The World Needs Canada to Live up to its Potential

Colonel Charles Davies (Retired)

What kind of defence investments do you think are needed, and which ones could we expect to be part of Budget 2023?

I’d like to preface my answer by setting some context. Defence capability has three major components. The first is a human component, in other words, people. The second is material, including necessary equipment, infrastructure, supplies, and services. The third is an institutional and intellectual component comprising doctrine and a wide body of professional military knowledge. All three must be well-balanced and integrated before you can have defence capabilities.

The Russians have re-learned this the hard way in their attacks on Ukraine. It is clear from the sheer incompetence of units and formations at all levels, reaching from the higher-level commanders down to the troops on the ground, that while they have had lots of people, most are not well trained, their equipment has not been properly maintained, and the intellectual foundations of the Russian Army in the art and science of war have atrophied over the years.  They are working to correct all this, but it will take time and significant resources.

The Russian experience is an object lesson for all of us. We must pay attention to all three components in a holistic way when developing defence-related policies and resourcing the acquisition and sustainment of the associated defence capabilities through federal budgets.

Defence investments are decided within a defined policy framework and, based on my studies of this over the years, most nations go through a five-step process in developing and articulating their defence policies – and ensuring their integration with related ones such as national security and foreign policy.

The first step is defining a view of the nation’s place in the world, and in broad terms, how the instruments of state power, including but not limited to defence, will be used to support a national strategy. Second, they conduct an analysis of global and regional strategic outlooks, including the risk of future shock events. Future shock events are unpredicted things that could significantly affect the strategic outlook of nations, like the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and most especially its present war against Ukraine are the most recent major shock events.

In assessing the risk of further future shock events there needs to be a realistic assessment of potential adversaries, what they can do, and what they might do. The third step is to define the defence strategy the nation will follow in response to the strategic outlook assessment. The fourth is to define the defence capabilities needed to execute that strategy. Finally, they define the financial means by which those capabilities will be acquired and sustained.

Once defence policies have laid out all these aspects, the budget should be the annual implementation of policy. So Budget 2023, in my view, is probably going to largely continue implementing the existing 2017 defence policy and its priorities, with some tweaks. As an aside, it is not a bad policy – actually, it is one of the better ones produced over the years by Canadian governments – but it does not reflect the five-step process typically followed by other nations and consequently lacks important integration with policies shaping the other instruments of state power, such as foreign policy, national security policy, economic strategies, trade policies, et cetera.

Could you touch on one or two key priorities that you think the defence policy update must consider? Is another update necessary, or do we simply need more execution, as suggested by Eugene Lang?

I am a fan of regular defence policy updates because the world evolves. The four countries I looked at a few years ago all had a cyclical process. For example, the U.S. does a quadrennial defence review, while some other countries have a five-year cycle. I think a four to five-year cycle makes sense, but we are in year six of the Canadian government’s current policy. We are certainly due, or overdue, for an update, and one is necessary considering global events in the past few years.

For instance, when Strong, Secure, Engaged was published in 2017, the Canadian government was still thinking very positively about, and trying to engage more actively with China. However, that changed with the two Michaels crisis, along with other Chinese actions on the international stage. Consequently, an important priority for the policy update is to articulate a new perspective when looking at the Indo-Pacific region and identify any resulting defence capability implications.

More importantly from my perspective, I think both the policy update and our upcoming budget will need to increase the focus on NORAD modernization. It is an issue that needs to be on the table in the context of our relations with the U.S. I also think the replacement of the aged Aurora maritime patrol aircraft fleet needs to be a more immediate priority.

I say this because in my view Canada has two no-fail tasks for its defence institution, and these must be privileged over anything else for investment. The first is maintaining security at home, or being strong at home, as expressed by the policy’s language. That does not require expensive investments but does demand a well-organized and well-led body of trained people who can step in when necessary to help civil authorities maintain domestic security.

The second no-fail task is maintaining the security of North America, in collaboration with the U.S. If Canada fails to execute its responsibilities adequately in this area, then the Americans will legitimately step in and do it themselves because they have to. This would be unacceptably damaging to our sovereignty.

To offer an example, if our aging fighter capability were to become ineffective in responding to threats before the new F-35s are delivered, we will have U.S. aircraft flying in Canadian airspace defending Canada’s air approaches – which are also the U.S.’s air approaches. Fortunately, this level of cooperation is built into the NORAD Agreement, and indeed there have been occasions when Canadian aircraft deployed to Alaska when portions of American fleets had to be grounded for technical reasons, so there is a back-and-forth relationship.

However, our aircraft went there by invitation, and we should never doubt that, even without being invited in by a Canadian government, if necessary the U.S. can and would legitimately defend its air approaches over Canadian airspace if we ever left a vacuum. Similarly in the maritime domain, if a problem emerged with the Halifax-class fleet before the new Surface Combatants arrive, the United States could not afford to allow a serious gap in the surveillance and defence of our maritime approaches, which are largely the same as theirs.  They would step in to defend them whether or not we asked them to, and would be entirely justified in doing so. Job one in the area of continental defence is to preserve our national sovereignty by ensuring that we always have effective surveillance and defence of our air and maritime approaches.

In the context of this no-fail continental defence requirement, and while I doubt it will happen, I would like to see an adult discussion in the policy about Ballistic Missile Defence, which is a topic that we and the United States are not as aligned as we need to be. I also believe we need to see greatly accelerated planning for the replacement of our aging Victoria Class submarine fleet, although again I think that seems unlikely to be seriously addressed in the update.

In 2000 we were forced to retire the former Oberon-class submarines before any replacements were available, and for a number of years, we had very limited ability to understand what was going on below the surface of our Arctic and other coastal waters, considerably eroding our sovereignty throughout those gap years. Given the age of the current fleet, we are at considerable risk of repeating that failure of forward planning. Certainly, neither the Americans nor any other country will tell us where their submarines are located in our vicinity unless ours are also active, and I do not blame them. 

To summarize, there are some differences between what we should see in the policy update, and what it will actually contain. I do believe we will see a focus on NORAD modernization, and I hope we will see an Aurora replacement initiative. Both are important continental surveillance and defence capabilities. We may also see further investments in land expeditionary capabilities, particularly because of our commitment in Latvia. Air defence and anti-tank investments have already been announced, and it would not be surprising if additional initiatives come forward as well.

While the Latvia mission is not directly a no-fail task for Canada as a nation per se, it is a no-fail task for NATO and as a member of the Alliance, we must do all we can to ensure its success.  Regretfully, I don’t expect to see much in the way of substance regarding Ballistic Missile Defence or active planning for submarine capability renewal, notwithstanding their importance to our security as a nation and continental defence partner.

We often criticize ourselves and are criticized by other states for our failure to meet the 2% defence spending threshold set by NATO. How necessary is meeting this benchmark? Is it practically useful or mostly a symbolic gesture to display solidarity with our allies?

The 2% target was adopted by the Alliance as a means to ensure there is equitable burden sharing in terms of NATO’s capacity for collective defence. One could argue that another measure should be used instead, but this is the one agreed upon by the heads of government of all member states in 2014 and repeatedly reconfirmed by them at every meeting since then. In this context, it bothers me that Canada has consistently failed to make any meaningful effort to meet the commitment first made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and renewed several times by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  How do you belong to a club, and not carry your agreed fair share of the load?

This is not a good place for Canada to be. We have the ninth-largest economy in the world and are on track to becoming the eighth-largest.  Our economy is bigger than Russia’s. People like to point out that we are the sixth-largest defence spender in the Alliance, and this is entirely true, but that is because we have the sixth-largest economy in NATO. I consider it a pointless argument because the real issue is not where we are in the pecking order but rather whether we are shouldering our fair share in providing NATO’s overall capacity for collective defence. The measure of what constitutes each nation’s “fair share” has been repeatedly agreed by all member nations, including Canada, as being spending at least 2% of GDP on defence.

Furthermore, even though the U.S. has been remarkably tolerant of our current levels of spending, commitments, and contributions, they will grow less tolerant the more things go sideways in the world. To be fair, according to a Parliamentary Budget Office study done last year, we are gradually increasing our spending towards the 2% target. At the present rate, we will not reach that threshold for another ten to fifteen years, but we are going in the right direction. The commitment made by Canada and the other nations in 2014, however, was to reach the 2% target within ten years. That means next year. We will clearly not reach it by then, or any time soon thereafter. It is a sad thing for a country of our capacity, and the stature we want to have in the world, to be welching on our commitments.

In a CDA Institute piece you penned a few years ago, you said “if there were a higher level of school principal issuing report cards to countries, Canada’s would describe a nation getting by in the world, but failing to achieve its full potential, due to a lack of sustained focus and effort to apply the abilities and ample resources it has.” I’d like you to reflect on this quotation – do you still feel that Canada is not reaching its full potential?

I do. We as a nation are underachievers, considering the remarkable capacity we have. Not only are we the ninth largest economy in the world, but we are also perhaps the most globally connected country. As of the last census, almost a quarter of people in Canada today were not born here. They have business, family, social and political connections all over the globe. Few other nations have similar reach. Australia does have a higher proportion of people who were not born there, but they tend to come from a narrower base: primarily Asia, South Africa, the U.K., and other parts of Europe. 

Canada’s immigration reaches more broadly to also include South and Central America, the Caribbean, much of Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East. We, as a nation, are quite unique and have the capacity to be really influential around the world, but we are not doing so, unfortunately. This is in good measure because we are not consistent with our commitments. For instance, in the Indo-Pacific, our government has traditionally taken an interest in Japan, South Korea, or Vietnam for a year or two, but then eventually forgotten about it. Our attention span on these relations has been very short.

More recently the government has made significant efforts to develop an Indo-Pacific strategy, which will hopefully give us more staying power in that region. We are a nation that can do more, and do better, and there have been consequences for our not doing so. There are reasons we did not win the last UN Security Council seat vote, and one big one is the fact that we are not doing our share of the heavy lifting on the global stage.

Our failure to work towards meeting NATO’s 2% of GDP spending mark cost us support among Alliance partners, and the fact that we come nowhere near meeting the international standard for developed nations to spend at least 0.7% of gross national income on international aid cost us support among developing nations. They look at our global aid efforts and are not impressed. It also did not help that we made many promises and a lot of noise about contributing to UN peace operations around the world, while not doing much about it. This kind of underperformance will not get Canada very far in the global club.

We have the capacity, and we owe it to ourselves to live up to our ability to influence the world for the better. It is also in our national self-interest to do so. We need the global institutional framework built up over many decades that allows middle powers like us to have a voice and a reliable method to regulate international affairs, but that is slipping away from us. If we are going to work effectively with like-minded nations to change this trend, we must bring the full national capacity we have to the table. Otherwise, our nation faces a much bleaker future.

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