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An urgent agenda for Canada in a “Cold War 2.0”

In an increasingly dangerous world, Canada must act now to bolster its national security

By: /
1 April, 2024
Members of 5e Régiment d’artillerie légère du Canada conduct a firing mission with a M777 155 mm howitzer. The conflict in Ukraine has shown the continued importance of artillery on the battlefield. Image: Corporal Marc-André Leclerc, Valcartier Imaging Section.
George S. Takach
By: George S. Takach
Expert on technology and the law

In my recently published book, Cold War 2.0: Artificial Intelligence in the New Battle Between Russia, China, and America, I describe how the world’s leading autocracies (principally China and Russia, but with increasing support from Iran and North Korea) have plunged the democracies back into a cold war.

The major fault line in the current cold war is that authoritarian regimes are refusing to abide by the rules-based international order, exemplified by (but not limited to) Russia’s unjustified war of aggression on Ukraine, and China’s aggressive grey zone activities in the South China Sea and against Taiwan.

In this global environment, Canada – as a member of the G7 with the world’s 10th-largest economy, and a long-standing member of the NATO and NORAD alliances – faces a complex and evolving national security landscape. What should Canada’s priorities be for bolstering its national security over the next few years?

First, Canada must increase its spending on national defence. After the democracies prevailed in the first cold war (what I now call “Cold War 1”), most democracies took a “peace dividend” and reduced their expenditures on weapons and military personnel. They also let their military industrial base atrophy. For 30 years the peace dividend allowed governments to spend dramatically more on healthcare, education, and pensions for the elderly (among other non-national security priorities).

That peace dividend is no longer available. Canada urgently needs to increase its spending on national security. It’s like an insurance policy; you don’t want to be over insured, but you certainly don’t want to be under insured either, and Canada currently doesn’t have near the national security insurance it requires.

Ten years ago, when Russia unjustly invaded Ukraine for the first time and illegally annexed Crimea, a consensus formed in NATO that defence spending by each country should be at least 2 percent of that country’s GDP. Canada has never come close to meeting that target; Ottawa now sits at around 1.4 percent. This chronic underfunding of our national security must stop. That means increasing the federal budget for defence by about another $20 billion annually. And that’s just to get to 2 percent. In response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Poland’s government is calling for defence expenditures of each NATO country to meet 3 percent of GDP; often where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit – Poland is right next to Ukraine!

The problem isn’t just a lack of money – it’s also a deficit of people. Senior leadership of the Canadian Armed Forces admits the CAF is about 15,000 personnel short of its annual recruitment target, a significant figure considering the CAF comprises only about 68,000 active-duty members. Some of the extra money allocated for defence needs to go to higher salaries for our men and women in uniform, so the CAF can attract more of the younger members of our society – and retain the ones already in uniform.

It’s not just money, though. In 2022 the Canadian government sensibly started allowing Canadian permanent residents to apply to join the military, to help alleviate the CAF’s personnel shortage. About 22,000 applied, but a year later only 77 (or about 1 percent) had been approved; the rest were waiting for their security clearance to be conducted. Of these applicants, some 15,000 walked away in frustration.

What a lost opportunity.

Clearly the security clearance process needs to be redesigned and beefed up with new technologies like artificial intelligence – to make sure it doesn’t take longer than six months except in a few exceptional cases.

Many of the new recruits also require digital skill sets that are in dire shortage in the CAF. The digitization of the CAF over the coming years will be a massive challenge. And we can’t outsource the effort to an outside firm, or indeed the US military (under the cloak of “interoperability”). The CAF needs to get this critical job done using largely its own people. Anything else will significantly erode our military capability, putting Canada’s national security at grave risk.

If Canada had another $20 billion annually to spend on defence, then a key priority should be to join AUKUS, the very important military technology alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In the coming years, AUKUS members will pool their best and brightest human resources to develop nuclear-powered submarines and the latest in weapons using artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Joining AUKUS would be expensive – roughly $5 billion to $7 billion annually for 30 years. That’s a lot of money, but Canada also has the longest coastline in the world (by far), and Russian and Chinese nuclear-powered subs are already operating in the Arctic. It’s a simple decision actually – if Canada wants to adequately defend its sovereignty, it needs to be part of AUKUS. Period.

Some would argue we need to get our house in order first, including getting NORAD modernization done. Yes, that’s important, but our military needs to be able to multi-task: complete digitization, modernize NORAD, finish all other major procurements, and participate fully in AUKUS.

The CAF also desperately needs a comprehensive drone program. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that drones are the future of warfare, including those intended for operations in the air and both under and on top of the sea. This means that we have likely seen the birth of the last jet fighter pilot – and that the F-35 will almost certainly be the last jet fighter the CAF ever buys.

In the future, uncrewed drones will do 90 percent of what jet fighters do, but at a fraction of the cost. This is why the US has launched its “Replicator” program – a plan to quickly develop and build thousands of high-tech attack drones to counter China’s ever-growing military. Meanwhile, the UK government recently announced a new drone program worth about $25 billion.

For Canada, it should join with its allies and partners (say, the South Koreans, the Dutch, and the Danes) to collaborate on the design, development, and annual production of hundreds of thousands of drones. These are table stakes if Canada wants to be meaningful in the domain of national defence.

In the coming years, drones will only grow more important in warfare. However, the conflict in Ukraine has also shown the continued importance of artillery. Russian military doctrine still places a heavy emphasis on the use of traditional artillery, and that means that Canada needs to have a proper inventory of artillery shells, such as the 155 mm shell for the M-777 howitzer.

Unfortunately, Canada is losing this shell game; if the CAF fought against Russia and fired its 155 mm shells at a rate equivalent to that currently being employed by the Ukrainian military, then Canada would run out of ammunition in just a few days. This is an astounding fact, made even more serious by the revelation in October 2023 that between that date and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine some 20 months earlier, not one additional artillery shell had been manufactured for the CAF. Again, money isn’t just the issue – it also requires strong leadership and effective management capability to get priority projects off the ground and producing results for the Canadian military.

Which brings me to my last, and perhaps most critical point: Do Canadians want to participate meaningfully in their own self-defence, or is the plan simply to ride on the coattails of the United States?

Keep in mind, this isn’t a unilateral decision – this is an election year in the US, and former President Donald Trump has threatened, if elected in November, to not protect allies that fail to pay their fair share of defence costs. If Canada’s free ride comes to a screeching halt, then it will be a massive problem for the CAF – and Canadians may soon experience severe sticker shock when confronted with the price of going it alone on national defence.

What’s urgently required, therefore, is for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to accept (and communicate to Canadians) that national security is a foundational “must-have” requirement before literally any other priority of the government. A quick glance at Ukraine proves this point: inadequate security puts at risk all other public and private initiatives and objectives.

I wrote Cold War 2.0 so that politicians could better explain to citizens, and citizens could understand for themselves, that Canada must get serious about national defence. This doesn’t give me any joy. In 2023, democracies collectively spent an additional $800 billion in military expenditures because of the aggressive actions of Russia and China. This is the cost of Cold War 2.0. This is money that didn’t go towards healthcare, education, or pensions for the elderly. But then again, when autocracies are hell-bent on expanding their influence worldwide through illegal, coercive, and violent means, it behooves democracies – including Canada – to respond to the threat adequately, so that every morning Chinese leader Xi Jinping wakes up and says: “no, today is not the day I’m going to invade Taiwan.”

Editor’s note: The original version of this article was published by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.  It has been reprinted here with their and the author’s permission.

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