The Road to Vilnius: Key Issues at the 2023 NATO Summit

VAdm (Ret'd) Darren Hawco & Yves Brodeur

VAdm (Ret’d) Darren Hawco, Former Canadian Military Representative to

From your perspective, what are some key topics that you anticipate will be discussed at the upcoming summit? What impact could these discussions have on Canada’s defence and security interests?

I would say there will be five key agenda items. The first will be on Ukraine in regard to Russia’s illegal invasion. Is it security guarantees? Is it a fast track to membership? What is the perspective? I think the alliance has learned lessons from the original perspectives they took towards Georgia and Ukraine, which led to Russia essentially creating a border dispute with those two through invasion or illegal annexation. That created a challenge for continued progress towards membership.

Canada is an advocate of Ukraine and a very supportive ally of the situation that is facing Ukraine—that will be a key topic. Then I would say it’s the strategic concept. It’s three real underpinning implementation elements, that being the deploying of troops, the increase of exercises, and then the increase of NATO capability development targets. It will be a bit of an implementation update—where are they with that? From a Canadian point of view, NATO being able to push 30 battalions in 30 days, or moving from 40,000 relatively rapidly mobile troops to maybe as many as 300,000—that will present a massive challenge for the alliance and Canada will earn its 6% share of that. I say that because that’s roughly our measure of GDP per the alliance. That tends to equate to what our financial contributions are in our deployment contributions.

The next one is really the dollar figure. Is 2% a goal or a floor? How serious is that going to be? The U.S election is not that far in the future, the geographic influences in the alliance in relation to this topic are key points as well. Innovation—that’s an exciting new development in the context of investments, such as the Diana initiative. There will be continued defence spending pressure, and what we’ve seen in the exclusion of Canada from AUKUS is a reflection of Canada’s engagement in and its willingness to spend, and that’s informed by years of Canada’s approach to NATO.

The summit presents an opportunity for Canada to reassess its military needs and maybe make commitments to increase defence expenditure, in your view, what specific areas or capabilities should Canada prioritise to effectively address current and future challenges?

The dollar value of investment, whether it’s 2% or some other figure—given the relative maturity of the investment intentions for Canada in the air and the maritime domains, it would be my judgement that the focus ought to be on the land domain. There is a significant range of capital investments that Canada is intending to make in the land domain.

Just to name a few, you have the joint deployable HQ signals modernization, ground-based air defence, camp sustainment capabilities, joint fires modernization, land command control support systems in the tactical C2 and communications areas, and remotely piloted aerial vehicles. All of these together represent an enormous doctrinal moment for the Canadian Army regarding how it wants to fight, how it wants to prepare itself, and what it needs to do, to be able to look at near-peer three block and asymmetric warfare, because all of those will be part of the challenge space facing the Canadian military in the future. These are the areas that the government should focus on at this point in time, in my opinion.

Are the expected changes in NATO’s regional military plans and force model? How might they redefine the alliances defence strategies? How might these changes enhance NATO’s capabilities and address emerging security challenges?

When you’re thinking strategic choices, you tend to think, what’s our goal? Then you say, where are we going to play in that? How are we going to win? What capabilities do we need? What investments do we need? You tend to focus on strategy and then you develop operating concepts. I think NATO is in an unusual situation in that it came up with deterrence and defence of the Euro-Atlantic area and then came up with its strategic concept after the fact.

I presume there’s going to be a significant alignment between those documents. I say that because I was involved in the deterrence and defence of the Euro-Atlantic area. When I was leaving the alliance in 2020, we were in discussions around what a strategic concept needed to look like. That all being said, I think the continuing risk to NATO due to Ukraine and the unpredictability of the Russian Federation’s actions, particularly in regard to the emergence of a nuclear element to the deterrence dialogue, that makes the situation significantly more dangerous than it might otherwise have been.

I mean, would one think that a conflict in Ukraine could spill over and impact NATO allies? Well, we’ve seen a minor example, a real tragedy, when a weapon system that failed and resulted in casualties in Poland. We were always aware there would be an economic impact, we’re aware of the millions of refugees that have needed to be supported from Ukraine in its neighbouring countries. NATO allies are stepping forward to deal with that from a regional point of view. I think we’ll see the military plans that have been shaped by the deterrence and defence of the Euro-Atlantic area really just be crystallized in practical form.

We’ll see the force model planning and we’ll see what nations are able to support in regard to defence spending investments, knowing it’s going to take many years for countries to realize the increase in defence capabilities. This is more about trajectory than it is immediate ability in effect. However, I think that the shift in classic deterrence theory to represent the balance of nuclear and non-nuclear realities is probably the thing that will challenge the alliance the most in this situation, because it’s quite sobering. It has been many decades since leaders have had to be thinking along these lines. It must be quite, quite daunting as a security challenge.

I would be remiss not to highlight China. Whether at the Leaders Summit or through informal discussions in the margins, the role of China, whether it be provision of support to Russia, or in their own strategic objectives in the long term, will be a topic, and will also be one of those things that will be woven in as a deliberately considered security challenge.

As a former military representative of Canada to the NATO Military Committee, I’m wondering if you could discuss some of the key challenges or opportunities you encountered in promoting defence cooperation and coordination among NATO member states?

Every nation has interests and therefore, every nation has a defence and security bias, which is very fair and understandable. I would say, by and large, my experience in two years over a quite challenging period is that there’s general agreement on things, but there’s rare alignment on their priority, and the character of them. There are different groups and because different groups have different interests— original NATO joiners, Eastern countries of NATO, the Baltics, the allies who were preoccupied with risks from the south and southern challenges that they bear a unique relationship with, countries that are in the EU, or those that are non-EU countries—there are competing risks and issues involved.

I would argue that Germany and France have a pride of place in those European security architectures that animates their own agenda. Then I would also highlight that Turkey doesn’t fit naturally in any of those buckets to some extent, and has a very interesting and challenging political-military dynamic inside their country, when you consider the last seventy years. The challenge also creates opportunities in negotiation for a country like Canada, where we’re not seen as having a particular axe to grind. So, we are often asked, well, what do you think, as a as an honest broker? That’s an interesting dynamic from just a purely Canadian point of view.

The NAC (North Atlantic Council) versus the military representatives. They carry similar perspectives, on similar national issues, though with differing ways of approaching things. For example, there are differences in how a political layer will talk to an issue focusing on interests and values, versus a military practitioner who’s more likely going to focus on risks to address the problem at hand. It’s quite a challenging dynamic, but it’s more about how long it will take to get to consensus, and what concessions need to be made to advance a broader agenda.

In what ways would you say SSE is currently aligned with NATO’s present objectives and priorities? With the DPU coming out soon, do you suspect that it might further align our defence policy with that of NATO?

You have to accept the bias of my answer, because I was involved in it. And, I have certain constraints regarding Cabinet confidence. No document could stay true over multiple years, but I think if we look at SSE in buckets, I would say that the currency of SSE is largely still good and supportive of NATO’s objectives and priorities. First, from a people point of view, recruiting training, retention, diversity, a culture of respect, and emphasis on recruitment and culture today all still resonate. There would be a nuance or an emphasis that we would expect from the DPU but largely these issues remain core to National Defence.

On the topic of fixing defence funding, the emphasis is on staying the course and having a publicly published investment plan, which is so important for industry and for the general public, as well as our allies. If we look at those things—the size, shape and people of the our military, that’s what NATO is expecting. That’s what NATO wants to have from a deployable, combat capable ally like Canada, a military that is sufficiently funded. I think the alliance is going to say Canada and its defence plans are not where they need to be. It’s not sufficiently close. That’s a fair challenge and criticism.

In the defence policy update, there ought to be a significant focus on longer term enabling and joint investments in areas such as cloud-based enabling capabilities, autonomous systems, joint capabilities, and artificial intelligence and machine learning. I’m not sure that the Canadian government has ever taken a NATO-central position in any of its defence policies in the past, and therefore, I think it would not be likely that the DPU would be specifically NATO focused. It’ll balance defending Canada, North America, our role in the world, and will highlight NATO as one of our cornerstone alliances, along with our Five Eyes intelligence sharing partners.

I would offer that if the defence policy update maintains the same investment trajectory and supports those investment needs that the Canadian military has put down as required and are generally aligned with NATO, the allies will say, we like what Canada has, we just never get enough. So that will be the continuing challenge for us.

One point I would like to reiterate is the importance of a public-facing investment plan. If Canada expects industry to provide support with the type of technological capabilities that are required and the resilient supply chain that is required, they need to know what Canada’s long-term investment ambitions are going to be, so as to be prepared. The country needs to deliver on that. I want to emphasize the importance of combat capable troops and capabilities as opposed to taking on a predominantly training role. You want military experts to teach, you don’t want people who just teach, right? To do that, you need to have hard core practitioners, the men and women who can go into harm’s way as necessary on behalf of Canada. That’s the type of military that Canada requires.

What would be the critical priorities, risks and areas that we would want to focus on whether it be in support of NATO or otherwise? Advanced weapons systems like those sold by Russia and China, that will be enhanced by and used by potential adversaries. The role of artificial intelligence—the bias, the risk of autonomous weapon systems. The risk to our critical infrastructure sectors—we should always expect there to be grey zone activities by potential adversaries, below the line of deliberate and active combat efforts, whether it be information, misinformation, or disinformation, as evidenced in allegations of election interference. The critical infrastructure sectors, our supply chain—the government needs to have a have a have a recognized way to support that part of our critical infrastructure.

Then I would finish on the concept of interoperability and interchangeability. We see in Ukraine, as an example—and there’s always a risk of focusing too much on one conflict, to be illustrative of all conflicts— the lesson that every ammunition, even if it’s the same calibre, can be used in every weapon system. Not very weapon system provided without the spare parts necessary can be as valuable as you’d think it would be. So, these are great things for us to hoist in to make sure our own approach to future sustained combat is well considered.

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