O Canada: Who Stands on Guard for Thee?

Paul H. Chapin, Executive Editor, TheVimyReport.com

J.L. Granatstein, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus, York University

BGen (ret) Don Macnamara, Member, Advisory Board, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

Hon. Hugh Segal, Chair, NATO Association of Canada


This letter is to propose action for the next Government to ensure the continued safety, security, and prosperity of Canada’s citizens.

The writers have spent their careers on security and defence issues. Our analysis draws on that experience and our recommendations have been selected for their practical character. They are offered in a spirit of political neutrality. We are partisan only in the interests of Canada.


Canada today is a secure and prosperous nation, but security conditions have been deteriorating. A militant and violent Islamist terror is rampant throughout the Middle East without an agreed strategy to contain it, claiming over 100,000 lives, displacing more than 10 million, and causing a migration crisis of global dimensions. Russia and China have coerced neighbours and taken unilateral action over disputed areas – with the laws and institutions the world has counted on to maintain the peace for 70 years standing by helplessly.  There are concerns about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and the lunatic regime in North Korea now has them. Meanwhile, the United States has retreated from its international leadership role.

As a highly “globalized” society, Canada has vital interests at risk – a secure homeland (freedom from fear), economic well-being (freedom from want), a stable world order, and the human values and democratic principles we believe in. What sustains our way of life are security at home and stability abroad.  In these uncertain times, we can hope for the best or try to guess what most threatens us. Or we can build the capabilities a G-7 country ought to have no matter what.  We think it’s time we put a priority on self-defence and on our ability to influence global events.

There is work to do. Who actually “stands on guard” for Canada today? The Canadian Armed Forces have the primary responsibility, but their overall military effectiveness is small compared to the job we expect them to do. Why is the world’s second largest country being defended by the world’s 58th largest military force?

Governments routinely declare defence to be a vital public policy, then treat it as a discretionary rather than mandatory activity, with a licence to raid the defence budget to finance other things. There is a callousness to this which is unbecoming of a people who cherish their country and want to see it secure. As Jack Granatstein points out, “Canadian governments, whatever their political stripe, cynically reckon that the men and women in uniform can get by with obsolete equipment and insufficient funding. After all, who worries about the need to protect Canada’s national interests?” (See accompanying article)

Canadian industry has not helped by insisting on being a preferred supplier of military equipment it has limited capacity to produce. This has been costly: equipment has been much more expensive for the Canadian Armed Forces than for the militaries of other countries, it takes much longer to enter into service, and the delay requires millions in refits to keep old equipment running.

Allies have played a part too, criticizing Canada for not “pulling its weight” in NATO — by which they really mean not doing more for the defence of Europe. This has distracted us from doing more for our own defence. As an ally in good standing we have a role to play in deterring Russian aggression, but Europe today is an economic giant fully capable of underwriting its own defence.


How to fix this? The starting point has to be Canada’s vital interests and what it will take to protect them. It’s what citizens understand, will support, and will pay for. Defence budgets have gone up and down over the decades, but they’ve never gone down when citizens were part of the discussion.

What capabilities should citizens be entitled to expect?

  • Effective response to domestic crises with the military on hand when first responders cannot cope.
  • Protection from terrorist attacks.
  • The exercise of sovereignty over all of Canada’s land, sea, and airspace, including the strategically important and ecologically vulnerable North.
  • Full partnership with the United States in the common defence of North America.
  • An influential voice on international security issues.
  • The capacity to make a significant military contribution to shaping a favourable international security environment.
  • Strong support for humanitarian operations.

This is an entirely reasonable and feasible agenda, but citizens are not getting much of it.


So what’s blocking things? Mainly how we think about defence.

First off, let’s agree Canada is worth it. That means Canadians should have armed forces able to defend their country and support their international goals. Not leave it to others.  This is partly a matter of ensuring the forces have the means to do what we ask of them. It’s also a function of how we manage them, equip them, and finance them.

Canadians need to understand better how important military human resources are to their security, not allow them to be deployed for capricious reasons when vital national interests are not at stake, and respect the “social covenant” between the military and citizens. When service members put their lives on the line for the nation, citizens owe them the best training, equipment and care available.  Governments should spare no expense to look after wounded veterans and their families. Without limits? Are there limits to the liability service members accept?

Military procurement has been a disaster because it has been driven by just about every consideration other than getting the troops the equipment they need when they need it. Bordering on the Atlantic and Pacific, Canada needs a deployable blue-water navy to meet its strategic requirements, not to fulfill industrial and regional development aspirations. Occasionally, procurement works well. In 2006, the government decided it wouldn’t settle for leasing Ukrainian cargo planes to move supplies to Canadian troops in Afghanistan and gave notice it would purchase four large Boeing C-17 transport aircraft. It took delivery of the first one just a year later. The lesson: you can do it if you want to.

We also have to stop being sad-sacks about whether we can “afford” something. Canada is fabulously wealthy and could spend much more on defence. Its closest friends all spend more proportionately – and they don’t have to close hospitals, fire teachers, or throw single mothers into the street to “afford” it. Those who predict this sort of thing need to be asked why they didn’t even notice, let alone complain, when Canada’s defence budget doubled to help finance the Afghanistan campaign. If the budget can go from $10 billion to $22 billion in ten years without anyone noticing (maybe a few folks at DND and Finance), why not to $30 billion?  That’s not an outrageous number. It would represent about 10% of the federal budget, not an unreasonable portion to devote to protecting the other 90% and the kind of country that that budget helps sustain. It’s more like 5% today.

Finally, let’s end Canadians’ irrational love affair with “UN peacekeeping” which many believe can and should be Canada’s role in the world. They worship a myth, not grounded in reality. First, peacekeeping is a dangerous business; 3386 members of UN peacekeeping missions have been killed since 1948, including 121 Canadians, and the trend is worsening. Second, peace operations are no less worthy just because they are not UN-led. Increasingly, the UN has had to mandate other organizations (NATO, EU, African Union) to undertake the really difficult peace operations (Balkans, Afghanistan, East Africa, Congo). And third, Canadian decisions to participate in peacekeeping have been motivated by realpolitik not altruism – to keep otherwise inconsequential regional disputes becoming major wars and leading to nuclear confrontation. Bottom line: the creation of conditions for peace today requires combat-capable forces not observers in blue berets.


What to do? The list of good things to do could fill a volume. We have selected eight practical measures which will make a difference.

  1. Instill a sense of urgency

The defence of Canada and its interests deserves a greater sense of urgency than governments have been giving it. Good ideas have been developed and sensible plans made, only to have them languish and allocations left unspent. At the current pace, previous capabilities won’t be restored until 2025 at the earliest – a long time for a serious country to continue to live with aged fighters and warships and its Prime Minister to be able to offer only token contributions to shaping a favourable international security environment.

  1. Issue a National Security Strategy

Unlike our major allies, we have never articulated an overall national security strategy – a set of policies — to guide the activities of the many departments and agencies of government involved in internal and international security affairs. Such a strategy would put a security plan in place which could be monitored and adjusted as necessary, and it would help end the interminable arguments over priorities, jurisdictions, and budgets.

  1. Invest in information and ideas

Governments should have the best information available to make the best possible decisions on national security issues. This is not something they now can count on. Canada should invest in an Office of National Assessment such as Australia has, tasked with gathering data from both classified and open sources and producing independent assessments directly for the Prime Minister. We should also invest in the intellectual capital on which our aspirations to exercise international leadership depend. There has been such a “dumbing down” of Canadian policy capacity that Canada no longer has much to offer in solving international problems. We need to build up policy capacity in government and reverse the reductions in Canada’s diplomatic and military staff in the places decisions are made.

  1. Increase the size of the Canadian Armed Forces

Canada’s armed forces are too small and stretched too thin to adequately protect its interests in the complex and uncertain times in which we live. A total force of 150,000, including 50,000 in a Ready Reserve, would be a realistic five-year goal. Canada has one of the smallest Reserve forces in the world. The Reserves are mainly Army units trained for combat and available to reinforce the Regular Force as necessary. They are also the key resource when national calamities occur. So far, the Canadian Armed Forces have been able to respond when called upon, but one cannot be sanguine about their ability to handle a series of events, multiple events at the same time, or a major event like the earthquake some foresee for the west coast.

  1. Ensure a capability for enforcement action in the North

Canada needs to be able to enforce national authority over national territory, seas, and airspace. This doesn’t require, as many believe, a permanent armed presence in the North. The constant would be effective satellite and aircraft patrols so that the proper authorities can know what’s going on and direct military assets to areas where and when sovereignty enforcement is necessary. The challenge is to ensure the Canadian Armed Forces have a persistent ability to take effective identification, interception, and enforcement action especially in strategically important locations whenever others are present.

  1. Participate in ballistic missile defence

Canada was a full partner with the United States in defending the continent until 2005, when it unilaterally absented itself from a role in dealing with the gravest new threat the continent faces, ballistic missiles. The arguments for participation are stronger today than ever, while those against are as vapid as ever. Right now, Canada is the only NATO member not involved in ballistic missile defence.

  1. Acquire a fleet of F-35 fighters

Canada must also replace its CF-18s with F-35s. Despite the dust thrown up, the facts are clear. Canada needs a fifth-generation fighter to be interoperable with the US in continental defence and with allies in coalition operations. Anything less means Canadian fighters can be seen and engaged by enemy aircraft before they even know they are in the vicinity. The only fifth generation fighter being manufactured in the west is the F-35. Its costs are not “out of control”; the manufacturer’s price has dropped by 50% since 2007. What has been out of control are the estimates of the costs and of the F-35’s lifespan – from DND’s 20 years to PBO’s 30 years, to the AG’s 36 years, to KPMG’s 42 years. If the F-35 is “too expensive” for Canada, why have 12 other countries apart from the US not found it too expensive to place orders for 674 aircraft? The British, Australians, Dutch and Norwegians are all already flying them.

  1. Accelerate warship modernization and acquire support ships for international operations       

According to DND, “The construction of the first Canadian Surface Combatant is expected to begin in the early part of the next decade.” To use an old Texas expression, we’re still at the stage of fixin’ to get started. Meanwhile, the Navy no longer has any support vessels to replenish its existing warships at sea and is looking at options to fill the role until two new auxiliary oiler replenishment (AOR) vessels become operational around 2021. This is not what the Chretien, Martin or Harper governments had planned.  Since 1994, the idea had been to acquire not two AORs but four much more capable “joint support ships”. The larger number would provide the Navy the flexibility required to operate off two coasts, while a JSS can both resupply warships and sealift troops, equipment, supplies, and helicopters for international operations. As a Navy deputy commander once observed, there is no substitute for a purpose-built ship to support operations ashore “including for humanitarian operations and disaster response scenarios”. The idea should be revived. The Navy needs new warships and AORs to stand on guard for Canada; Canada needs joint support ships for international peace support and relief operations.


A final thought. Politicians, bureaucrats and citizens have a tendency to fix on a single means to address international security issues. There are, in fact, four instruments of power available and they should all be mobilized in the pursuit of Canada’s interests. Their acronym is DIME: diplomacy to negotiate solutions where possible, information to shed light on the circumstances and motivations giving rise to a dispute, military force to deter and if necessary defeat aggression, and economic power to ensure national capacity and apply non-kinetic means to influence an adversary’s behaviour.

O Canada. Most of us know the words and can sing them at hockey games. But many fewer of us pause to think about what they mean. And very few of us are actually involved in “standing on guard”.  Let’s change that.

The mission of the Vimy Report is to inject new information that will raise the quality of public discussion on security and defence issues, to do so with impact, and thereby to educate and influence the ultimate decision-makers: citizens and their elected representatives.

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