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Richard Shimooka: As NATO allies grow impatient, Canada may be quietly planning major increase in defence spending

Commentary

The Washington Post recently reported that the latest leak of secret U.S. intelligence documents reveal that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has privately told NATO officials that Canada can never meet its funding commitment to the military alliance. 

This is anything but a surprise to seasoned defence observers. The Liberal government has never promised to meet the long-stated (but never-achieved) target of NATO funding—the equivalent of two percent of Canada’s GDP—and it has long been clear that our allies have become privately frustrated with Canada’s reluctance to pull its weight. 

These candid intelligence notes pierce through Ottawa’s messaging about Canada being a good ally and global citizen. They make it clear the government’s pronouncements for domestic consumption are unconvincing to our allies and have harmed the country’s credibility in foreign circles.  

But here’s the surprising bit: it is not clear whether the situation described in the leaked document accurately captures the current moment in Canadian defence policy. In fact, there have been credible signals that the government is at least considering, if not outright planning, a major increase in defence spending. Perhaps this policy shift is a response to reproaches from allies in closed-door meetings, or it could be a political calculation to deflect criticism on what is traditionally one of the Liberal Party’s weakest files. The government is currently drafting a defence policy update to the 2017 Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy, which may offer a strategic rationale for launching such a shift.

Whatever the reason, the hints of this shift are just emerging. It is nowhere to be seen in any major announcement, nor was it accounted for in the last budget. Rather, its indications are scattered across a range of signals, including during outlook sessions hosted by the Canadian Association of Security and Defence Industries (CADSI). These annual gatherings of Canada’s largest defence industry association have the chiefs of the Navy, Air Force, and Army speak of their respective priorities. These interactions have recently been accompanied by requests for information from potential vendors, as well as establishing new project staff in DND or other federal departments.

A provisional shopping list includes a wide variety of much-needed replacements for Canada’s defence systems, including for the Victoria Class Submarine. At potentially $60 billion, the Canadian Patrol Submarine Project alone would do much to bridge Canada’s funding shortfall. 

However, there are also some surprising and new capabilities being considered, including an advanced airborne early warning aircraft with a powerful radar capacity for surveillance over large swaths of airspace. Other potential systems of note are a long-range rocket artillery system, like HIMARS, and potentially a lightweight mobile artillery platform, like the BAE Systems Archer. The Army is also moving to acquire a new tank to replace the Leopard 2 currently in service. 

This scale of modernization program would be a significant step toward restoring Canada’s military to a more capable footing after a decade of neglect. Many of the capabilities being considered are critical for the Canadian Armed Forces to operate in a future combat environment. For example, HIMARS, and highly mobile tube artillery systems like the Archer or NEXTER’s Caesar, have been immensely effective in the war in Ukraine. Some experts claim (perhaps hyperbolically) the former was critical in turning the momentum of the war against the Russian Federation in the spring of 2022. 

Acquiring modern equipment can also help the Forces address personnel shortages; one recalls then-Chief of the Air Staff Angus Watt’s 2008 comment that “aircraft on the ramp” is a key retention tool. Still, considering the critical state of the CAF’s personnel base, the promise of new systems alone is unlikely to fix all of the issues. Furthermore, what potentially is being considered would require the military to significantly expand its standing forces, particularly in key trades, in order to operate these systems. For example, the Navy’s consideration of a two- to threefold expansion of its submarine fleet would require a concomitant increase in personnel, just as the RCAF will require new pilots, or the Army new gunners and other technicians for these new platforms. The list goes on, but it remains an open question as to who will crew these systems to ensure they operate effectively. 

Ordering new systems is one thing; their delivery is quite another. Even if Ottawa made the decision to acquire today, some of these more complex capabilities—submarines or early-warning aircraft, for example—would not arrive for a decade or longer. Early this year, the government announced three urgent operational requirements for infantry and vehicle-based weapons to deal with aircraft, drones, and armoured vehicles. These items are crucial if Canadian units were to be deployed to Eastern Europe to confront aggression against NATO allies or to help replenish NATO allies. But the “expedited process” on two of these programs anticipates awarding a contract early in 2024, meaning it will be 18 months or longer before the “urgent requirement” is delivered. That’s a telling statement about the turgid pace of Canada’s procurement system. 

Recent reports assess the DND’s material group (a key player in procurements) as being 30 percent under strength. This contributes to a broader issue, which is that the overall structure of defence procurement is not adept at delivering major systems within a reasonable timeframe. This is alarmingly problematic and requires urgent reform. 

One approach the government seems interested in pursuing is acquiring systems “off the shelf”. While this would limit its choices to options already in service with other countries, there are other important factors to consider. Buying off the shelf will enhance interoperability with allies, to whom Ottawa is desperate to endear itself. It should also help expedite procurement, depending in part on if the government can be reasonable in its offset requirements. For some systems—HIMARS artillery, for example—there are no real domestic options, or even limited competition in the international market for that matter. Sole sourcing will likely be required for some programs. 

Yet for early-warning aircraft, significant competition could emerge between Boeing’s E-7 Wedgetail and the Globaleye product of Bombardier and Saab. Besides the two systems having fairly differing performance characteristics, there are other political and strategic considerations at play. While the former would provide instant interoperability, the latter would support and sustain Canada’s own aerospace expertise. These are essentially apples-to-oranges comparisons that the government must now decide. 

Finally, Ottawa must develop an unwavering approach to integrating new systems into an information dominance strategy. Very little in the military or the government’s discussions seem to grasp this fact, despite it being an urgency that guides most of our allies’ force development models. Building a process that incorporates these new capabilities into a larger information warfare approach must be a priority. As noted recently in DefenseNews, a U.S.-based news service for U.S. defence decision-makers: 

“…the majority of what the [U.S.] military purchases is no longer weapons systems but rather services and technology. Zealous reformers continue to over-focus on weapons buys when hardware is increasingly the commodity.”

In the end, while it is encouraging that Ottawa appears willing to consider major increases in defence spending, it must reflect the reality of Canada’s challenges. The constraints of our defence bureaucracy and the diminished material and personnel state of the Armed Forces means that even if a move to two percent spending for NATO were to be made, it will be a decades-long process to see it realized and restore the CAF’s ability to operate. 

On top of growing global instability, Canada’s credibility among our allies is declining. We must remedy our internal issues and arrest the country’s further slide toward irrelevance.

Trevor Tombe: The race between Danielle Smith and Rachel Notley is razor thin

Commentary

Following several weeks of active (though technically informal) campaigning, Alberta’s 2023 provincial election is now finally underway and voters head to the polls on May 29.

The campaign, and its outcome, will be one for all Canadians to watch.

The province has the third-largest economy in Canada and its population is rapidly growing. It’s the destination for an increasing number of people leaving unaffordable cities elsewhere. Its energy sector is an important contributor to the national economy and federal finances. It is also the regional core of Canada’s federal Conservative Party, so outcomes here may affect that party’s prospects elsewhere.

There may also be national unity implications of the vote. A separate Alberta Pension Plan, for example, which would likely result in higher CPP contribution rates for workers outside Alberta, may hinge on this campaign. And regardless of which party wins, the federal government is picking fights that the next provincial government will have to forcefully respond to.

What makes Alberta’s 2023 election especially interesting, though, is how so much may depend on so few.

Of the roughly two million votes that may be cast, the winner could be decided by a small handful—potentially a few hundred—in just a few critical ridings.

It’s going to be tight. Very tight. 

The latest projection

To understand the election dynamics that will play out in the province over the next month, you must appreciate that Alberta is divided into three regions: Edmonton, Calgary, and the rest. Winning two of these three broad regions is typically required to form a government. 

Currently, the NDP dominates Edmonton while the UCP dominates rural areas. 

The regions aren’t the same size, however. And by commanding rural areas, the UCP has a clear seat advantage going into this campaign.

Don’t just take my word for it. One source of excellent election insight is P.J. Fournier at 338Canada.com. This projection is regularly updated with the latest available polling and suggests a UCP victory is more likely than not. As of last week, the model implies the UCP may capture 49 of the 87 available seats versus the NDP’s 38. 

While this might look like a comfortable position, the margin of victory is tiny and many seats could easily flip the other way. 

It’s all about Calgary

Based on this 338Canada projection, there are roughly 27 relatively safe NDP seats—where the projected margin of victory is at least ten points—compared to 40 for the UCP. 

It’ll all come down to those 20 remaining seats, 15 of which have projected margins between the parties of no more than three points. And almost all of those are in the northern half of Calgary.

In short, Alberta’s election is all about Calgary.

It’s little wonder why the province put forward hundreds of millions toward a new arena for the Calgary Flames. A commitment that was, interestingly, tied explicitly by the premier to a UCP victory. It is also a more business-oriented electorate than other regions—it is home to more corporate headquarters than any city outside Toronto—so tax policy and government finances may loom large. Both parties have committed to not raising taxes, for example, and the UCP has gone even further: they’ll require a referendum to change future income tax rates, like what’s already on the books for a sales tax.

With a race this close, nearly every issue that arises—and every vote in key battleground ridings—will potentially decide the winner.

Alberta’s election pyramid

To better appreciate just how tight things are, consider each riding as one layer of a pyramid that each party stacks up to reach the required 44-seat majority.This is inspired by a New York Times visualization from the 2000 presidential campaign. 

Stack the likeliest victories at the bottom and continue through to the tightest toss-ups at the top. This reveals nearly all the seats that put the UCP over the top have razor-thin margins that a handful of voters could shift. The same for the NDP.

Small swings in the vote share can therefore translate into large seat swings. A uniform two-point swing towards the UCP, for example, results in potentially 54 seats going UCP compared to 32 for the NDP. That’s a comfortable majority. 

In contrast, the same two-point swing in favour of the NDP could result in 44 seats going their way compared to 43 for the UCP. Such an outcome would be wild. The Speaker normally comes from the governing party ranks, after all, so 44/43 would create an effective tie between the parties in the legislature, grinding any meaningful business to a halt. 

Of course, all of these projections are based on polls and a model of electoral outcomes. The campaign will no doubt matter. Potentially a lot. A shift of just a few voters could make all the difference. The half-dozen seats that put the UCP over the top, as we can see in the graphic, could flip the other way with less than a few hundred voters in each riding changing their minds. 

Which party forms the government could very well come down to less than 0.05 percent of voters.

Whichever way it goes, this all makes Alberta’s provincial election a fascinating and important campaign for all Canadians to watch.