Kevin Lynch was clerk of the Privy Council and vice-chair of BMO Financial Group. Jim Mitchell is an adjunct professor at Carleton University and former assistant secretary of the Privy Council Office.
When U.S. President Joe Biden came to Canada in March, an increased contribution by Canada to the West’s collective security was surely at the top of his mind. The U.S. wants Canada to actually meet its NATO promise to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence, to invest more in NORAD, including a much-needed modernization of the North Warning System, and to contribute more assistance to Ukraine.
While American pressures to do more are understandable, it is surprising that there is not more public discussion within Canada about what sort of defence policy would best serve the interests of Canadians in these very challenging times. The Canadian Armed Forces are a crucial national institution, with dedicated members sworn to serve their country. But it is the role of the government to set out the nation’s expectations for what we want the military to be able to do, how we want to do it, and how we can fund it accordingly.
Those current expectations are laid out in the 2017 statement of defence policy by Justin Trudeau’s government, titled Strong, Secure, Engaged. Introduced with much fanfare, and self-described as “deliberately ambitious,” it has not stood the test of time. It was overhyped, has been plagued by execution and delivery problems, and is now essentially out of date in a dramatically changed geopolitical landscape. And despite years of rhetorical promises from Ottawa, estimates and the most recent budget make clear that Canada does not intend on meeting its defence-spending commitment over this decade. According to recently leaked Pentagon documents, Mr. Trudeau has even “told NATO officials that Canada will never reach” the 2-per-cent mark, which Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has called “the floor.”
The scope of these defence policy-delivery shortfalls deserves a deeper dive.
The failure to fix the military procurement system is sadly self-evident – whether it’s ships, planes, vehicles, smart munitions or drones – and it undermines the military’s capacity to do its job. The weakness of the military’s recruitment systems has resulted in a shortfall of more than 12,000 Canadian Armed Forces members (both regular and reserve), turning the proposed expansion in force size into an actual decline. The defence budget has seriously underestimated costs on major projects, causing the military to scale back on what it can afford and to postpone decisions on major strategic capital issues such as submarine replacement. Progress on remediating the cultural problems within the Canadian Armed Forces has been spotty at best.
Delivery and execution problems are not unique to the Canadian military; they are present in a number of core government functions and services, and come at a cost to public confidence and trust. Further undermining confidence in Canada’s defence strategy is the fact that it was written six years ago for a very different world.
Since then, we have experienced a tsunami of geopolitical shocks: a devastating global pandemic; the Russian invasion of Ukraine; an ultra-nationalist Xi administration in China that threatens to establish control over Taiwan by force; a new Beijing-Moscow axis that is a clear and present danger to Western interests and global stability; the continuing rise of nationalism, protectionism and populism; a volatile global economy; and an increasing severity of climate-change effects. In short, we face geopolitical tensions and security risks on a scale not witnessed since the Cold War – and we have been slow to react.
What are the takeaways for Canadian defence and security policy?
First, the substantial “peace dividend” that Canada has enjoyed over the recent period of relative global stability is ending. Canada will be pressured by our allies to spend considerably more on defence, and we should do so in any event given our long-standing commitment to global stability and a rules-based international order. A decision to spend more, however, will require making choices among competing political and policy priorities.
Second, fiefdoms within the federal government have to give way to real collaboration. Federal departments and agencies have to operate in a more co-ordinated, whole-of-government fashion to deal effectively with the changed scale and scope of military and security threats to Canada. We need more collaborative policy development, better security analysis, speedier decision-making, and greater investments in cyber capacity.
Third, the government needs to revise its 2017 defence policy to respond urgently to the changed geopolitical environment. Accordingly, we need to fast-track our contributions to NORAD renewal and incorporate the learnings from the Russian invasion of Ukraine in our strategic thinking, equipment choices and training. In addition, we need to make meaningful contributions to security in the Indo-Pacific; expand our rapid-response capacity for unforeseen developments abroad and natural disasters at home; and fix procurement and recruitment to avoid underdelivering on defence again.
Fourth, we cannot ignore security and sovereignty in the Arctic. The Trudeau government released its Arctic and Northern Policy Framework in 2019. While it is a good foundation, it needs to be integrated into the government’s defence and security policy, and with much greater specificity, to be operational.
It is time for a serious updating of Canada’s defence policy to fit the times. More than an incremental fine-tuning of the 2017 defence policy statement, the government has to recognize the seismic shift in geopolitical tensions and risks, and draw the obvious conclusion: Canada needs to spend more, and more effectively, on defence and security. Our national interest and sovereignty depend on it.