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How does the new Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy fit into Canada’s 21st century grand strategy? (Part 2)

By October 16, 2018 No Comments

Focus on key threats and policy responses

Canada’s threat environment: the “fireproof house” and the melting ice cap



Figure 1: Canada’s geographic security[1]

Any analysis of Canada’s threat environment has to begin by stating the obvious: relative to most other states, Canada is incredibly geographically secure. Surrounded by ocean on three sides, sharing its only border with a friendly nation—with whom Canada has a formal military alliance—Canada lives in an exceptionally safe neighbourhood. As such, according to Tremblay and Bentley (2015), “geography looms exceptionally large as an influence upon Canada’s strategic culture.”[2] Originally concerned with the threat of invasion by its southern neighbour, for more than a century Canada has enjoyed one of the closest security, economic, and cultural partnerships in history.[3] Canada’s relationship with the United Kingdom drew it into two World Wars—the First automatically and the Second voluntarily—but the Canadian homeland was not seriously exposed to any external threat until the advent of nuclear weapons.[4] In short, Canada’s threat environment was famously summed up by Senator Raoul Dandurand, who in 1924 described Canada as a “fireproof house, far from any inflammable materials.”[5]



Figure 2: Canada’s Arctic neighbourhood[6]

The only major geographical change to Canada’s threat environment has been the climate change-induced thawing of Arctic sea ice and the opening up of three northern maritime passages.[7] Canada has already had disputes with Russia[8] and the United States[9] in the Arctic, and these problems are likely to get worse, considering that “the circumpolar region over the next 20–30 years will equal or even exceed the importance of the world’s traditional maritime passages/straits/chokepoints.”[10] Canada will face numerous threats, including:

  • Environmental threats from pollution (e.g. oil spills, rocket debris);[11]
  • Economic and reputational threats if it is unable to enforce its maritime sovereignty (e.g. monitoring shipping routes in its EEZ, preventing foreign actors from fishing or drilling);
  • The threat of America unilaterally intervening on the pretext of defending Canada and an ensuing conflict spilling over into Canadian territory;[12] and
  • Potentially, a direct military threat from Russia.

I have organized these four threats in order of decreasing probability (i.e. the first two threats represent legitimate concerns; the latter two are more speculative). The fourth threat in particular receives a disproportionate amount of attention, with commentators suggesting that “a slow-motion battle for the Arctic’s energy reserves is unfolding”[13] and that Canada “continues to bask in that ever-so-Canadian sense of delusion”[14] about our geographic security and Russia’s intentions. It’s indisputable that Russia is the sole Arctic superpower—with the longest coastline, the largest population, the biggest economic investment, and the greatest military presence in the region.[15] But to suggest that Russia is “getting ready for war in the Arctic” and that Canada’s comparative weakness is incentivizing Russian aggression[16] is a bit of a stretch. There are several key arguments to counter the sensationalist “the Russians are coming!” narrative:

  • Firstly, the Munk School’s Thomas Axworthy argues that Russia’s regional dominance actually makes it less likely to be aggressive: “Unlike in the Syrian or Ukrainian context, [Russia’s] undisputed position does not require a bellicose strategy. Up north, a rules-based international system works in Moscow’s favour.”[17]
  • Secondly and relatedly, Russia has demonstrated its support for this type of rules-based system through its actions on the Arctic Council, which has been lauded for its unflashy diplomacy and which was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year.[18]
  • Thirdly, since it is already blessed with abundant Arctic resources of its own, Russia has little economic incentive to seize Canadian territory.
  • Fourthly, according to Whitney Lackenbauer (Centre for Foreign Policy and Federalism at Waterloo) and Adam Lajeunesse (Chair in Canadian Arctic Marine Security Policy at St. Francis Xavier), “Russia has passively supported Canada’s position that the Northwest Passage constitutes internal waters” for 65 years. “To challenge Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage would weaken Russia’s jurisdiction over the various straits that make up the Northern Sea Route [AKA the Northeast Passage].” [19]
  • Fifthly and finally, according to Michael Byers (Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC), despite Russia’s aggression in Crimea, it is still a declining power and “doesn’t have the financial capability to militarize all of its frontiers.” Russia will thus continue its long-standing policy that the Arctic—unlike other regions—will not be a site of military contestation.[20]

Ultimately, we must assume that any Russian aggression would follow a cost-benefit analysis—that is, will the benefits of capturing more power/resources in the region outweigh the costs of provoking NATO in America’s backyard? Russia stands to benefit very little from pursuing an aggressive strategy against Canada. Thus, the image of a resurgent Russia spearing across the Arctic into Canada is more fantasy than reality. To put it glibly, it’s unlikely that we’ll see Russian troops marching into Alert.

Besides these worries over Russia, the second most popular threat narrative about Canada’s Arctic border is the concern that Canada’s maritime sovereignty will be violated by vessels from other states (Threat 2 above), particularly China. This is a legitimate concern, especially considering that the United States does not recognize Canada’s sovereignty claim over the Northwest Passage.[21] But the spectre of Chinese incursion is just as illusory as the threat of Russian invasion. At a University of Ottawa panel discussion on China’s Arctic policies earlier this month, both Lajeunesse and Lackenbauer emphasized that China understands it will achieve greater value by cooperating with the current players in the region, that the Arctic is not a high-priority area for China, and that most of China’s shipping activity will pass through the Northeast Passage (AKA Northern Sea Route) as opposed to the Northwest Passage.[22]



Figure 3: Major shipping routes across the Arctic.[23] According to several recent scientific studies, the NWP will remain ice-clogged much longer than the NSR.

This last point is especially relevant for Canada; recent research on ice dynamics in the Northwest Passage has shown that it is likely to remain a dangerous and unreliable trade route for the foreseeable future—and therefore less popular than other shipping channels like Russia’s Northern Sea Route.[24] Haas and Howell (2015) conducted airborne electromagnetic ice thickness surveys over the NWP and found that “even in today’s climate, ice conditions must still be considered severe.”[25] Pizzolato et al. (2016) analyzed the volume of shipping activity through the NWP from 1990-2015 and found that the presence of thick, multi-year ice has prevented large volumes of shipping in certain areas.[26] There are numerous other concerns that shipping companies have identified as disincentives to using the NWP, including the unpredictably of Arctic ice, narrow channels between islands, and relatively shallow waters.[27] Ultimately, there are easier routes to take than going through Canadian waters.

In addition to these arguments, it bears repeating that 90 per cent of Canadians live far in the country’s south, along the American border.[28] Despite Canada’s shameful history behind the forced relocation of Inuit people—which Canada used to secure its claim over Arctic territory in the 1950s[29]—the country’s northern reaches are almost entirely uninhabited (and largely uninhabitable). Even if a foreign government (or corporation) seized Canadian territory in the North, this would not be a direct threat to the overwhelmingly southern population that makes up the core of Canada’s economy and security apparatus.

Despite all of these factors, SSE includes dozens of references to Arctic security throughout the document, demonstrating “an increasing focus on the Arctic” in all military domains.[30] The section on Arctic security specifically enumerates increases to Arctic capabilities, including:

  • The Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS) project, which will produce “five to six ice-capable ships” and “provide armed, sea-borne surveillance of Canadian waters, including in the Arctic;”[31]
  • Improved satellite surveillance (which faces scientific challenges in the region);[32]
  • Air patrol;[33]
  • Working with the US to replace the North Warning System (NWS, the successor to the Defence Early Warning (DEW) Line) as part of NORAD modernization;[34]
  • Working with NATO to monitor Russian activity in the region;[35] and
  • Expanding the Canadian Air Defence Identification Zone (CADIZ) “to cover the entire Canadian Arctic archipelago” (currently, it only covers of the extent of DEW/NWS).[36]

Ultimately, SSE emphasizes that “the North encompasses a significant portion of the air and maritime approaches to North America” and that “the Canadian Armed Forces, through NORAD, has a duty to monitor and control all of Canada’s territory and approaches.”[37]

Of course it is important for Canada to have an Arctic policy—especially a Coast Guard function to assert Canadian sovereignty in the region. But in trying to make up for the neglect of the Arctic by past governments, the current government is placing too much emphasis on the region (and, as a consequence, emphasis on capital expenditures like the ships and jets in SSE) rather than prioritizing more immediate threats. The evolving Arctic environment may fundamentally change Canada’s security dynamics in the long term. But in the short-to-medium term, the Arctic threat is overstated at best, and a distraction from more serious threats at worst. The next two sections will outline more serious threats—both short-term and long-term.

Key short-term threat: terrorism (especially cyber-terrorism)

In the array of threats and responses described in Section 2, Canada should prioritize terrorism (including cyber-terrorism) as the most immediate threat. Canada may be anxious about military or maritime aggression from states like Russia and China, but terrorism has achieved something that foreign adversaries have not: it has killed Canadian civilians on Canadian soil.[38] The most deadly terrorist attacks in Canada have come as a result of homegrown terrorism,[39] suggesting a vulnerability that is driven more by information campaigns and media manipulation than by physical weaponry. Canada is equally vulnerable to cyber-attacks. An attack hit Ontario’s Metrolinx in January 2018.[40] The Equifax breach affected 100,000 Canadians’ personal financial information in 2017.[41] And a 2017 Department of Public Safety report finding that “state-sponsored cyber-attacks on Canada [are] successful about once a week.”[42] This suggests that Canada’s true vulnerability to hostile states will come through cyber channels, not from air, land, or sea. Perhaps this is why the 2018 federal budget prioritized $750 million for urgently needed cyber capabilities while deferring procurement of SSE’s promised ships and fighter jets.[43]

Key long-term threats: climate change and economic decline

In addition to the long-term threat posed by an increase in cyber-attacks, the other key long-term threats to Canada are the interrelated threats of climate change and economic decline through disruptive market and technological changes. These threats include:

  • Obsolescence threats that hit key sectors of the Canadian economy (e.g. demand for oil collapsing due to innovative energy technologies/restrictive legislation on carbon);[44]
  • Trade disputes (e.g. the United States pulling out of NAFTA, or other jurisdictions raising protectionist trade barriers);[45] and
  • Climate-related issues (e.g. disruptions to Canadian supply chains due to natural disasters, collapse in Canadian agricultural capacity due to heat waves and droughts, public health impacts of extreme weather events/environmental pollution affecting the Canadian workforce and labour productivity).[46]

SSE and (cyber)terrorism/economic and climate change threats

SSE acknowledges both of these threats to Canadian security. But with its banner focus on procurement of military hardware like ships and jets, both threats get lost in the shuffle of the traditional geographic defence narrative (the latter to a far greater degree than the former).

SSE lays out some concrete cyber initiatives—including establishing a Cyber Mission Assurance Program to ensure that new assets are protected, and creating a Canadian Armed Forces Cyber Operator role to recruit cyber security specialists.[47] And, as mentioned above, the 2018 budget devoted funding to enhancing cyber defence capabilities through hiring and training additional personnel. SSE is therefore treating cyber-attacks as a legitimate threat.

Although it contains dozens of references to the security threats of climate change—and has been recognized as the first Canadian defence white paper to acknowledge climate change as a key security threat[48]—SSE provides little by way of concrete measures to address these threats. The document merely notes that DND produces more than half of the federal government’s carbon emissions and commits to lowering these emissions by 40 per cent of the 2005 levels by 2030.[49] In short, there is plenty of good language in SSE about the security dynamics of climate change, but little concrete action or funding dedicated to addressing these issues from within DND or CAF.

Four-factor analysis of Canada’s grand strategy

Canada’s grand strategy, as articulated by SSE, is poised to address all of the above threats to varying degrees. Before I analyze CAF’s capabilities to respond to them, I will conclude this section by summarizing how Canada’s grand strategy is oriented along four major factors.


Dependent Variable Posture Explanations
Diplomacy External / bandwagoning Liberalism, collective security, export-led growth, profit-seeking
Military doctrine Defensive Geographic advantage, partner in defensive coalition, status quo neighbour, liberalism, export-led growth, war weariness
Civil-military relations Disintegrated Low threat environment, liberalism
Innovation Stagnant Low threat environment

Canada’s diplomacy is externally oriented, with strong support of multilateral institutions (security, economic/trade, etc.) and the desire to have a greater role in those institutions.[50] This is the core philosophy expressed in Minister Freeland’s recent speech (see Introduction).

Canada’s military doctrine is consummately defensive. This is due to system-level factors like geography and alliances, and unit-level factors including liberal ideology, export-oriented economic growth, and war weariness (or at least, low public desire for war). In addition to geography (as has been discussed at length above), the most significant factor in this defensive posture is Canada’s alliances. Leuprecht and Sokolsky (2015) describe the “traditional Canadian grand strategy” of contributing “just enough” to meet the country’s coalition commitments and “easy ride” as a member of a defensive alliance.[51] In short, Canada gets to be “a stalwart Western ally without endangering the economy and social programs by spending more on defense than [is] absolutely necessary.”[52]

Canada’s civil-military relations are disintegrated due to its low-threat environment and liberal institutions. Roi and Smolynec (2010) describe the disintegrated civil-military relations between Prime Minister Paul Martin and Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier when it came to deciding whether to deploy Canadian troops to Kandahar in 2005 (given the PM’s interest in also deploying peacekeeping troops to Sudan and Haiti).[53] The authors identify the separate institutional spheres of both men—following the “normal” Huntingtonian theory of civil-military relations—as a cause for the policy decision to deploy troops in Kandahar.[54]

Finally, Canada’s military innovation is relatively stagnant due to its low threat environment and general lack of engagement. A 2015 study of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) use by the CAF found that “absent continued expeditionary operations, Canadian UAV capabilities have, and will continue, to languish until the technology matures sufficiently to allow them to perform core air force functions in a way that does not disrupt its established practices.”[55] Furthermore, the procurement of new technologies under SSE will largely involving purchasing hardware from other jurisdictions rather than doing military R&D in Canada.

State of the Canadian Armed Forces

What capacity currently exists within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to secure Canada’s core interests and counter key threats? Operating under the assumption that SSE has not come fully into effect in the last 10 months, the current state of the CAF can be deduced from commentary before its release.

Former Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier characterized the CAF as “fragile,” having suffered through budget cuts from both Liberal and Conservative governments.[56] Furthermore, the military was short 2,000 regular-force members and 5,300 reservists as of March 2017.[57] In a speech leading up to the announcement of SSE, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan stated that: “In over 25 years as a Reservist, I saw firsthand the ways that Canada’s government[s] have failed to properly equip our Reserve force. Not only is there not enough equipment, but the training to use what equipment they have is lacking, as well.”[58] In brief, there is a near-unanimous consensus on the current lack of capacity in the CAF, suggesting that the SSE is a necessary and welcome policy shift.

Nevertheless, CAF still plays a role as a boutique military force, meeting Canada’s alliance commitments to NORAD and NATO and providing support to a wide range of missions. In 2017, CAF participated in 19 international and 11 domestic military operations.[59] Canadian defence journalist Ian J. Keddie writes that “despite the limited size of spending on defence, the Canadian Armed Forces have, in fact, maintained a complex and effective range of military capabilities around the world, providing specialist experience and capabilities that are the envy of almost every country.”[60] With increased funding, the CAF could expand its role in international missions and its clout in global affairs.

Why does Canada need a military?

Despite the overwhelming consensus that the military is not operating at its full capacity, there are disputes as to whether the SSE in particular—and increased military spending in general—is the correct policy response. After all, does Canada really need a military?

Scott Gilmore—a former Canadian diplomat and husband of the current Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna—suggests that Canada abandoning its military altogether would be the easy and logical final step in a decades-long process of decline.[61] He points to the poor state of the RCN’s ships; the broken promises for a naval base in Churchill, Manitoba; the minimal participation of Canada in UN peacekeeping operations; the government’s disastrous defence procurement track record; and the almost complete apathy about military decline among the Canadian electorate as evidence that “Canada disbanded its military long ago, we just haven’t gotten around to announcing it yet.”[62]

Thomas Juneau—an Assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a former DND analyst—takes a more moderate approach; he argues that Canada does need to maintain a defence force for monitoring its borders, contributing to North American defence alongside the United States, pursuing international influence, and preparing for the possibility of future threats.[63] But he agrees that investment in the armed forces should be going down, not up: “the reality that Canada is a fundamentally secure country implies that there is no strategic rationale for increasing today’s already small defence budget.”[64] Juneau goes through each of the potential security threats to Canada, shutting down the notion that the CAF are best equipped to respond to them: terrorism? Best addressed by law enforcement and intelligence units, not navies or air forces. Instabilities in Eastern Europe/East Asia/the Middle East? Not a direct threat to Canada. Juneau concludes that “Canada has the rare luxury of being able to use its military to pursue opportunities, not in response to direct threats.”[65] For the CAF, this means focusing on capacity-building and training programs with other nations—conducting a kind of inter-military diplomacy that supports the broader diplomatic goals for Canada in the partner country. Pursuing a reward-oriented rather than a threat-oriented grand strategy means that Canada’s military is more of a nice-to-have than a need-to-have.

Juneau wrote his article following the announcement of the consultation process which led to SSE. Obviously, the government did not follow his advice. SSE has promised to spend more on the military than Canada has spent in a generation, drawing accolades from the United States[66] and NATO.[67] Whether or not this money will be spent remains to be seen.

Conclusion: Will SSE even happen?

As an instrument of Canada’s grand strategy, the primary purpose of the Canadian military is to achieve reputational benefits for Canada, give Canada credibility as a middle power, and demonstrate Canada’s commitment to the liberal internationalist order. As such, SSE is less about launching Canada on a new policy course than it is about restoring CAF to the “just enough” equilibrium described by Leuprecht and Sokolsky (2015)—that is, if the new policy is actually implemented. As John Geddes points out, Canada’s military funding is often the first thing to get slashed in times of budgetary cutbacks.[68] If the government starts to believe that Canada can achieve its global diplomatic goals more cheaply by other means, then SSE will go the way of previous big-spending defence policy white papers like the Harper government’s Canada First Defence Strategy (2008) or the Mulroney government’s A Defence Policy for Canada (1987).[69] Ultimately, the incentive structure of Canada’s broader 21st century grand strategy—which points to continued geographic security, and dispersed threats from cyberattacks and climate change/economic risks—will most probably bend Strong, Secure, Engaged back to Canada’s traditional “just enough” defence expenditures.