Canada Needs a Strategic Rethink

The Canadian Armed Forces continue to be Atlantic heavy even as Ottawa’s interests are increasingly in the Pacific.

Canada Needs a Strategic Rethink
Credit: flickr/lafrancevi

Canada’s military budget is not small; in 2012 it spent US$22.5 billion on defense, about 3.2 percent of the American budget but nevertheless good for 14th in the world, and seventh in the Pacific (well ahead of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan).

Canada’s strategic position does not demand this level of expenditure; Mexico, on the other side of the United States, devotes a mere 0.5 percent of its GDP to defense, as compared to 1.3 percent for Canada. Canadian membership in NATO and its history of support for the transatlantic partnership between London and Washington explain its much more significant defense profile. Generations of Canadian leaders have determined that the best way to maximize Canadian security and influence is to work closely with the United States and Great Britain, contributing when possible while avoiding the most questionable adventures, such as Vietnam and Iraq.

But the relevance of the London-Washington axis to Canadian security is in decline. The transatlantic relationship may or may not have withered, but its relevance to Canada’s current strategic problems is unclear. The Canadian Forces have traditionally been oriented towards the Atlantic, but Canada’s economic interests in Asia continue to grow. Nonetheless, Canada’s interest in making a significant military commitment to the Pacific is an open question as the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) remains an Atlantic force, despite some additional attention to the Pacific.

NATO, and the capabilities that Canada has developed in order to effectively participate in NATO operations, will likely hold less relevance for Canadian strategic interests in the future than it has in the past. In particular, the decision to pursue the F-35 seems questionable. Canada initially expected to purchase 65 F-35s for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). The procurement of these aircraft would represent an enormous commitment of Canadian financial resources, and would result in a small, high end Air Force not particularly well-suited to managing any of Canada’s apparent security needs. RCAF F-35s may well perform very impressively at the forefront of NATO’s next bombing campaign over Serbia, but given the high expense, the Canadian people probably need a better rationale. Little wonder then that the Harper government is reevaluating the purchase of these jets.

What about an Arctic pivot? The opening of the Arctic, if climate change models perform as expected, will create substantial additional defense responsibilities for Canadian Forces. Even if Canada doesn’t face any specific threat, an increase in Arctic maritime traffic will put additional pressure on the patrol, search and rescue, and disaster management capabilities of the RCN and the RCAF. However, given that much of the traffic anticipated to cross the Arctic will move to or from Asia, an Arctic pivot is really a Pacific pivot by a different name.

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But the broader problem involves Ottawa’s reluctance to reevaluate its geostrategic situation. It is less clear that ever, however, that the transatlantic community requires a Canadian military commitment, or that Canada’s security interests are particularly well-served by playing a supporting role in various NATO interventions. And yet Canada continues to develop a procurement strategy that seems designed to contribute to that partnership. Canada could move in a Pacific direction by redistributing its military effort towards its West Coast and by rethinking its procurement strategy to emphasize maritime and amphibious capabilities. Or, Canada could sensibly determine that devoting even 1.3 percent of its GDP to defense is more than what its geostrategic position demands, as Prime Minister Harper has recently suggested he is considering. Either choice would make more sense than the muddled path Canada has been unenthusiastically pursuing.

This article benefited greatly from an interview the author conducted with Paul Mitchell of the Canadian Forces College.