that our allies will act in their own best interests, not necessarily ours. We can’t rely on others to come to our aid necessarily, when there are complex global issues, like the American courting of India as a counterweight to the rise of China.

The second aspect that I would say that was worrying this year, was the 16,000-person shortfall in the Canadian Armed Forces. The CAF is far below its trained effective strength. About 120,000, Canadians need to be knocking on the door if we want to see that gap closed anytime soon. Several quick fixes, for example, opening up recruitment to permanent residents and the RCN’s try-before-you-buy scheme have yielded a little bit, but in the low hundreds. There’s not going to be enough to address this issue. At some point, it does make me wonder if there’s a critical threshold below which the CAF would be incapable of reconstituting itself, without some kind of Herculean effort, very much along the lines of what would be required in a period of mobilization.

The third notable problem from 2023 has been the lamentable reduction in defence funding as a part of the fiscal rebalancing. There was a lot of argumentation, back and forth, about whether this was a cut or not a cut. But it was certainly a reduction in the planned funding. Despite there being some good announcements recently, the reduced funding means that it will, again, continue to be far short of its now-twice committed 2% GDP target, as laid out by NATO, and as agreed to by Canada. This doesn’t bode well for the future. Even if we did come up with more money quickly, simply throwing money at this problem would be insufficient.

In 2024 I think the biggest threat that faces Canada is a combination of two factors. One is the fact that the world is changing. It is always changing, but we need to wake up to the fact that the world is changing. Our traditional role as the handmade to the hegemon, first to Great Britain and secondly, to the United States is no guarantee of our security or autonomy. Secondly, we are not able to meet our commitments—never mind our ambitions of being a significant power in the world. Even if we want to play that handmade role that we’ve traditionally played, we need to come to grips with the reality that playing in that space requires commitment.

In 2024 we will be facing a dynamic threat environment and a changing allied landscape, as our allies come to grips with their challenges. They’re not necessarily thinking about how they can help us out, they are rightly focusing on their problems and are expecting Canadians to meet their challenges, or at least do their fair share. As the commander of the Royal Canadian Navy made clear last week, we are not going to meet our targets this year, or probably next year. We have to act now to restore not only our capability but what our capability gets us, which is credibility.

The Canadian Forces was never designed to defend the 10 million square kilometres of Canadian territory. It was designed to contribute to international allied security. We have to make sure that we live up to our end of the bargain. If we don’t do that, we’re going to find ourselves left behind, where we are not regarded in anyone else’s plans. We need to start paying our premiums, otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves alone and on our own.

Charles Davies

Challenges in implementing a Defence Policy Update

I was struck the most by the difficulty the government has had this year in getting a defence policy update, which they had promised. There have been reports of multiple rejections of draft documents by the Prime Minister’s Office, they’ve replaced the Minister of National Defence, and more recently, the imposition of a $900 million cut to the defence budget—a clear sign that the government is not following a path that’s consistent with where SSE was going.

On the other side, I’d say there have been some very tough procurement files that they’ve finally done some work with. In January, the government formally announced the CF-18 replacement process. That was bookended a few weeks or so ago by the announcement of the P-8A acquisition, which suggested to me that they’ve started to do some more serious thinking about these acquisitions and their political ramifications. The P-8A seems to have been thought through in terms of when the Aurora platform has to be replaced.

Another trend I’ve been watching is the recruiting shortfalls, but that’s not unique. The U.S., Australia, and most countries are having difficulty recruiting. That’s very common in periods of low unemployment. I think that’s just a cyclical issue that all militaries are dealing with. But it doesn’t make it any easier to manage the defence capabilities that we have. I sense that there have been fewer leadership stumbles in handling sexual misconduct cases in the Canadian Armed Forces. Of course, there’s reporting out now that the number of reported instances is certainly well up over the previous year. It’s not clear to me yet whether that’s a reflection of a more positive culture, which supports and enables and encourages reporting. It looks like it could be a positive, even though the numbers are going way up. But culture change is a journey.

In 2024 we need to get the defence policy update done. Even if it’s not as ambitious as many of us might like. SSE is dated and it does not provide the mechanism by which you get all of the departments involved in defence, procurement, and the other important elements involved. It is an inside-Ottawa kind of issue, but it’s no less important. Navigating the turbulent global security waters that we face with constrained defence and other national capabilities is another important challenge. Personnel shortfalls, funding reductions, and so on, are not going to make it any easier for this nation to deal with the instability, uncertainties, and conflicts (hot and cold) that we’re dealing with—one involving standoffs with the Chinese military in the far western Pacific region.

Another part of this is managing relationships with our really important NATO allies. Given that we’re reverting deeper back into the free rider status. It is going to be there, at least in the background, throughout the next year and beyond. In that same context, another issue is sustaining support for Ukraine, and what role Canada will continue to play in the coming year. Ukraine needs help keeping the other key allies it depends more heavily on, focused on supporting them. I see that it’s going to be very difficult. One must wonder what sort of a role that the current government will play. Because certainly up until now, they have been very vocal supporters of Ukraine. It hasn’t translated into a lot going to Ukraine, but it certainly has translated into money going to Ukraine, and a lot of public support.

Countries that have been supporting Ukraine, including Canada, have a lot more things on their mind these days. So that’s going to be difficult to see. Going back to the practical, I do see a critical need for the government to get on with publishing or producing a clear plan to replace the Victoria-class submarine. Those boats are going to be 40 years old by the end of this decade. It’s hard to tell how much longer beyond that they’re going to be able to safely and effectively operate. It is a real challenge to keep submarines at the full end of their operational capabilities, and it takes 10-15 years to replace them—potentially 20 for us.

We cannot afford to let our capabilities atrophy. I worry that the government does not seem to be seized enough with the importance of forward planning and getting on with these challenges.

Marcus Kolga

Canada’s Role in Addressing Russia’s Arctic Ambitions and the Ongoing Ukrainian Conflict

There were several challenges for Canada in 2023, as there have been over the past number of years. Ukraine and Russia, remain some of our primary challenges. I think that our government recognizes this. We all recognize that we have to defeat Vladimir Putin and ensure that Ukraine wins because if we don’t stop him right now, if we don’t push back, don’t hand him a defeat, eventually, he’s going to try and poke in other places along his border. Jens Stoltenberg warned us that he may try with NATO next, vis-à-vis Finland. We’re seeing hybrid warfare tactics, such as the weaponization of migrants along the Finnish border, and it could extend to the Baltic states.

Let’s not forget the Arctic either. The other day, we heard the chief of Russia’s Navy proclaim that Russia is now going to actively expand its territory in the Arctic well beyond its 200-mile exclusive economic zone. This should be concerning for Canada. We knew two years ago that the Russian government, when issuing its Arctic strategy documents, said that there was a coming conflict. Our defence planners need to be concerned because what we are seeing is an active phase in Russia’s efforts in the Arctic.

Back to Ukraine, we’re heading into the third year of this war, and it’s been on the front burner for most of the last two years. Understandably, not just Canadians, but Americans, and our allies around the world are getting tired of the war. The Ukrainian people themselves are, of course, quite tired. I think there is a certain amount of fatigue in media. I think in Europe fatigue is not as acute as it might be in places like the United States, because they recognize what’s at stake. In the U.S. partisanship has taken hold and some members of the Republican Party are unfortunately trying to use Ukraine as a wedge to appeal to a narrow part of their base.

Unfortunately, I think we’re seeing elements of that creeping into our politics with the conservatives. I don’t think that the isolationist element is as large as it might be in the U.S., but certainly it exists here as well. F-16s should be delivered to Ukraine over the next few months and they will play a significant role in Ukraine’s operations coming in the spring. Ukraine’s counter-offensive didn’t meet the sky-high expectations that were set last winter and over the spring, but there were several successes. We have seen some breakthroughs and wins, and Ukraine will need more of them. We’ll probably gear up over the winter for a resumption of those counteroffensives in the spring.

I think realistically, what we can do is look at our defence industries, look at who’s building what, who’s supplying what. Here in Ontario, we have a manufacturer of 155-millimeter artillery shells. What we need to be doing is looking at how we can help those companies that are developing weapons that the Ukrainians use and ramp up their domestic production. One thing that has become very clear over the past two years is that this conflict that we’re seeing right now is not going to end anytime soon. The need for those weapons isn’t going to end either. I think that what we can do over the next 12 months is figure out a way to ramp up that domestic production so that we can benefit our workers here in Canada, our armed forces, and also Ukraine.

Cleo Paskal

Canada and the Indo-Pacific

I look a lot at the Indo-Pacific, so I’ll start there. A big part of it was the relationship with India. India is a quad member, it has hundreds of thousands of troops on the Chinese border, and it’s pushing back against PRC political warfare in ways we haven’t seen before—they banned TikTok in 2020, they banned WeChat in 2020. They’re leading the way in the Indo-Pacific on a lot of very important strategic issues—three former heads of defence branches from India went to Taiwan, and there have been more defence sales in the area. But currently, Canada and India have a pretty bad relationship. And that resonates, people listen to India in the region—the G20 meeting was a big success for India and a lot of the vision that they put forward around things like the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor are potentially game-changing and widely lauded as ways of, for example, moving away from the BRI. It’s also possibly a factor in why China is perfectly happy to have the Middle East blowing up because it blows up that diversion, physical diversion away from the pathways that are more controlled by China. So there are some very big movements afoot in putting together coalitions to stand against actual authoritarianism in the Indo-Pacific, especially specifically what you see coming out of China, but to some degree supported by Russia.

The way that Canada handled the incident, the murder of a Canadian citizen, is perceived as political—the way that it was stated as near fact on the floor of the Canadian Parliament before any charges had been laid before anybody had been arrested before there was any discovery. In fact, there still haven’t been any arrests, which makes it look like even if this happened the way that the Prime Minister described it, what he then did with that information was deliberately designed to affect Canada-India relations. Other ways of doing it would achieve the same goal. You see a similar situation going on in the US now, and they’ve handled it completely differently.

They’re going through the court system, it wasn’t by President Biden standing up and making some declamatory statement. As a result, it’s affected Canada’s standing there in a way that’s hard to understand if you don’t go to India or you don’t go to the region. It’s also made it much more difficult for allies like the US to work with us in the area. So again, I don’t think anybody has to say you shouldn’t be killing anybody’s citizens in their own country. I don’t know what happened. If that did happen, don’t do it. But the way that the incident was subsequently handled was a choice and that choice is going to affect the way Canada can operate in the Indo-Pacific and potentially with its allies quite substantially for a long time to come.

I was in India recently, and I could—as a Canadian who’s been in India many, many times—I could feel the tension just in dealing with me as an individual that I haven’t felt before. So Canada may find it more difficult to operate, and at the same time we’re starting to see a lot more coming out about the Chinese influence operations within Canada, the political influence operations within Canada, Canada is a drug trafficking route into our neighbors, all that sort of stuff. We’re in a political warfare phase of international politics primarily—with very obvious exceptions—and over the last year Canada’s standing in terms of international politics, I think has unfortunately, especially in the context of the Indo-Pacific, taken a very big hit.

In the context of Canada, the PRC interference has often been lumped in with reports of interference from other countries like Russia, Iran, or even India, as has been stated. There’s been very much a focus on “Canada is a target, and everybody’s targeting us” at the political level. I think in terms of the intelligence services, there is a pretty good understanding that these threats all have very different natures and some are more long-term, well-funded, and expansive than others—but that’s not being talked about quite so publicly. You see some very good reporting from people like Sam Cooper, for example, out of The Bureau, and you see the stories are coming out.

But institutionally, I have not seen any political warfare lessons learned sharing programs that specifically look at PRC operations. It would be something that would be extremely helpful. I know that, for example, the Koreans are doing that—the Koreans are bringing in people from across the region to try to learn what these PRC influence operations look like and how to counter them because there are consistencies, which is what you would expect from a highly centralized authoritarian system. There’s a level of coordination, and the tools that they have available to them in the different countries are very similar because they’re all stemming out of the same source. That kind of comparative analysis that you’re talking about would be very helpful, but I have not seen it being done. Hopefully, it’s being done in a classified environment and everything is fine, and they’re on top of the problem, and we won’t have to worry about it. But I’m not privy to that information.

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