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Members of the Canadian Armed Forces march during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, on July 8, 2016.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Hugh Segal is the director of the Queen’s University Centre for International and Defence Policy and a former chair of the Senate Committees on Foreign Affairs and Anti-Terrorism.

Between now and the next expected federal election in 2025, there will be much public debate on an array of issues. But what is also required, now more than ever, is a serious national discussion around Canada’s defence priorities and independent military capacity. The need for this debate stems from significant changes in the global balance of power, and the extent to which Canada’s security is affected by those changes.

Debates over whether Russian President Vladimir Putin can stay in power despite the struggles of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and whether he can be restrained either from within or by NATO’s allies on Russia’s borders, are interesting. But they fail to directly address Canada’s obligation to our own national defence or to the defence of our European allies. Regardless of what motivates Mr. Putin, his initiative reminds us that not having defensive depth and capacity is always the wrong answer.

Russia’s military invasion has underestimated the resilience and high quality of the Ukrainian Defence Forces and the common will of NATO allies, including Canada, to jointly provide for the financial, logistic and military materiel needs of Ukraine’s defenders. Small Canadian military contingents, as well as substantial U.S. and British force units, have been deployed to the NATO countries bordering Russia. But this is not enough.

The People’s Republic of China, meanwhile, has not yet chosen an unduly militarily aggressive approach toward its neighbours. But Beijing has made new and extensive investments in hypersonic ballistic missiles, in its naval capacity both above and under the sea, and cyber- and space-focused weapon systems. Whether it has done so simply out of its own defence priorities, or out of a desire for a more regional domination of the Asia-Pacific arena, remains to be seen, but giving the Chinese government the benefit of the doubt does not diminish Canada’s clear obligation to consider our own defence capacity.

There are other changes at play, too. The effects of climate change have consistently called on our military to provide “aid to the civil power,” as laid out in the National Defence Act. Russia has made heavy investments into its own Arctic region in terms of military installations and offensive capacity, dwarfing Canada’s investment in our own nearby Arctic. And the U.S. Coast Guard recently discovered Chinese and Russian vessels in formation just north of Alaska’s Kiska Island, clearly laying out the spectre of joint authoritarian engagement with the democratic world.

Yet in every geopolitical context, Canada’s armed forces and deployable capacity are well beneath what present risks and proximate challenges require in a country with the second-largest land mass in the world. The Canadian Armed Forces have admitted that they are about 7,000 members short, and earlier this month, the chief of the defence staff halted non-essential activities to instead focus on recruitment and retention. The last major review of Canada’s defence requirements is more than five years old, and while there is an update review under way, neither its proceedings nor its underlying strategic context is in the public domain.

Canada’s defence expenditures are seriously below the 2-per-cent of GDP that NATO members have agreed to, part of a complacency that has afflicted defence spending across the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But while Mr. Putin’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine has seen Germany and others seriously ramp up their spending, Canada’s planned increase to date over the next five years is a rounding error in comparison.

Disturbingly, slow military procurement efforts spanning various federal governments of both Conservative and Liberal affiliations have only helped ensure that our diminished Armed Forces have nowhere near the deployable capacity for Canada to discharge its legitimate domestic and international defence obligations. New F-35 fighter jets are not due to arrive until 2025, and the only new ships from our painfully slow naval procurement schedule lack combat capacity. The well-trained, courageous and determined women and men of our Armed Forces deserve better.

There may have been a time when Canadians could have fairly argued that roughly 70,000 women and men in the Canadian Armed Forces, combined with our strong alliance relationships through NATO and NORAD, were adequate enough to discharge our defence commitments at home and abroad. But that time has sadly passed. It is apparent that totalitarian regimes are now willing to co-operate with each other, even if their leaders embrace armed adventurism and threaten the democratic world. Naiveté or unfounded optimism about authoritarian military and political reach is simply unjustified.

Spending more on defence, and doing so now, may well be expensive. But failing to do so to bolster Canada’s medium-term security and sovereignty may well be the costliest option of all.