Last August, then Liberal defence minister Harjit Sajjan and his U.S. counterpart Lloyd Austin issued a joint statement vowing to modernize the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) in the face of “a greater and more complex conventional missile threat.”
The statement, released on the eve of Canada’s 2021 federal election campaign, came amid signs of increasing frustration within U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration and at the Pentagon at the lack of seriousness with which Canada seemed to be taking its responsibilities for the continent’s shared defence. Not only had Canada put off buying new fighter jets for years, but we had long acknowledged the need to modernize NORAD without doing anything about it.
Alas, the federal election came and went, as most do, without much discussion about revamping Canada’s defence policy. Mr. Sajjan’s replacement as Defence Minister, Anita Anand, was handed the urgent task of restoring trust in a Department of National Defence plagued by sexual misconduct scandals. That alone ensured Ms. Anand would have her hands full at DND.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, has forced Canada to put up or shut up. We can no longer get away with merely paying lip service to doing our part to defend this continent and meeting our North Atlantic Treaty Organization obligations.
After finally conceding in March that Canada would purchase 88 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets – the same plane Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had dismissed as a lemon during the 2015 federal election campaign – Ottawa committed $8-billion in new defence spending over six years in last month’s federal budget. However, it put off the most expensive and politically sensitive spending decisions by promising “a swift defence policy review to equip Canada for a world that has become more dangerous.”
Ms. Anand has sent out conflicting signals about the timing of that review. After initially promising to move rapidly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she has increasingly hedged on that question. “Make no mistake,” Ms. Anand said in early March, “Canada will be at the table in the short term with a robust package to modernize NORAD.” A few days before the April 7 budget, she insisted: “In the coming months, we will be bringing forward a robust package of investments to bolster our continental defence in close co-operation with the United States.”
Yet, there is still no word on when that “swift” defence-policy review will begin or who will lead it. “We are deeply engaged in setting the parameters of the review and the timeline and the substantive aspects,” Ms. Anand said on Tuesday.
As for the long-promised NORAD modernization plan, she added: “We are taking the time to get it right. And that’s the way I do business, and that’s the way our government does business.”
Ms. Anand deserves the benefit of the doubt. The government she belongs to, not so much. One gets the distinct impression that Mr. Trudeau would be perfectly fine with ragging the puck if it means sparing himself tough decisions he would rather avoid.
And make no mistake: hard decisions await the Canadian government.
No credible plan to modernize NORAD – whose 1980s-era North Warning System is worryingly obsolete in the age of hypersonic missiles – can exclude Canada’s participation in the U.S. ballistic missile defence system. But many Liberals remain loath to go there, fearing that their party’s progressive image will take a hit if they do.
“We are certainly taking a full and comprehensive look at that question, as well as what it takes to defend the continent across the board,” Ms. Anand said on Tuesday. “We are leaving no stone unturned in this major review of continental defence.”
We’ll see about that. In the past, Mr. Trudeau has repeatedly rejected calls from U.S. and Canadian defence officials alike to reverse former prime minister Paul Martin’s 2005 decision not to participate in the U.S. ballistic missile defence system. That decision was a political cop-out that came amid a heated debate in this country after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At the time, Mr. Martin’s minority Liberal government depended on New Democratic Party support to hold on to power, and since the NDP opposed joining the U.S. missile defence system, Mr. Martin caved, in defiance of two former Liberal defence ministers, Bill Graham and David Pratt.
“It seems to me we’re outside of an extraordinary complex and amazingly new form of a weapons system which will affect our security, but which we are foreign to decisions around its development,” Mr. Graham told the Senate committee on national security and defence in 2014. “I think that’s a dangerous place to be.”
Things have only gotten a lot more dangerous since then. The time for dithering is over.
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