The Liberal government’s $4.9-billion commitment to modernizing NORAD represents an important step in preparing Canada for this increasingly dangerous world. But it’s only a start.
With threats to the left of us in the Indo-Pacific, to the right in Europe, and with Russia to our north, this country must get serious about defence.
“It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be expensive,” to make Canada ready for the times that lie ahead, says Rob Huebert, a political scientist at University of Calgary who specializes in foreign and defence policy. But “we can do it if there is the political will.”
Political will requires bipartisan agreement among Liberals and Conservatives to spend whatever is needed on defence, regardless of who is in power. Co-operation must replace confrontation in procurement.
Analysts weren’t surprised when Defence Minister Anita Anand announced this week that Canada would contribute almost $5-billion over the next six years to upgrading the North American Aerospace Defence Command’s threat detection system.
Existing radars are seriously out of date, and the Americans have been pushing hard for Canada to contribute to an upgrade.
“It’s timely, it’s expected and it’s absolutely necessary,” said Alex Wilner, a specialist in deterrence theory and strategic studies at Carleton University. The Russians and the Chinese are both developing hypersonic and cruise missiles beyond the ability of the existing Northern Warning System to detect. NORAD needs advanced new radars, sensors, satellites and cyber capabilities to protect the continent.
In addition to increasing security, the tech sector will benefit from Canada’s participation in advanced research into new systems.
And environmental research will benefit from the increased monitoring ability.
There are questions, such as whether Canada will eventually need to join the American ballistic missile defence system, and how the federal government intends to secure Indigenous consent for new activities and installations in the High Arctic. Finally, we can expect costs to escalate, because when it comes to defence procurement, they always do.
The Trudeau government has committed Canada to spending $40-billion over two decades to fully modernize NORAD. But that’s a meaningless commitment. Future governments will decide how much they are prepared to spend on NORAD.
That is why both the Conservative and Liberal leadership must publicly commit to honouring Canada’s commitment to NORAD. Both friends and adversaries must know that we are in this for the long haul.
Then there is NATO. “Most of the Europeans are looking east,” as Russia batters Ukraine and threatens the Baltic states, observes James Fergusson, who is deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba. “Canada is looking north.”
While NATO members will applaud Canada’s renewed commitments on the northern front, they will expect increased commitments on the eastern front as well.
And then there is the Indo-Pacific, the vast region in which Canada interacts with allies, such as Japan and Australia, and with China, a potential adversary.
Canada seeks closer trade and ties with India and other nations in the region. But the effort is hampered by the lack of any credible Indo-Pacific security commitment.
“The government makes pseudo-rhetorical statements about stability and peace and security in the Indo-Pacific,” said Prof. Fergusson. But “we’re not in the game. And I don’t expect this government is going to move that way, because that means more money.”
Canada’s health-care system is under enormous strain. This Liberal government has made expensive commitments in child care, and is promising pharmacare and dental care programs as well. Economists are sounding the alarm on the size of federal and provincial deficits.
This makes it very tempting for any prime minister, Liberal or Conservative, to put off defence commitments: to cut back on the purchase order for a new generation of jet fighters, to delay construction of ice breakers and frigates, to shrink rather than expand its NATO commitment, to ignore the need for nuclear submarines.
But there is war in Europe. Both Russia and China threaten to disrupt the global order. Countries from Australia to Norway are able to preserve both strong welfare states and strong militaries.
It always comes down to guns or butter. But if you don’t have guns, someone usually steals the butter.
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