Queen’s University’s Thomas Hughes explores the Art of War Games: Canada and the Political Effects of Military Exercises in CDA Institute’s latest Vimy Paper.


Military exercises can play a significant role in shaping the international security environment, but the mechanism that links the exercises to changes in security relationships are complex and nuanced. Although exercises can engage directly with security concerns because of their size or location, they can also signal a breach of a regime that is designed to promote transparency and enhance trust, and they can demonstrate a departure from expected patterns of behaviour. Significantly, despite the expectation that exercises would undermine security relationships when conducted as a ‘show of force’, a belief that the exercising party is obfuscating key features of its exercise can be critical in shaping responses to the activity. Although it is possible to use military exercises as a signaling mechanism, there is also significant potential for signal misinterpretation. Mitigating this requires comprehensive awareness of the beliefs of a potential adversary and a shared framework of understanding.


By developing knowledge of the way in which exercises can affect adversarial relationships Canada can enhance its own security, as well as further developing its international leadership. The Arctic has been noted by the Canadian government as a key security consideration. Military manoeuvres in the Canadian Arctic have the potential to lead to the escalation of tensions with Russia, even if they do not represent an acute and direct security threat to Canada or Russia. Consequently, this region provides Canada with a testing ground to develop its exercise construction and engage with Russia. Furthermore, despite efforts to limit their negative impact, NATO’s exercises in Europe have occasionally antagonized Russia. By leveraging expertise in exercises, Canada can play a leading role in ensuring that NATO’s exercises do to not lead to unwanted escalation. This is particularly pertinent given the presence of Canadian forces in Europe as part of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence.


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