It is now clear that we are either to be engaged in a prolonged period of demonstrated collective resolve with our allies in Europe — or something much worse.
On the morning of 9/11, I was a Canadian intelligence officer serving at the NATO headquarters in Norfolk Virginia. As the details of that day began to assemble, I was immensely proud that on that morning, Canada was ready.
A frigate at sea off Halifax proceeded immediately to its war station as part of the NORAD defence plan with orders to shoot down any aircraft that threatened Canadian or American cities. On that day, the integrated command at NORAD was manned by Canadians at virtually all the critical posts and they made the decisions on how to protect North America’s cities. Our CF-18s, still modern and highly capable, took to the air to protect our people. A couple of weeks later, a task force of modern, front-line ships set sail from Halifax with orders to conduct operations in the global war on terror.
With that as backdrop, I reflected on the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent press conference describing Canada’s response to the then-impending Russian invasion of Ukraine. The number was 461. That was the number of Canadian Forces personnel Canada was adding to the collective defence of our NATO allies. A quick question from a reporter clarified that half of those were the ship’s company of HMCS Halifax. While we were sending an artillery battery, Defence Minister Anita Anand explained that it was not a formed unit but rather would consist of soldiers assembled from bases across Canada. I was left to conclude that we didn’t have even a ready battery of less than 150 soldiers to send.
The first time I went to sea in a destroyer was 1985. I got to see firsthand what a succession of governments thought of me and my shipmates. The ship had no modern air defence weapon against an airplane, let alone a missile. It had no missiles to engage enemy ships and its anti-submarine weapons were the best money could buy 30 years earlier. Defence procurement in Canada has been an extended story of neglect, regional economic development through defence offsets to bring jobs and investment and catch-up when the time comes that Canada needs its military to actively defend it.
The Trudeau government has adopted a consistent message against Russian aggression. We have announced economic sanctions and have expressed resolve to support our NATO allies in the face of aggression. I would suggest that we also message resolve with prudent defence procurement. The government should immediately announce the decision to acquire F-35 fighter jets. They are the best fighter jets available and will seamlessly integrate into a collective allied air force given that many of our NATO allies already operate them.
There were other options, but not now. It is now clear that Canada is either to be engaged in a prolonged period of demonstrated collective resolve with our allies in Europe or something much worse. Our fighter pilots deserve from the same government that will send them into harm’s way the best weapon they can provide to let them do their jobs. Signalling this decision as taken in response to Russian aggression will make clear Canada’s intention to stand firm with our allies.
This is not the sole step that the government should take. The government should also message its intention to acquire for the Canadian Army modern air defence and anti-tank systems so that it, too, can be ready to contribute to the collective defence in Europe. It takes time to prepare a military for war. Announcing our intention to prepare signals a seriousness and strength of resolve that sanctions do not capture.
While it may not come to that, it is clearly evident that Canadian values are under assault both in Europe and Asia. The objective should be to further add explicit resolve to our statements of support to the Ukrainian people.
We are unlikely to fully escape this conflict. The Russian approach to war, demonstrated first in Georgia in 2008, and in every crisis since then, has been to use cyber attacks on critical infrastructure as an integrated element of its military operations. Should Ukraine become a protracted conflict and Canada and our NATO allies choose to support an insurgency on the ground in Ukraine, we and our allies should expect cyber attacks that will directly affect Canadians from either the Russian government or its legions of patriotic hackers. Deterring that will take more than a firewall. It will take a prepared military.
To that end, it is time for the Trudeau government to demonstrate in concrete terms that it understands what is at stake, and is preparing now for when we are called upon to actively protect our allies, our values and ourselves.
Andrew Chester is a retired Canadian naval intelligence officer and CEO of Juno Risk Solutions, a risk management consultancy focused on cybersecurity, insider risk management and business resilience.
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