The dramatically changed global security environment is prompting Canadian policymakers to revisit the country’s defence posture and to strengthen cooperation with partners to push back against the authoritarian onslaught on the rules-based international order. Today Canada faces the challenge of how to grow, and where to direct, its defence capabilities and resources, while trying to tap into its dynamic technological base.
In the current Euro-Atlantic crisis, Canada has chosen to engage directly in support of its NATO Allies and its partner, Ukraine. The most visible of these efforts has been its role as the lead nation on the multinational battlegroup in Latvia along NATO’s eastern flank. In parallel, its diplomatic, economic and humanitarian efforts have offered timely assistance to Ukraine in its hour of most desperate need – Canada fully supports Ukraine’s legitimate self-defence efforts and sees the nation’s future as a strong member of the Euro-Atlantic community. Canada’s deep commitment to democratic values has also made it a strong voice for human rights and international law globally. Canada views it has a role to play in concert with NATO Allies to counter misinformation and disinformation used to undermine these democratic values.
These were the key takeaways of a NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) delegation’s April 17-21 visit to Canada. Some 35 national legislators from 14 NATO member states, representing the Assembly’s Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Defence and Security Cooperation (DSCTC) and Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Relations (PCTR), travelled to Ottawa, Halifax and Montréal to engage in dialogue with senior Canadian government officials, including Minister of National Defence Anita Anand, parliamentary leadership, military commanders, aerospace and shipbuilding industrial players, as well as independent academic experts. The delegation was led by DSCTC Vice Chairperson Fernando Gutierrez (Spain) and PCTR Vice-Chairpersons Lydia Mutsch (Luxembourg) and Ahmet Yildiz (Türkiye), and was hosted by the Canadian delegation to the NATO PA headed by former NATO PA Vice-President Julie Dzerowicz.
Canada, NATO and defence adaptation
Canada is a steadfast NATO Ally. Its Euro-Atlantic stance is demonstrated by its strong contributions to NATO operations. In response to the growing Russian threat after its initial 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Canada launched Operation Reassurance, and deployed around 1,000 personnel to NATO’s eastern flank, leading a NATO battle group in Latvia, dispatching naval ships to the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean, as well as participating in a NATO air policing mission in Romania. After 2016, Canada stepped in as the lead nation on the multinational battlegroup in Latvia to bolster NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence initiative to strengthen Allied defence and deterrence in the face of growing Russian aggression. Canadian officials told the delegation that, in line with the June 2022 Madrid Summit decisions, Ottawa is committed to upgrading the battle group to a brigade level over time. While the upgrade poses difficult challenges, Canada is working closely with the host nation and the nine other NATO Allies contributing to the battle group to reach this goal.
The Assembly delegation was told that, over the past several years, Canada has been slowly but steadily increasing defence spending – from less than 1% of GDP in 2014 to 1.3% today. While this is still below the 2% goal of NATO’s Defence Investment Pledge, Canada – the world’s ninth largest economy – is the Alliance’s sixth largest military spender in absolute numbers. Officials stressed that Canada has already increased its defence budget by over 70 percent since 2015 and will continue increasing defence investments in a responsible manner and in close collaboration with the defence industry to ensure that extra funds are spent productively.
Throughout the visit, Canadian officials and independent experts alike acknowledged a lack of consensus among Canadian policymakers on how quickly the 2% defence spending target will be reached. Some interlocutors urged the authorities to accelerate the strengthening of the military pillar of Canada’s security strategy, which also rests on a strong tradition of diplomacy and other non-military instruments. They argued that Canada’s relatively modest and ageing military assets were stretched too thinly, considering their vast area of responsibility – Canada has the world’s longest coastlines, which border three vast oceans – and the dangerous confluence of global challenges.
Still, as the delegation learned, Canada has taken several important and substantive steps to increase its military capabilities in recent years.
First, to maintain its status as a significant naval power, Canada is implementing, since 2012, a national shipbuilding strategy, designed to eliminate boom-and-bust cycles and maintain consistent shipbuilding capacity and know-how at several sites in Canada. Under this strategy, Canada plans to replace its 12 Halifax-class frigates – the backbone of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) – and its already decommissioned destroyers with 15 advanced Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) platforms, to be built in the Irving Shipyard, Halifax, by 2050. This is the largest defence procurement project in Canadian history. This shipyard is close to completing 8 modern, ice-capable Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships for the RCN and the Coast Guard. The Assembly delegation had the opportunity to visit Canada’s principle naval base in Halifax, home to 7 of the 12 Canadian frigates as well as the Irving Shipyard.
Second, Canada will be investing approximately CAD 40 billion over the next 20 years to strengthen continental defence, focusing on upgrading the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) – the bi-national organisation charged with aerospace and maritime early warning and aerospace control for Canada and the United States. The upgrade will include the modernisation of radars and other sensors as well as NORAD’s satellite component. Canada will also procure 88 F-35 fighter jets to ensure the Royal Canadian Air Force is able to meet its NATO, NORAD as well as other obligations.
Canada is also considering other lines of defence adaptation, taking into account early lessons learned from Russia’s war against Ukraine, which highlighted the importance of long-range precision strikes, robust command and control, all-domain awareness, unmanned capabilities, digitalisation, sufficient ammunition as well as strong maintenance and logistics, among others. Where it will take years for new platforms to arrive, the Canadian defence industry is looking creatively into ways to extend the lifespan and to modernise older platforms such as its frigates and helicopters. In Montréal, at Bombardier, Canada’s leading aerospace company, executives briefed the delegation on how business jets such as Global 6500, with their superior speed and altitude performances, are multi-role adaptable for defence sector clients, allowing for reconnaissance and surveillance to medical evacuations models.
As part of its effort to promote defence innovation and tackle disruptive technologies, Canada will host the North American Regional Office of NATO’s new initiative – the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA). The preparations for establishing the office in Halifax are underway, the delegation heard.
The Canadian Armed Forces are experiencing a shortage of personnel and are working on creative options to encourage young people to join and build their careers in the armed services, including by promoting a better gender balance and increased diversity amongst their ranks. Canada is an avid champion of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and supports gender mainstreaming across all NATO policies and institutions, firmly convinced that this would strengthen NATO and contribute to peace.
Canada’s support for Ukraine
Canada, home to the largest Ukrainian diaspora outside Russia, is united in its unwavering solidarity with Ukraine. Canadian policymakers stressed it is their country’s moral duty to support a democratic country brutally attacked by an external authoritarian power, which continues to inflict enormous suffering and has committed numerous war crimes on the victim’s territory. There is a consensus among Canadian political leaders that they must do what they can for as long as it takes to support Ukraine.
This support predates the Russian full-scale invasion in 2022. Since 2015, Canada has conducted an ongoing training mission for the Ukrainian armed forces. Since the beginning of 2022, Canada has provided over CAD 8 billion worth of assistance to Ukraine, including about CAD 1 billion in military assistance. Recently, Canada committed to send eight Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
Canadian officials stressed that support to Ukraine should be a top priority for the upcoming NATO Summit in Vilnius. They called for a layered, long-term institutionalised support, signalling to Russia that there will be a significant cost to continuing the aggression. The Allies should provide Ukraine with what it urgently needs, but the support should also be sustained and extended to the post-war period. Several interlocutors stressed that the future security framework must include Ukraine as a full-fledged member of NATO.
Canada and Arctic security
Forty percent of Canada’s landmass is in the Arctic, the majority of inhabitants there are Indigenous peoples, and Canada has a vested interest in keeping the region peaceful and trouble-free. However, the changing climate, which is warming the Arctic four times faster than the global average, as well as the sharpening great power rivalry are causing Ottawa to rethink its Arctic strategy. Russia’s expanding military footprint in the Arctic is a source of serious concern. China, a self-declared ‘near-Arctic’ power, is also looking for a role in the region rich with resources and increasingly navigable as the ice retreats. One Canadian expert warned that Russia, hitherto disinclined to facilitate China’s presence in the Arctic, might be forced to revisit this policy as Moscow’s dependence on Beijing is growing as its war against Ukraine is increasingly costly and protracted. The warming Arctic is also opening new opportunities for navigation, resource extraction and tourism.
Since civilian and military activities in the Arctic are poised to increase, Canada is eyeing new investments in infrastructure (affected severely by the melting permafrost) as well as more defensive and search and rescue (SAR) capabilities, including upgrading the aging icebreaker fleet and SAR helicopters, in addition to abovementioned NORAD modernisation projects. Ottawa now also welcomes the increased NATO interest in both the European High North and the North American Arctic – the recent visit of Secretary General Stoltenberg to the Canadian Arctic being emblematic in this regard. Throughout the NATO PA visit, Canadian policymakers welcomed Finland’s membership in NATO and called for a speedy finalisation of Sweden’s accession process.
Canada is at the forefront of global efforts to address climate change and is committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The delegation was briefed about the input of Canada’s defence industry to this effort, including transition to sustainable fuel. Canada will also host a NATO-accredited Centre of Excellence on Climate Change and Security, expected to be launched in Montréal soon.
Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy
Canada is a Pacific country with robust economic ties and people-to-people connections with the Indo-Pacific region – as one briefer noted, 1 in 5 Canadians has an Asia-Pacific connection. In 2022, the country introduced its Indo-Pacific Strategy, which considers the historic shift of the global centre of gravity towards this region. Approximately CAD 2.3 billion were allocated to implement the Strategy over the next five years. The Strategy offers a clear-eyed view on China, based on the principle of “challenging China where we should, but cooperating where we must.” Canadian interlocutors expressed deep concern about China’s regional brinkmanship, including its hardening stance on Taiwan, and hostile international behaviour, including espionage, malicious cyber operations, theft of intellectual property, bullying and infiltrating national politics of other countries. As a democracy, Canada is deeply critical of Beijing’s growing authoritarianism and disrespect for human rights. The delegation heard that the Canadian public’s opinion the Chinese regime has turned very negative in recent years.
Canada has begun to step up investments in its economic and technological resilience and to rethink its supply chains. It increased its naval presence in the Indo-Pacific through its Operation Projection, aiming to promote the rules-based international order through naval exercises and engagements with Canada’s security partners. Canada also conducts a maritime mission to enforce UN sanctions on North Korea. Overall, however, Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy remains largely non-military and focuses on diplomatic, economic, trade and people-to-people contacts.
When implementing the Strategy, Canadian policymakers will face important questions, such as how to push back against China’s assertiveness while maintaining close trade relations and how to engage with emerging regional formats such as AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and United States) or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Australia, India, Japan and the United States).
In addition to the abovementioned officials and institutions, the delegation also visited IMP Aerospace & Defence in Halifax as well as CAE and The Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University in Montréal. NATO Parliamentarians had the privilege of meeting with the Honourable Anthony Rota, Speaker of the House of Commons, and the Honourable Arthur J. LeBlanc, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia.
Photos of the visit courtesy of © Parliament of Canada 2023 © Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia