Canada needs to increase its military budget and make faster decisions on equipment, experts say, as NATO renewed a call Wednesday for members to spend more on defense in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“For governments in Canada, and for understandable reasons, defense and security has really never been a big priority,” said Guy Thibault, retired vice chief of the defense staff who now serves as chair of the Conference of Defense Associations Institute.
“Hopefully there’s going to be a wake-up call for Canada to reassess what’s going on in the world and what kind of capabilities Canada needs to not only defend Canada, but to work with the US to protect the continent, and contributing of course to our alliances.”
After an extraordinary meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday, the alliance’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said members had agreed to task their military commanders with developing options to broadly increase military presence, which should include “substantially more forces” at a higher readiness in eastern Europe.
“Major increases to our deterrence and defense will require major investments,” Stoltenberg told reporters after the meeting. “Allies need to invest a minimum of two per cent of GDP on defense.”
NATO members pledged in 2014 to spend that amount by 2024, but Canada is among those that has yet to reach that target, having spent about 1.4 per cent of GDP on defence.
Defense Minister Anita Anand told CBC’s Power&Politics Wednesday that she will be bringing forward to cabinet “aggressive options which would see, potentially, exceeding the two per cent level, hitting the two per cent level, and then below the two per cent level.”
She’s expected to unveil new defense spending in the near future with what she described last week as a “robust package” to modernize the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to strengthen continental defense with the United States, including in the North.
It would be a “massive shift in Canada’s stance on defence” if it hit two per cent, said David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“If we were to spend at a higher level, it would provide any government with many more options in any potential crisis,” he said.
“The government of Canada would have a totally different set of options available to it to help the government of Ukraine. It doesn’t mean it necessarily would want to or choose to, but it would have more options than are available today.”
While Canada has sent both non-lethal and lethal aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, firearms, grenades and ammunition, it doesn’t have sophisticated air defense systems, for example, Perry said.
“To be honest, at this point with Canada’s military contribution to Ukraine, we’re probably doing as much as we could be doing,” Thibault said. “I can’t really imagine that there’s a lot more on the shelf that we could offer them.”
Stoltenberg said the increase in military presence discussed Wednesday would also include more air and sea power, including a “significant” number of combat ships. “We should also train and exercise more often and in greater numbers,” he said.
And while Anand, who previously served as public services and procurement minister, has pushed back on the suggestion that the defense procurement process is slow, Thibault said it absolutely needs to be “accelerated.”
Canada has been on a more than decade-long search for a new fleet of fighter jets, with a contract to be at last awarded this year for 88 new jets, Anand said last week. The government expects the first aircraft to arrive in 2025.
“I think shame on all of us, not just the government, but all of us, for not paying more attention to these issues and not caring more,” Thibault said, “and I think we’ve got to do better with defense procurement than what we’ve been doing.”
Defense procurement has been treated as a “job creation exercise, and also as something that is important for electioneering but not necessarily for delivery,” said Michael Byers, Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia.
He said much of the money allotted to Canada’s defense hasn’t been spent because of the delay in major procurements like the fighter jets, as well as warships.
“It’s not just a question of promising money, it’s actually spending money, and we haven’t felt the urgency over the last several decades to get these procurements done in an expeditious manner, and this is a fault of successive Canadian governments,” he said.
“It was an honest mistake. We thought the Cold War was over, we thought we could benefit from the so-called peace dividend. No one envisioned we’d be back into a potential tank war with Russia.”
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