OTTAWA—Senior military and defence officials say that the threats North America faces today have never been more challenging. With the war in Ukraine, Canada’s defensive capabilities are getting stretched and gaps are becoming more apparent.
“This geopolitical upheaval comes at a difficult time for the Canadian Armed Forces as an organization. Our numbers, as you know, are not where they need to be. Our readiness is not where I would like it to be nor where it needs to be,” Canada’s chief of the defence staff general Wayne Eyre said during a fireside chat at the 91st annual Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence on March 9.
He had been to Ukraine a week prior to the March 9–10 conference hosted by the Conference of Defence Associations and its charitable organization the CDA Institute.
“Our lethality vis-a-vis potential adversaries has decreased in recent years … That is a challenge writ large,” he said in response to a question on what gaps in defensive capability keep him up at night.
Canada needs long-range precision strike capability “so that we can reach out several hundred kilometres and do what needs to be done,” and the country also has a tremendous need for ammunition to sustain a military operation, Eyre said.
“It’s OK to have a nice shiny piece of equipment. But if you don’t have the ammunition and the sustainment that goes with it, that will pose challenges.”
What to Prepare For
Eyre also said that “Ukraine has shown us again that mass is important. The sheer number of armoured vehicles that we have in our inventory has gone down over the course of the last decade or so.”
James Fergusson, deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, told The Epoch Times that he estimates Canada’s munitions stockpile is in a bad state.
“We’re really at the bottom of the barrel,” he said.
He notes that all allies will be trying to replenish munitions while supplying Ukraine, but that the question is what Canada is stocking up for and what are its priorities.
“Russia is not really the issue for us, or at least not the issue for the Americans. The issue for the Americans—and by default for us—is China. That’s a different game entirely for us,” Fergusson said.
University of Calgary political science professor Rob Huebert told The Epoch Times that it’s hard to gauge where Canada stands in relation to a best-case scenario of keeping Russia engaged far away from Canada and a worst-case scenario of running low on stockpiles of military equipment without a good supply chain to recapitalize.
Don’t Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste
Defence Minister Anita Anand said in her keynote address at the conference that through an accelerated procurement process in light of the urgency of the war in Ukraine, the armed forces on NATO’s eastern flank will get additional air defence capabilities including equipment and training to destroy main battle tanks.
“Being ready for tomorrow also involves recapitalizing, and we are focused on providing the Canadian Armed Forces with equipment that they need to do their jobs and to defend our great country,” Anand said on March 9.
Fergusson questions where Canada should be spending its military dollars.
“Right now my view is that investments should be in North America—the modernization of NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] capabilities,” he said. “That should be our priority because that is the number one priority of the government—the defence of Canada.”
Former defence minister Peter MacKay said at the conference on March 10 that Russian president Vladimir Putin has unified and focused the West.
“[Putin] perhaps placed before us this quintessential question of whether we are going to finally mature and embrace what needs to be done to protect not only Canada and fortress North America, but what are we going to do as far as projecting out into the world our values,” he said.
The question military leaders and politicians face is how to move forward given that Canada cannot afford to acquire everything that’s desired, and also how much risk should be taken.
North America’s adversaries are not constrained in the same way we are, said conference co-host retired Lt.-Gen. Guy Thibault, chair of the Conference of Defence Associations and the CDA Institute. He posed a question on how to make military institutions more agile and risk-tolerant to speed things up.
Comes Back to Procurement
Procurement has long been a bottleneck for Canada’s military.
“Procurement is badly broken,” MacKay said. He explained how large capital projects often cut across a number of government departments and said it’s good that Anand, as defence minister, has a background in procurement.
The other glaring weakness is the North Warning System, which looks like a picket fence, said General Glen VanHerck, commander of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command.
“Ultimately, if you worry about cost, and you don’t base it on the threat, then I think we’re making the mistake,” VanHerck said.
He explained that, in terms of threats to North America, Russia is the primary military threat in terms of physical force, with China being 8 to 10 years less advanced in that capacity. But China is a more worrisome threat in the cyber domain than in the air or sea, he added.
“They’re a threat to our critical infrastructure as well as the critical infrastructure that we use to power-project for North America around the world with their cyber capabilities,” VanHerck said.
MacKay said that national defence should be the least partisan of issues and that when it comes to cyber threats, they can ultimately have an effect on weakening a democracy.
“One of the biggest vulnerabilities outside the Arctic is our incredible vulnerability to cyber attacks, and distortion, and intellectual property theft. And I dare say what we’re seeing now in terms of our own democracy, it shakes our faith and it shakes the foundations of our country,” MacKay said.
Huebert points out that military spending and capabilities come down to political will, citing the case that Russia’s gross domestic product is roughly that of Canada’s.
“We could easily be matching the Russians in terms of military efforts, but it means sacrifices elsewhere. That’s a political question.”