Nations have a variety of instruments to exert national power and influence, often summarized as DIME – diplomatic, information, military and economic. Rarely have all four been in such active and vivid display in Canada and throughout the world in such short order and with such dramatic effect as the first quarter of 2022.

This latest round of Russia invading Ukraine is a strategic miscalculation of the highest order. President Putin’s folly has unified the 30 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members like never before, solidified Ukrainian national resolve, debilitated the Russian economy and turned that country (or at least, Putin) into a pariah possibly for years.

Russia is being progressively unplugged from the world economy and disconnected from international forums and activities. By any reasonable measure, the response by the European Union, NATO and Canada has been a master class of uncharacteristic speed, unity and decisiveness.

Sweden and Finland are making overtures to join NATO, and deepened cooperation with the military alliance. Even famously neutral Switzerland has sanctioned Russia.

Most remarkably, the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in one day upended 75 years of milquetoast foreign affairs policy by deploying lethal weapons to Ukraine, committed to a two per cent gross domestic product (GDP) spend on defence, a special EU$100-billion defence investment and reduced its dependence on Russian energy. This sends a very powerful message to Allies and malign states. Early polls suggest this abrupt about face is well received by that domestic audience.

For its part, Canada swiftly ramped up diplomatic pressure and has conducted an active and robust domestic information campaign fronted by the prime minister, ably supported by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly and Defence Minister Anita Anand. Canada was also quick to impose wide-ranging sanctions, expedite immigration procedures for Ukrainians escaping the war and commit to military measures.

These include sending considerable lethal aid such as anti-tank weapons, hand grenades and ammunition, reinforcing the current NATO Reassurance mission in Latvia, deploying another frigate, cobbling together 120 artillerymen and women from across the country to send to Eastern Europe in 30 days and putting 3,400 troops on notice for possible deployment as part of NATO’s rapid response capability.

These are noteworthy contributions to the collective Allied effort. What is patently clear now though from recent events including the Russian invasion, a global pandemic, the ‘freedom convoys’, the impacts of climate change at home, and the pell-mell withdrawal from Afghanistan is how fragile our readiness and crisis management capabilities are and the serious limitations of our armed forces.

With two Joe Bidens, Canada needs to be bold and think big

Let’s get Canada’s foreign policy house in order

Canada urgently needs a substantive, whole-of-government approach to developing a fit-for-purpose foreign-defence-industry strategy on an accelerated timeline, drawing on our “best” strategic minds. This demands a bold re-imagining of our defence and security posture. Done smartly, this also offers prospect for significant economic stimulus and industrial benefit for Canadian business especially in high-tech fields where we already have real competitive advantage.

Here are five steps, the federal government could take that would contribute to a decisively more robust national security framework.

1. A fit-for-purpose foreign-defence-industrial strategy for Canada. The Strong Secure Engaged defence policy from June 2017 is nearly five years old. In terms of foreign affairs strategy, all we have is a priorities statement in the form of a speech by then-Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland also from June 2017 – the last actual policy being “A Role of Pride and Influence in the World” from June 2005 under Prime Minister Paul Martin. This is the right time for a national conversation with Canadians about the role and place of this country in the “new world order.” Political decisions need to be practical, feasible, balanced and informed by – but not exclusively driven by – the current Russia/Ukraine experience. This should be a layered approached setting out immediate actions, and establishing goals for one to three years, three to five years and five to 10 years.

This strategy would spell out how to protect and assert our sovereignty, especially in the North. But it would also help us better prepare for the impacts of climate change, grow industry where we have real competitive advantage including in high-tech, and show Canada to be a credible and meaningful partner to the U.S., NATO and like-minded nations.

The pandemic and consequences of climate change have made clear that we have real, urgent unattended domestic defence and security needs. That is, we must guard against a parochial National Defence-focused call primarily for major equipment procured slowly, over many decades with practical use only in expeditionary conflicts.

Canada “will be back” only if it also seriously expands deployed diplomatic capabilities worldwide including focused investments in cultural diplomacy and other soft power initiatives, in concert with enhanced military, industrial and aid efforts.

2. Announce a commitment to spend at least two per cent GDP on Defence/Coast Guard within three years. The percentage of economic output is not a great measure for determining national military capability and operational effectiveness. However, two per cent is a well-known defence spending benchmark. It’s also a useful comparator against other NATO countries.

Canada spends about 1.4 per cent of GDP now. In 2017, the way this figure is calculated was changed to include pensions and veterans’ services (in line with most other NATO nations) giving the impression of a spending boost but without increasing any capability. As such, an allocation of 2.3 per cent would provide for a substantive capability figure of two per cent and mean taking Defence from $23 billion to about $40 billion per year. This would provide among other things for NORAD modernization, an Arctic presence, research and development, satellites and drones for both defence and offensive actions, recapitalizing the Navy and Air Force and rebuilding the Army.

For several years, National Defence has not spent its full annual fiscal allocation and so adding more money can’t occur without at the same time a solid plan for the department to bolster its project management and financial analyst capacity. The situation is not easily fixed in the short-term but improving the procurement process would be a big help. Recruiting top talent from industry into the Defence Procurement Strategy Secretariat or some other defence specialized procurement organization modelled on France, Australia or the Netherlands, are two ideas. Canada also needs to overcome its allergy to the appropriate use of sole-sourcing and off-the-shelf buys of equipment and material (pistol replacement project, anyone?).

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Defence Anita Anand speak with Canadian troops deployed in Latvia on March 8, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A key requirement is a major investment in mobility. Military transport aircraft give governments the most options for early impact in a crisis. Canada needs greater lift capacity, reach and ability to support little notice operations in Canada and abroad, preferably through multi-use platforms, to move people and supplies quickly and at scale, including for humanitarian support and disaster relief. This suggests a need for additional strategic airlift (C-17), tactical airlift (such as Hercules and helicopters), MV Asterix resupply ships, and amphibious ships similar to those used by France and Australia.

Clearly, a defensive and offensive cyber capability is also a vital defence requirement. This is as important to continental defence as NORAD is for air defence and is a field with many industrial-technical advantages for Canada. Closer partnerships with industry such as PAL Aerospace (that provides important intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance support to federal departments and international clients) and MDA (now providing important satellite imagery to help Ukraine fight Russia) offer unique and world-class capabilities for domestic and expeditionary operations to complement those provided by the Canadian Armed Forces, and at considerably lower cost.

3. Build national information resilience. We are awash in mis- and disinformation, often used as deliberate tactics to undermine faith and trust in government and institutions. This is a real threat to civil society and seriously challenges effective governance. Brexit, the U.S. presidential elections of 2016 and 2020, the pandemic, the “freedom convoys” and the war in Ukraine all offer insight into this phenomenon.

It is a national security imperative that Canada produces a national strategy for, and develop real capability in, information resilience. Defence should fund an initiative based at the Privy Council Office or the Canada School for the Public Service dedicated to counteracting dis- and misinformation, and to improve government-wide communications. “Doing better” in this space has many implications and applications – including for the NATO Centre of Excellence on Climate and Security to be hosted in Canada – since disinformation about climate change is a major cottage industry.

4. Evolve the national security elements of machinery of government. The confluence of recent events has put tremendous strain on government and its capacity and capability to assess, manage and respond to known events. It is even harder to predict and prepare for the unknown. The organization, resources and processes of the intelligence, foreign affairs, defence and security advisory bodies to the PM and cabinet need reconsideration and additional capacity.

5. Slay the Canadian Army Reserve sacred cow. The Army Reserve structure is still largely informed by the two world wars: the units are not fit for operations outside Canada (select individuals excepted) and offers limited value for domestic operations. This prospectively valuable capability represents a potential 100 per cent increase in land force manpower if reconstituted with a major re-focus as a domestic contingency response force with some similarities to the U.S. National Guard, and real specializations including construction engineering, medical services and cyber defence.

The defence and security demands on Canada at home and internationally are bound to increase in scale, scope and intensity. There is significant strategic communicative and deterrence value right now, for the government to announce an intent to develop a national security strategy, grounded in a whole-of-government effort. This should include a serious national discussion actively encouraged by government, with a commitment of money.

It’s time for politicians of all stripes to follow Germany’s new awakening example, and to finally get serious about providing for our collective security through investments in diplomatic, information, military and economic elements of national power.

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Brett Boudreau is a retired colonel and fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

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