Be Prepared: Standing Committee on National Defence

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‘Be Prepared’: Threats and Readiness in an Evolving Security Reality

Former senior diplomat and current Senior Advisor and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute Colin Robertson was invited to present his views on threats to Canada’s security and the Canadian Armed Forces readiness to meet those threats before the House Standing Committee on National Defence on February 14th. This is a summary of his remarks before the committee.

Colin Robertson

February 14, 2022

In our new Parliament, the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence (NDDN) will be busy this week examining Threat Analysis Affecting Canada and the CAF Operational Readiness to meet those threats. It’s a mouthful, but as Boy Scouts and Girl Guides will appreciate, it boils down to “Be Prepared”.  A prepared Forces is a prerequisite to Canadian security.

The work of parliamentary committees does not get much notice but their deliberations help build cross-party consensus on public policy, a key to good governance. In their study of operational readiness,  members of the National Defence committee need to keep in mind three overriding considerations: 

First, we need to rethink how we look at security.

It’s been 18 years since we last conducted a national security review and the threats to Canada continue to evolve. A good starting point is the excellent recent CIGI report Reimagining a Canadian National Security Strategy with companion studies that include a look at democracy and disinformation, biosecurity, autonomous weapons and our border with the United States. As to the mechanics of a review, look to the United Kingdom’s recent year-long integrated review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development that sets out a strategic framework for achieving the UK’s national security and international policy objectives between now and 2025. Not only is it comprehensive and costed-out, but it all got done in a year.

Ours is a meaner, messier world. In his address outlining his priorities for 2022, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that the rules-based multilateral institutions that Canada helped engineer and sustain are not fit for purpose. Polling confirms what we can see and hear: our citizens have less faith in democratic institutions. While the election of Joe Biden has resurrected confidence in US leadership, that trust comes with reservations, especially among Europeans.

The threat index has expanded in recent years to embrace climate change, pandemics, terrorism, poverty and inequality. This devil’s brew accentuates state and inter-state conflicts resulting in more displaced persons than at any time since the Second World War. Conflict itself is changing, with hybrid warfare, untraceable cyberattacks, disinformation, drones and mercenaries. A politically polarized US is less willing and able to carry the internationalist burden. A rising, aggressive China and a revanchist Russia have revived great power rivalry and the ideological and systemic divide between authoritarianism and democracy.

Canada’s strategic culture is of expeditionary forces being sent abroad, through the Boer War, First World War, Second World War, Korean War, with NATO deployments in Europe and multiple peacekeeping operations. In this century, international deployments have included a decade in Afghanistan and more recently in Mali, Iraq, Latvia and Ukraine.

Deployments should be considered through the lens of our national interests and fundamental values. Before making deployments we always need to ask ourselves: what will we gain; what are the risks; what is success; how and when do we get out?

Our national interests are the security of the country and a stable global rules-based order. Our fundamental values start with democracy. To advance our interests and values we enter into collective arrangements, notably NATO, which is currently reviewing its Strategic Concept — for endorsement by leaders at their June summit in Madrid. For what should be there look at the Alphen Group’s recent Shadow Strategic Concept.

Second, our approach to addressing defence modernization is taking far too long to produce useful results.

Operational readiness relies on maintaining and updating our equipment fleet. Government procurement requirements too often handicap industry from getting the job done. The auditor general says our procurement system needs major reform. Other questions persist: given the times and evident increased operational tempo are the budgets sufficient? Are we investing enough in the enablers — digitalization and data management — that will deliver and manage an effective force that can win future wars?

A politically polarized US is less willing and able to carry the internationalist burden. A rising, aggressive China and a revanchist Russia have revived great power rivalry and the ideological and systemic divide between authoritarianism and democracy. 

Operational readiness of our Forces starts with meeting recruitment targets and then ensuring conditions are sufficiently attractive to retain those recruits. We’ve prioritized cultural change to address sexual misconduct. We also need to look at the terms and conditions of service. Let’s think creatively about how we attract, train and grow the kind of talent that can master the technological challenges of our digital age and address new threats like cyber-warfare and disinformation.

We rely on the Forces as first responders to deal with floods, fires and ice-storms and to rescue our long-term care facilities during pandemics. These calls only increase demands on limited resources. Governments — federal, provincial and municipal — should look at creating a corps of volunteers to complement civil defence and disaster relief. The Germans do this well and we should look to them as a model.

Third, changing geopolitics and new threats require a new grand strategy that combines purpose, priorities and budget.

In doing so we need to keep in mind Sir Lawrence Freedman’s characterization of strategy as “an ability to look up from the short term and the trivial to view the long term and the essential, to address causes rather than symptoms, to see woods rather than trees.”

Canadian strategy has always revolved around the United States. The sundering of British North America with the American Revolution meant that for the Canadian colonies, the new republic was now the threat. This condition prevailed for most of the next century and a half. The threat of “manifest destiny” enveloping Canada, especially in the wake of the Civil War with the battle-hardened Union Army, was a powerful boost to Confederation, along with the construction of the railroad from coast to coast. While we relied on Britain for defence, the looming American presence drove both our national trade and economic policy and the “open door” immigration policy that settled western Canada.

The great change that turned the US from threat to partner and ally, came with Franklin Roosevelt and Mackenzie King. Subsequent governments built on their scaffolding, enhancing and extending defence and trade agreements. With the removal of the American threat, successive Canadian governments got on with the work of creating a sound economy and political stability at home, necessary prerequisites to playing an active role in international politics.

To balance the preponderant American influence, Canada embraced multilateralism, internationalism, and the rules-based order. Two world wars, involving valour and sacrifice, propelled Canada from colony to nation and thence to a functional middle power. Brilliantly engineered by our diplomats, notably Lester Pearson, Escott Reid, Norman Robertson, and Hume Wrong, the concept of functionalism meant that capacity rather than mere size, should weigh in representation and a voice at the table.

“The golden rule of Canada-US relations is very simple. We can disagree without being disagreeable. The Americans are very important to us. We know they are, notwithstanding the differences, our best ally, our closest neighbour, our biggest customer.”

Balancing the US relationship through active multilateralism has largely guided Canadian foreign policy ever since. In practice, it meant a constant effort to diversify our trade, most recently through the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), while ensuring continued access to the US market with the recent renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), reincarnated as the Canada-US-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA). It has also meant finding niches, such as peacekeeping and human security, where we could be the helpful fixer or a bridge with the developing world through, for example, active leadership in the Commonwealth and Francophonie, where the US was not present.

Secure under the US defence shield through NATO and NORAD, and with access to the US market, our grand strategy, balancing the US and multilateralism, mostly worked. Much depended on the vigour and commitment of prime ministers. Brian Mulroney, who mastered the balancing act, captured the practical effect of this strategy:

“The golden rule of Canada-US relations is very simple. We can disagree without being disagreeable. The Americans are very important to us. We know they are, notwithstanding the differences, our best ally, our closest neighbour, our biggest customer. There is also a rule of global politics – Canada’s influence in the world is measured to a significant degree by the extent to which we are perceived as having real influence in Washington.”

New threats and changing geopolitics – a less reliable USA, ineffective multilateralism and a broken rules-based order — now obliges us to re-examine and re-think our grand strategy.

At a minimum, the insurance premiums for national security have gone up. We are going to have to find more money for defence and also for the civil instruments of national security. This means more investment in diplomacy, development and in communicating abroad our messages on democracy, multilateralism, and the rules-based order. Military power wins battle but to win wars in today’s world requires both hard power and soft power. In our meaner, messier world Canada needs more of each.

In 2014, NATO governments, including Canada, pledged to meet a target of two percent defence spending by 2024. According to NATO, Canada currently spends 1.39 percent, outpaced by NATO G7 partners the United Kingdom (2.29 percent), the United States (3.52 precent), France (2.01 percent), Germany (1.53 percent) and Italy (1.41 precent).

In terms of development assistance at 0.31 percent of GDP, Canada is also a long way from the 0.7 percent UN target, outpaced again by our G7 partners: the United Kingdom (0.7 percent), Germany (0.73 percent) and France (0.53percent).

We took advantage of the end of the Cold War to reduce defence budgets, confident that we could continue to rely on the American security umbrella. The Americans are fed up with carrying the load and successive presidents have challenged us to do more, especially now that it’s time for NORAD renewal. We claim sovereignty over our Arctic but struggle to exercise it. We need a budgeted blueprint with deadlines. We can learn a lot from Nordic partners like Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. What will the role of NATO be now that the Arctic is part of the geo-strategic chessboard?

As a trading nation, we depend on freedom of navigation. As a maritime nation fronting on three oceans, we need to ask ourselves whether we have the balance right among our Army, Air Force and Navy. We don’t necessarily have too much Army or Air Force, but we do need more Navy. Our potential adversaries are investing significantly in their navies, especially in the Indo-Pacific. So must we. The new offshore patrol ships perform an important role. But a deployable, combat-capable Navy requires destroyers, frigates, submarines, with air and logistic support.

Military power wins battle but to win wars in today’s world requires both hard power and soft power. In our meaner, messier world Canada needs more of each.

Investing in operational readiness only when we feel pressed and then doing so on the cheap undermines our national interests. Without an overarching strategy and shared cross-party view of our national interest and how to go about advancing and protecting it, we will continue to be late, unprepared and obliged to follow rather than lead.

Parliamentary committees are the unseen and mostly unappreciated workhorses of democratic government. In the new information age where tweets and soundbites move narratives, considered cross-party discussion, drawing on expert testimony, gets little attention. But these hearings and committee discussions behind closed doors do a lot to inform and educate legislators. They also help them come together in support of the national interest.

In an era of hybrid warfare, gray zones and twilight struggles, developing cross-party unity on our security and defence strategy and requirements is essential to sustain support through changes of government. It is the only way we can be sure our Forces will achieve the operational readiness necessary to support our values and national interests.

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former Canadian foreign affairs officer who served in Washington, New York and Los Angeles, is senior advisor and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa. This article is adapted from a presentation to the Defence Committee of the House of Commons, February 14, 2022.