Looking Ahead: What are Canada’s Most Pressing Security Challenges in 2023?

Justin Massie, Cleo Paskal, Charles Davies, and Christopher Ankersen

“Choosing priorities will increasingly become a problem for the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian government. Clearly, the war in Ukraine will not be resolved anytime soon. Instead, it will proceed in one form or another for most of 2023, if not beyond. On the other hand, I do not think we will see China invade Taiwan in that same time frame. The West has done an adequate job of demonstrating resilience, albeit a fragile one, in the face of Russian aggression.”

Members of 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group run to their position during an attack on the defensive position during Exercise LION INTRÉPIDE in the areas of 2nd Canadian Division Support Base, in Valcartier, Quebec, on 9 November 2022. Photo: Private Kareen Brochu-Harvey, Valcartier Imaging Section, Canadian Armed Forces ~ Des membres du 5e Groupe-brigade mécanisé du Canada courent vers leur position durant l’attaque de la position défensive lors l’exercice LION INTRÉPIDE dans les secteurs de la Base de soutien de la 2e Division du Canada, Valcartier, Qc, le 9 novembre 2022. Photo: Soldat Kareen Brochu-Harvey, Section Imagerie, Valcartier, Forces armées canadiennes

The CDA Institute conducted several short interviews with four of its fellows to determine what they thought were the most significant Canadian defence and security challenges in 2022, as well as discern where our priorities and attention need to be at the start of 2023.

What do you think was most significant security challenge Canada faced in the past year, and in the months and year ahead, what issue does Canada need to prioritize the most with its attention and resources?

Justin Massie

I think everything changed on February 24, 2022. Prior to that, I would have said that continental defence was our main challenge and priority. Since the invasion of Ukraine, I think that has been Canada’s most important challenge without a doubt, given that a primary threat to Canada’s North is the same country that is directly invading Ukraine. If the Government of Canada wants Ukraine’s military to win the war, which it has publicly stated, and restore its 1991 borders, that will require a significant number of resources. If Canada was serious about its objective, it would need to invest a lot in developing munitions and capacities to sustain the medium to long term. We have the capacity to fight for a couple of weeks, but then we’re out of ammo. We don’t have enough resources—not enough air defences, drones, general artillery, et cetera.

If we think that we need to secure Latvia in case of an expansion of the war, or that we need to continue sending equipment to Ukraine, then we need to make the right purchases now. We haven’t signed any contracts yet, and until you sign them, you don’t have an end date. Many nations are trying to get the same kind of military equipment right now, because they are either replenishing their own armed forces or providing resources to Ukraine. There’s a lot of competition, and Canada is in an awkward position where our actions don’t meet our political objectives. That, to me, is the main challenge to balance.

For the upcoming defence policy review, I would like Canada to explain its additional contribution to NATO, because in the past budget, it said it would give $1.5 billion more in military support without specifying at all what that means. Besides that, there are other issues such as culture in the forces, sexual misconduct, and personnel issues, which will be a key part of the review. I think it will also need to reassess the planned acquisitions of 2017, and whether we’re still capable of buying what we said we were going to buy in the same timeline. We are facing huge capability gaps within the next ten years, and some of our equipment will be too old to use, but we won’t have received the full quantities of the new acquisitions by then. If we want new submarines, for instance, we have to decide now for them to be in our hands in 2035 or 2040. If we delay, we will end up with the same situation as we were with the combat aircraft—delay after delay, costing more and more money. My fear with the ships is that we won’t have fifteen, or, if we do have fifteen, they won’t have the same capabilities as we hoped for, because we can’t afford them with the same level of capabilities required for anti-submarine warfare and air defences. Can we do both? On all fifteen? I doubt it.

Cleo Paskal

The re-enthronement of Xi Jinping as General Secretary means that the trajectory is pretty set now. The speeches that he’s been making about Taiwan are very clear. We know what we’re facing and it’s not good. It became very clear this past year that China wants reunification with Taiwan. I don’t accept the term reunification, it’s an invasion. Peacefully, if possible, but no means are off the table. I think that it’s hard to imagine the implications of that. If Taiwan goes, that becomes the centre of Chinese power projection, which will project outward from there—all the Pacific islands, all the way to Hawaii; a cascade of countries will try to cut a deal with China as quickly as they can—Thailand, maybe the Philippines, Malaysia, all the way through. The entire strategic architecture of the Indo-Pacific fundamentally changes. It became very clear this year that this is the trajectory China is on. The leadership hasn’t changed, which means that there may be all sorts of cracks and fissures within China, but the momentum is going in that direction.

Charles Davies

I think the lack of capacity that Canada demonstrated, in terms of its ability to meaningfully aid the Ukrainians, is an important factor to consider. Even though we shipped quantities of several anti-tank weapons that, while outdated, were put to good use, the well is not deep. These systems are being delivered in very limited quantities, which can also be said for the number of armoured vehicles we are sending. This indicates a lack of logistical depth. General Hillier and General Leslie have suggested that we should have pulled together two hundred LAV 6s out of the Army, send them to Ukraine, and teach the Ukrainian army how to use them. Then, contracted with General Dynamics Land Systems to replace them as quickly as possible. That would have been a more useful contribution to Kyiv’s fight against Russian aggression.

China is another risk factor that we are ill-prepared for. Sometimes we send one or two ships to patrol the Taiwan Straits with our American allies, but that is not a meaningful capability. With a fleet of only twelve capable surface warships divided between both coasts, our capacity to contribute to deterrence in the region is limited.  Similarly, while our submarines are great platforms, their availability is variable at best and we do not have enough of them to make a meaningful, sustained contribution.

Obviously, the preoccupation with cultural issues within the CAF is a major long-term commitment that is also important, but their recruiting shortfalls, while worrisome, are not unusual. When unemployment is low, recruitment is a difficult process, and this has always been the case. This problem would be best described as a cyclical one.

The way current events are unfolding, the CAF will be hard-pressed to make meaningful military contributions, which will only grow tougher. We are essentially allowing our current systems to go into block obsolescence.  Even though we will replace our fighter aircraft and obtain new ships sooner or later, we are undertaking all these projects simultaneously at a time when our major legacy fleets, especially the fighter fleet, are falling behind in their ability to operate in higher-threat environments.

Christopher Ankerson:

The first challenge, which received great public attention this year, was the Canadian Armed Forces’ personnel shortages. The figure of approximately 10,000 is shocking, in and of itself. However, to get 10,000 trained and effective soldiers, sailors, and aviators, you need to attract around 80,000 extra Canadians into the recruiting system. That number is on par with an effort close to that required for mobilization. This is a significant challenge, which will have to be managed as the CAF continues to operate. Sadly, this problem will continue into 2023, and is unlikely to be fixed anytime soon.

There are few quick fixes. For example, when we consider that around 2,400 permanent residents approached the Canadian Armed Forces, some might be tempted to think ‘we are 25 per cent of the way there’. However, we may see a higher attrition rate among permanent residents, in the sense that many will fail background checks. Out of the 2,400 applicants, the recruitment system may deliver only about 300 trained personnel. 

The second major challenge is that we need to face the reality that domestic responses to natural-caused emergencies at home cannot be taken for granted or ignored. Currently, the Canadian Armed Forces are relied on as a last resort responder, which is problematic since in many cases there are no alternative options, especially as these types of emergencies ramp up in terms of scale, frequency, intensity, and complexity. This is compounded when we take the 10,000 personnel shortfall into account: there may come a time very soon when the CAF cannot do everything it is being asked to do. 

With that said, choosing priorities will increasingly become a problem for the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian government. Clearly, the war in Ukraine will not be resolved anytime soon. Instead, it will proceed in one form or another for most of 2023, if not beyond. On the other hand, I do not think we will see China invade Taiwan in that same time frame. The West has done an adequate job of demonstrating resilience, albeit a fragile one, in the face of Russian aggression. Considering that, I do not think Beijing will repeat Moscow’s mistake. We will continue to see probing operations by Chinese forces, but a full-on invasion is unlikely in the near term.

The list of tasks that the CAF is being asked to consider and plan for continues to grow—from Eastern Europe to East Asia, to Haiti, to domestic operations. Managing this will be the third challenge for the CAF.

Finally, the CAF will have been reminded of the critical need for what it is calling modernization. This will mean improving its ability to command, control, and communicate digitally.  Beyond that, it knows that it has shortfalls and gaps in a number of essential areas, from air defence to anti-armour systems, to ammunition stocks. All in all, a busy and challenging time for the CAF.

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