The world is getting more dangerous by the year, and this country is unprepared.
Russia threatens Ukraine. China threatens Taiwan. The United States is a house divided and, post Afghanistan, wary of new commitments.
We have long relied on an American-centred system of alliances for national security. “Those systems are failing,” said Paul Mitchell, a professor of defence studies at Canadian Forces College.
Canada needs to come to its own defence. But the greatest threat to Canadian security “is the complacency that Canadians have about security,” Prof. Mitchell said.
It’s an old, old story. Of the 30 countries in NATO, Canada ranks near the very bottom in defence spending as a share of GDP. Meanwhile, Russia and China both challenge Canada in the Far North.
Last year, in a submission to the UN, Russia asserted that its share of the extended continental shelf stretches right up to Canada’s economic exclusion zone. China, which describes itself as a “near Arctic state,” has an aggressive icebreaker construction program to support what it calls the “polar silk road.”
While Canada today can play only a minor role in Europe or the Pacific, it could contribute heavily to collective security by playing a greater role in North American defence, especially in the Arctic.
For Prof. Mitchell, that means major new investments in crewing ships, finally acquiring a fleet of new jet fighters and expanding airlift and refuelling capacity.
Andrea Charron, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, believes this country needs to contribute more to NORAD, the North American aerospace defence command. Canada and the United States have already begun modernizing advanced radars, satellites and sensors.
But NORAD must go beyond technological solutions, Prof. Charron said. The continent is vulnerable to cyber attacks and misinformation campaigns, and both Russia and China have developed advanced hypersonic missile technology, requiring a fundamental rethink of continental defence.
“The more we can raise the cost to our adversaries of even thinking of doing something, the better off we are,” she said.
Rob Huebert, a political scientist at the University of Calgary who is co-ordinator of the North American Arctic Defence and Security Network, believes Canada must employ both the shield of NORAD and the sword of a stronger military presence in the Arctic.
“I don’t see them as dividable. You have to do both if you are going to meet the type of challenges that are developing today,” he said.
From the founding of NORAD in 1957, Canadians have been content to let the United States assume most of the responsibility for this country’s defence.
But America went through four years of president Donald Trump, who antagonized and undermined the Western alliance. And he or someone very much like him could be president again in 2025.
“When I showed up at the G7 … I said, America is back,” President Joe Biden said in a speech earlier this week. “And the response was, ‘For how long? For how long?’”
Canada cannot and should not decouple from the American and Western alliance. But we can at least stand on our own two feet through an increased NORAD/Arctic commitment.
There would be many advantages to such a commitment. Co-operating with the United States in developing next-generation surveillance technology would give us access to that technology.
Defence monitoring of the Arctic would bring environmental benefits though more detailed observations of Arctic air, ice and water.
Any new Arctic military infrastructure would require close co-operation with Indigenous peoples, who would benefit from the economic opportunities that result.
And boosting NATO and Arctic commitments would ensure continued close defence co-operation with the United States, whatever happens there politically.
In a post-pandemic debate over beds-versus-bombs, many Canadians will prefer to spend on health care over defence. But Australia is developing nuclear submarines. Norway, Finland and Denmark are acquiring fleets of F-35s. Yet their social programs are at least equals of ours.
For too long, Canadians have relied on Americans to protect us. We need to count on them less and on ourselves more. It’s time for Canadians to rise to the defence of their country, from sea to sea and especially to sea.
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