Politics

Canada pledges billions in new defence spending, but doesn't reach NATO's 2% commitment

Two years after being ordered on an urgent basis, a new defence policy for Canada that promises to bolster the military's surveillance and combat capabilities in the Arctic was unveiled Monday.

New defence policy focuses on threats to Arctic, boosting military 'striking power'

Corporal Nicolaus Lalopoulos, a Door Gunner with 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, mans a Browning M2 .50 Caliber Heavy Machine Gun on a CH-146 Griffon training flight during Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center 22-02 at Fort Wainwright, Alaska on March 8, 2022.
Cpl. Nicolaus Lalopoulos, a door gunner with 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, mans a Browning M2 .50 Caliber Heavy Machine Gun on a CH-146 Griffon training flight during Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center 22-02 at Fort Wainwright, Alaska on March 8, 2022. (Submitted by Cpl. Angela Gore, Canadian Armed Forces)

Two years after being ordered on an urgent basis, a new defence policy for Canada was unveiled Monday that promises — among other things — to bolster the military's surveillance and combat capabilities in the Arctic.

The strategy commits to delivering new equipment, including airborne early warning aircraft (AWACs), long-range surface-to-surface missiles for the army and utility helicopters that may or may not be manned.

A NATO airborne warning and control systems aircraft takes off from a base near the German-Dutch border. NATO has now begun reconnaissance flights with AWACS over Poland and Romania to monitor the situation in neighbouring Ukraine.
A NATO airborne warning and control systems aircraft takes off from a base near the German-Dutch border. NATO has now begun reconnaissance flights with AWACS over Poland and Romania to monitor the situation in neighbouring Ukraine. (Ina Fassbender/Reuters)

The plan also lists new equipment the Department of National Defence is considering acquiring, such as air defence systems to protect critical infrastructure and new submarines.

The new policy, entitled Our North, Strong and Free, includes an additional $8.1 billion in new defence spending over the next five years and commits to an additional $73 billion in defence spending over the next two decades.

The additional investments will not bring Canada all the way to meeting NATO's military spending target for member nations — two per cent of national gross domestic product. The Liberal government estimates that the new policy will see military spending rise to 1.76 per cent of GDP by 2029-30.

"This is a significant increase in defence spending and is a major step forward in our effort to reach two per cent of GDP, as agreed by NATO members at the Vilnius Summit in 2023," the policy document says.

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How the document will be received by Canada's allies — many of whom have been putting pressure on Ottawa to meet its commitments in response to Russia's war on Ukraine — remains to be seen.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the document during its unveiling at the country's largest military air base in Trenton, Ont. on Monday. He said some elements of the plan have not yet been costed — items that could affect the bottom line down the road.

"So even as we project we're heading up to 1.76 per cent of GDP in the coming years, we know there is more to come over the coming years, as Canada continues to step up in a more uncertain and, quite frankly, more dangerous world," Trudeau said.

U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen said in a media statement that the Biden Administration is pleased with the direction of Canada's investments in defence.

"Moving from 1.33 per cent to 1.76 per cent by 2029-2030 is real progress, and we are also encouraged by the assurances we have received that there will be additional investments," Cohen said.

Behind the scenes, the allies have played good cop-bad cop with Canada. While United States takes a conciliatory position, major European partners, including the U.K., have been more blunt in expressing their desire to see Canada meet its commitments.

Dave Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said NATO has been clear that two per cent of GDP is the floor for military spending, not the ceiling, and allies expect each nation to have a plan to meet the goal.

"There is actually no articulated plan [in the policy] to get to to two per cent, which I think our allies are going to be quite attuned to, and it will not go unnoticed," said Perry.

The federal Conservatives took issue with the fact that much of the spending won't take place in the near-term.

"Trudeau is once again kicking the can down the road by committing most of the defence spending in today's announcement until after the next election," said the party's defence critic James Bezan.

"Instead of 'exploring options,' the brave women and men in the Canadian Armed Forces need new kit, better training and investments in their futures today, not 20 years from now."

Major allies, notably the United States and Britain, have been pushing Canada to take a more active position in defending the Arctic, where Russia has been building up and restoring many Cold War capabilities and bases.

"The most urgent and important task we face is asserting Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic and northern regions, where the changing physical and geopolitical landscapes have created new threats and vulnerabilities to Canada and Canadians," says the policy document.

The strategy says the new threats in the region include "advanced submarines [and] hypersonic and cruise missiles." To meet those threats, the defence policy says the federal government will establish a network of northern operational support hubs, buy a fleet of airborne early warning aircraft, deploy underwater sensors on all three coasts, build a satellite ground station in the High Arctic and enhance Canada's foreign intelligence capabilities.

The focus on both the Arctic and climate change will resonate with the Canadian public and make the defence policy easier to sell across the political spectrum, said Steve Saideman of Carleton University, one of the country's leading experts on NATO, 

"I think that they are emphasizing the Arctic because they understand that is what Canadians want their defence money to go toward," Saideman said. "I think the focus on climate security, which was very, very clear in the document  was really well targeted."

He said he doubts the Arctic poses a major security threat when compared with the rise of autocracies, but the federal government's approach "makes sense from the standpoint of trying to get money from Parliament, from the political system. This is what people want to hear. So they're telling what they want to hear."

A submarine returns to port.
HMCS Windsor, one of Canada's Victoria-class long range patrol submarines, returns to port in Halifax on June 20, 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The government has said it plans to study the possibility of acquiring new submarines to replace the three-decades-old Victoria class boats. Submarines would be a key tool for defending the Arctic and the navy has already laid out options for acquiring up to 12 conventionally-powered submarines.

During the media availability, however, Trudeau made the purchase of new submarines sound more like a question of when, not if.

"We talk about exploring and defining this submarine capability we're going to need to patrol and protect our Arctic in the coming decades," Trudeau said. "That is [an] investment that Canada is going to be making in our Canadian Armed Forces, but we haven't yet defined exactly what types of submarines and how they're going to be deployed."

In keeping with the federal government's plan to purchase F-35 fighters, the defence policy indicates the military is prepared to use force to defence the continent.

"We will also develop greater striking power to deter adversaries and keep threats farther from our shores," says the policy document. "We will acquire long-range missile capabilities for the Army. These missiles will be deployed to enable our forces to shoot at greater ranges than our adversaries in combat.

"We also commit to providing the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force with the striking power they need to deter threats at an appropriate distance, and will explore options to acquire long-range air- and sea-launched missiles."

In this handout image released by the South Korean Defence Ministry, an Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) is fired during a joint training between the United States and South Korea, on Wednesday at an undisclosed location. The South Korean and U.S. militaries fired a volley of missiles, but one apparently failed to launch.
In this handout image released by the South Korean Defence Ministry, an Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) is fired during a joint training between the United States and South Korea, on Wednesday at an undisclosed location. The South Korean and U.S. militaries fired a volley of missiles, but one apparently failed to launch. (South Korean Defence Ministry/Getty Images)

Climate change also is adding a sense of urgency to the federal government's focus on the Arctic.

"Our Arctic is now warming at four times the global average, making a vast and sensitive region more accessible to foreign actors who have growing capabilities and regional military ambitions," says the policy document.

The strategy identifies both China and Russia as potential threats and says Moscow's war on Ukraine must not be allowed to succeed. The document says that Russia's northern military build-up creates uncertainty for NATO that must be addressed.

"The new geography of the Russian threat undermines our capacity to assist allies in Europe from a position of strength," says the policy document. "Our defence of the Arctic will be more essential than ever."

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Some of the defence policy's language on China mirrors what the federal government wrote in its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Beijing, it says, is an increasingly "assertive global actor looking to reshape the international system to advance its interests and values, which increasingly diverge from our own on matters of defence and security."

But the policy also pledges to manage the defence relationship with China "purposefully" when it comes to hot button issues such as freedom of navigation and the future of Taiwan.

"Frank, open, and respectful dialogue is important and helps to ensure clarity about Canada's national positions. Instability in the Taiwan Strait, a vital waterway, would disrupt Canadian trade, including in critical advanced technologies, and could cost trillions of dollars to the global economy," says the policy document.

The Canadian military is facing a crisis in recruitment; both the regular and reserve force are short up to 15,780 members. The military also faces many important social shortfalls in things like access to affordable housing and day care.

The new strategy promises to speed up recruiting by offering a probationary period for those wanting to join. Defence Minister Bill Blair has been pushing the department to adopt such a model in order to get more people into uniform more quickly.

Among the other items in the new policy documents is a promise to fix the defence procurement system and to consult more with industry about the military's needs — something the federal government has promised before.

"This policy will only be effective with real procurement reform, something that has proven elusive," said Christyn Cianfarani, president of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI).

"The solution cannot only be increased reliance on foreign-made military equipment and services. NATO's targets, and its Defence Production Action Plan, are based on the idea that each member nation is responsible for building and sustaining a defence industrial base that can contribute to greater allied capacity and deterrence."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.