The threats posed by Russia‘s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine could ease the way for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Anita Anand to boost defence spending in the upcoming federal budget, say experts.
And while it’s unclear right now what that might look like, defence analysts said targeting recruits with more advanced skills and modernizing equipment like submarines should be among the areas up for more funding.
“I absolutely think it makes it easier to say yes,” said Steve Saideman, who holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University and is director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network.
“This full-out war certainly moves the needle quite a bit. There’s a lot of pressure and there’s going to be a desire to have larger deployments in Eastern Europe and to staff that, we’re going to need to have a larger army, navy — or at least, we’re not going to cut the army.
“That’s a real challenge given the recruitment challenges we’ve had, the retention challenges we’ve had.”
Trudeau and Anand have strongly suggested in recent weeks that the government is weighing an increase to defence spending, moving it closer to the NATO target, which aims to see all members of the military alliance spend at least two per cent of GDP on defence.
In an interview with the CBC on Wednesday, Anand said she plans to present “aggressive options” to the federal cabinet that could see defence spending hit or exceed that two-per-cent target.
Her office told Global News spending plans will target two key goals.
“This plan allows our military and our allies to count on predictable, sustained investments by Canada — and we are prepared to do even more, especially given current global security challenges,” said spokesperson Daniel Minden in an email.
In the short term, he said that means a “robust package” focused on strengthening continental defence with measures like modernizing NORAD and “ensuring our Arctic sovereignty.”
Canada is in the midst of a planned spending ramp-up when it comes to the military.
In 2017, the government pledged to increase spending by 70 per cent over the course of the coming decade. That would mean spending increases from $18.9 billion in 2016/17 to $32.7 billion by 2026/27 — currently, defence spending represents 1.4 per cent of Canada’s GDP.
NATO members agreed in 2014 to aim towards spending two per cent of their GDP on defence, though the metric has been questioned over whether it fully captures the value of allied contributions.
But if Canada decides it wants to hit the two-per-cent target, that would require around $16 billion more than what is planned right now, said David Perry, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“Our whole defence establishment has been way more used to dealing with scarcity in the last two generations rather than growth. I think that’s one of the reasons the government’s found it hard to get money out the door on Strong, Secure, Engaged,” said Perry, citing spending delays on big projects.
“People are used to having to figure out which of their children to vote off the life raft … this is a paradigm shift.”
So where might extra money go?
Would the military look at nuclear submarines?
Experts point to many different possibilities: among them, sharpening recruitment efforts, modernizing NORAD, enhancing Canada’s military capabilities in the Arctic, and updating the 1950s-era military bases and offices to be more energy-efficient in fitting with the government’s emissions-reductions goals.
Buying new equipment is also a big contender for any new money on the horizon, and the wish list for the latter includes everything from anti-rocket launchers, transport aircraft and more joint supply ships to submarines — either diesel or nuclear, though experts acknowledged the latter would be a long shot.
Canada’s Victoria-class submarines were already secondhand when the government purchased them in the 1990s, and are in the process of being modernized to stretch their use into the 2030s.
Work is underway, though, on a Canadian Patrol Submarine Project that is preparing options for the government to consider in any potential replacement of the submarines.
While such a project would take roughly 15 years, a Royal Canadian Navy spokesperson said officials are looking at “all conventional options” as part of that assessment, which does not include nuclear subs.
Nuclear-powered submarines can travel faster and for longer distances than diesel-powered submarines.
They are often viewed as an offensive type of weapon, though, and carry a much higher cost than conventional submarines due to the need for specialized infrastructure and highly-trained workers.
Richard Shimooka, senior fellow on defence policy with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said while nuclear submarines might be contentious, they shouldn’t be ruled out off the bat.
“It’s certainly a lightning rod for political debate and criticism, because they are nuclear submarines,” he said.
“At the same time, if we are actually going to be serious about confronting all of the threats — and nuclear submarines are a major threat or a major concern in the Arctic — we would have to consider our own.”
Perry offered similar views, suggesting that even if nuclear is an unlikely option due to the significant costs involved, it should form part of any options assessment process.
“Given that all of our allies in the Five Eyes save New Zealand are getting into the nuclear submarine game, it is worth at least looking into that in detail to see what it would even mean,” he said.
How can the Canadian Forces boost recruitment?
Shimooka and others have noted that conversations around procuring more modern equipment are part and parcel with talks around another key objective for the military — boosting recruitment.
Having modern equipment may entice more potential recruits to sign up. But it can also shift the focus towards the kind of recruits that the military needs more of: highly specialized and educated technology workers who don’t typically give serious consideration to a military career.
“The parts of their workforce on which they’re struggled the most with recruitment and retention have been those skill sets,” said Perry, pointing to incentives in the tech sector like higher salaries and some of the unconventional perks like pet-sitting that have put tech companies in the recruiting spotlight.
“If you really want to genuinely tap that to the fullest extent, what are people in those sectors offering to get people in the door?”
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An infusion of money could help the military better-compete for that talent with things like higher salaries, but also a shift in how advertising dollars get spent to appeal to non-traditional recruits.
Perry pointed to a 2020 publication by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute that found the military has been targeting ads on partnerships with the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball as an example of areas where spending on recruitment could be shifted.
“However, most of these sport franchise fans are male, white and, relatively old,” the report determined.
“Interestingly, although the CAF follows some Canadian baseball and hockey teams, it does not follow Canada’s only basketball team, the Toronto Raptors. This indicates that the CAF is not focusing on the right partnerships for its recruitment demographic,” the report continued.
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That publication went on to note that the military should consider the Toronto Raptors as part of any advertising campaign to boost recruitment, because the fans represent the more diverse target groups that the military needs to recruit: 35 per cent of fans are women, while almost half are Black.
“There’s no doubt about it: in order to recruit people, we need to spend more money on that,” said Saideman, who emphasized fixing the military’s sexual misconduct crisis goes hand-and-hand with making the Canadian Forces a more attractive place to work.
The world the military is being asked to confront is a very different one from 50, 40, even 30 years ago, even as much of the Canadian Forces’ infrastructure and technologies remain in those eras, experts said.
To defend Canada effectively, the military needs the capabilities to keep up with a fast-moving and unconventional threat environment, with members who have the skills to pivot and adapt how they use the technologies that will underpin not only the future of warfare, but the present as well.
“But the skill sets that are required to make those decisions, to operate effectively in those fights, they’re shared by both.”