Preparing Canada for a New Generation of Security Challenges
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau privately told NATO officials that Canada will never meet NATO’s defense-spending target of 2 percent of GDP. While this made headlines in Canada and abroad, it surprised few in Canadian foreign policy and defense circles.
The war in Ukraine has raised new security concerns among America’s allies. For many in Western Europe and North America, U.S. military primacy allowed for a state of complacency and low military spending. As the United States and its allies assembled to support Ukraine, the demands of 21st-century warfare exposed weaknesses in military capacity for the United States and its key allies — in particular Canada.
Canada, which has historically been shielded from external security challenges, recently expanded its security role to respond to threats — in particular the threat of a Taiwan contingency — more seriously. The government has launched a new Indo-Pacific Strategy aimed at China, entered formal bilateral trade talks with Taiwan, and sailed warships through the Taiwan Strait. This signals Canada’s intention to play a larger role in Indo-Pacific security.
Despite these promising signals, Canada’s national security apparatus remains weak for a country of its size, wealth, and geography. Currently, its deficiencies in military spending and capacity means that it is unable to contribute much beyond providing stern warnings to deter a possible Chinese military invasion of Taiwan. Moreover, Canadian public opinion surrounding military spending, combined with deficiencies in the Canadian Armed Forces, suggests that it is unrealistic to assume the government will follow Japan’s lead and embark on a military build-up.
To further its commitment to NATO and contribute to allied deterrence, Canada should focus its national security efforts on key force-multiplying areas of priority in which it already possesses comparative advantages, which require minimal additional hardware, and where it can build significant capacity in a short time period. Ottawa should consider developing more capable cyber capabilities, building special forces, and ensuring energy security.
Canada’s Hard Power Capabilities
The root of Canada’s hard power deficiencies lies in decades of underfunding for its military. Currently, Canada spends only 1.29 percent of GDP on defense. This makes Canada the fifth-lowest-spending NATO country as a percentage of GDP. This chronic underfunding, combined with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and a widely publicized flood of sexual misconduct cases, has led to a severe recruitment crisis and personnel shortage in the armed forces. According to Chief of the Defense Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, the military is currently facing a shortfall of 10,000 regular-force members, which is significant because the regular force has only 68,000 active-duty members.
The Canadian Armed Forces is also suffering from a crisis in hardware capacity. Canada’s navy is outdated. The fleet of 12 frigates that make up the majority of Canada’s naval capabilities are approximately 25 years old, and seven of them are currently undergoing repairs. Moreover, were these ships to be used in a military operation, they would be of limited use given that Canada’s one dedicated naval replenishment ship lacks navy-grade radars or a self-defense system — which critics argue makes it unfit for a war zone.
The Royal Canadian Air Force also has widely publicized issues with obtaining hardware. The Canadian government has — after a decades-long saga — only just recently agreed to purchase 99 F-35 aircraft to modernize its air force, with the first delivery scheduled for 2026. In the meantime, the Royal Canadian Air Force will rely on used Australian F-18s, as well as CF-18 aircraft that were built in the 1980s and are expected to be in use until 2032.
These issues are not lost on military and government leaders. Eyre has admitted that the military is unprepared for the challenges ahead, and Lt. Gen. Andrew Leslie, a former member of parliament, said that Canada was in an “existential moment” in its relationship with NATO and called for massive military investments. Similarly, the editorial board of the country’s most prominent newspaper called Canada’s level of military spending “indefensible,” and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on Canada to meet NATO’s defense-spending targets.
Despite these pressures, a drastic increase in military spending appears unlikely. Canada’s historical insulation from external threats has created a situation where “neither Canadians nor their governments take national security seriously on a consistent basis.” This is also revealed in opinion polls. An April 2022 survey from Leger, a Canadian research company, found that only 34 percent of Canadian citizens were interested in increasing the defense budget. This was at a time when the majority of Western countries were more aware of the deteriorating defense environment due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is also reflected in policy. When Canada did increase military spending in response to the Ukraine war, it was only by CA$8 billion (US$5.83 billion) over five years. This investment will leave Canada far below the NATO 2 percent spending target. Moreover, this situation is unlikely to be solved by outside pressure. Presidents Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Barack Obama have all pressured Canada to raise military spending, with minimal results.
Where Does Canada Go from Here?
Canada needs to be realistic about its poor capabilities and funding shortfalls. Convincing Canadians to spend more money on the military is a long-term project that may not succeed. With this in mind, Canada should focus its new investment on building up capabilities in key force-multiplying areas such as cyber, special forces, and energy security.
Cyber capabilities — both defensive and offensive — are significant force multipliers. Importantly, cyber capabilities are less capital-intense than conventional weaponry, requiring little in the way of up-front infrastructure, as is evident from the impact that small firms or Russian and Chinese troll factories have had on the global cyber environment.
Canada has a thriving technology workforce, which outpaced the United States in growth rate over the last year. It also has five of the top 50 ranked universities for computer science and information systems, tied with the United Kingdom for second-most of all NATO countries. Canada also has a strong cyber security private sector. Between 2018 and 2020, Canada’s cyber industry outperformed the information and communications technology sector across industrial indicators and Canada’s cyber research and development intensity was 2.5 times greater than the Canadian information and communications technology industry’s overall average.
The Canadian Armed Forces has made strides in recent years by prioritizing the development of cyber capabilities — in line with NATO’s emphasis on cyber defense. Canada emphasized cyber defense in its 2017 defense policy: Strong, Secure, Engaged. In 2018, Canada also published a National Cyber Security Action Plan for 2019 to 2024, emphasizing defensive cyber security, the promotion of an innovative cyber ecosystem, and effective governance and collaboration with international allies and the private sector.
Despite these strides, evidence suggests that Canada still suffers from systemic issues in its cyber-security capabilities. A report from the Canadian Association of Defense and Security Industries stated that a history of unproductive engagement, poor communication, and poor mutual understanding of capabilities have led to a lack of trust between government and industry that would enable productive collaboration in defense. Moreover, a report from the Canadian Global Affairs Institute argued that Canada’s Department of Defense and military are suffering from several key issues, including personnel shortages and a history of poor cyber-defense policy. Most importantly, the report argued that the Department of Defense and armed forces suffer from a lack of coordination with the Communications Security Establishment, which is a world-class cyber security organization within the Canadian government that has demonstrated the ability to conduct successful offensive cyber operations targeting foreign extremists and cyber criminals.
To improve cyber capabilities, Canada should begin with a few key measures. The government should look to invest in human capital and recruiting to boost the Canadian Armed Forces’ internal capabilities. The government should also develop institutional mechanisms to enable more cooperation between the Communications Security Establishment and other defense organizations to better utilize the former’s considerable offensive cyber capabilities. Canada should also look to increase collaboration, communication, and productive engagement with the private sector to enable more public-private cooperation in cyber security.
Unlike most hardware-heavy military capabilities, special forces operations are an area where the Canadian Armed Forces currently excels. Most notable, is Joint Task Force Two, the ultra-secretive centerpiece of Canada’s Special Operations Forces Command. The unit consists of a specialized group of elite soldiers and experts from across Canada’s military units, who have distinguished themselves overseas in Bosnia, Rwanda, Peru, and during NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan.
Canadian special forces also played a central role in conducting critical operations such as hunting down and dismantling stockpiles of Islamic State chemical weapons in Iraq, training Kurdish fighters, and reclaiming territory — including the Iraqi city of Mosul. In the Canadian context of low military spending and severe limitations in capabilities, an emphasis on building special forces capabilities will be key to overcoming limitations in funding and hardware. Special forces utilize commercial off-the-shelf equipment and require little in the way of hardware. Moreover, much of the investment will be in training individuals — which is currently a strength that Canada’s military possesses, given its history of special forces successes. Canadian special forces are also especially integrated with allied nations, in particular the U.S. Special Operations Command North, which has partnered with Canada’s special forces in counter-terrorism and Arctic defense.
Aside from direct military capabilities, the conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated the importance of allied and Western energy security. Throughout the war, Russian President Vladmir Putin has consistently weaponized energy supplies and threatened to cause a global energy crisis in an attempt to break up U.S.-led alliances against Russia. Moving forward, along with the building of direct military capabilities, Canada should focus on promoting energy security for itself and its allies. This will enable Canada and its NATO partners to promote collective security and shore up alliances by alleviating concerns of energy insecurity.
Canada possesses the fourth-most proven oil reserves in the world and is home to some of the largest critical minerals deposits, which are key elements in renewable energy production. It is also the world’s fourth-largest oil producer and the fifth-largest natural gas producer. What Canada lacks in traditional military hard power it may be able to make up for in providing resource guarantees to allies that NATO has recognized as being critical to its common security.
Despite this wealth of natural resources, during the war in Ukraine Canada has been limited in its ability to shore up the energy needs of its allies. In an effort to replace Russian gas supplies, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Canada seeking new energy supplies. Despite European enthusiasm, they were rebuffed by Trudeau, who said that there has “never been a strong business case” for liquefied natural gas exports to Europe (to the consternation of Canadian industry). Moreover, Canada failed to fulfill its Minister of Natural Resources’ March 2022 pledge to help “our European friends” by increasing oil production by 200,000 barrels a day.
These shortcomings are not exclusively due to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Trudeau government. Canada also suffers from infrastructure shortfalls. Canada’s inability to build liquefied natural gas terminals on its east or west coasts has resulted in the country having no capacity to export liquefied natural gas to any country other than the United States. It also has shortcomings in oil and gas infrastructure, including pipeline capacity and oil platforms.
Canada has, however, begun to take energy security more seriously in the critical minerals and renewables sector. In 2020, Canada entered into several strategic partnerships with its allies, including the Canada-U.S. Joint Action Plan on Critical Minerals Collaboration, the Canada-EU Strategic Partnership on Raw Materials, and the Canada-Japan Sectoral Working Group on Critical Minerals. These seek to promote critical minerals and renewables development, secure supply chains, and counter Chinese dominance of the renewables sector. Canada has also pursued energy security through forcing Chinese companies to sell stakes in Canadian junior mining companies and produced the Canadian Critical Minerals Strategy, which focuses on the production and processing of critical minerals.
While these are undoubtedly positive measures to promote the green energy transition and long-term energy security, in the short term, they do relatively little. Currently, it can “take anywhere from 5 to 25 years for a mining project to become operational,” and both Canada and its allies remain heavily dependent on oil and gas for their energy needs. Therefore, Canada’s government — in partnership with its American, European, and Asian allies — should seek to enact similar policies with security-important energy resources such as oil and gas. These measures could include promoting strategic energy partnerships, public-private partnerships, and the building of critical infrastructure in order to build collective energy security, stabilize alliances, and enhance collective deterrence.
To fend off Russian aggression, deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and mitigate other security threats for itself and its allies, Canada will have to step up to play a larger role in securing its external environment. Unfortunately, severe deficiencies in the Canadian military, years of chronic underspending in defense, and a broad public apathy toward defense spending makes it unlikely that Canada will be able to make the necessary strides if it continues on its current trajectory.
It’s time to be realistic. Canada is unlikely to develop the all-around conventional capabilities to significantly add to NATO and allied deterrence efforts. Instead, Canada should focus its defense spending and security efforts on key areas that are force multipliers, require little in the way of major infrastructure spending, and where Canada already possesses strong capabilities: cyber security, special forces operations, and energy security.
Through focusing investment, communicating with allies, and, most importantly, recognizing its own shortcomings, Canada can play a major role in building collective deterrence and making meaningful contributions to the global security environment.
Jack Mageau is a policy researcher at the University of Alberta China Institute in Edmonton, Canada. He holds a M.Phil. in Modern Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford and lives in Taipei, Taiwan.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the University of Alberta or the University of Alberta China Institute.
Image: Canadian Ministry of Defence