Canada is not the only Western country facing serious challenges when it comes to military recruitment — but the chief of the defence staff says the issues raise concerns about potential threats to democracy.
In an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson, Gen. Wayne Eyre said Canada’s ongoing recruitment and modernization challenges mean the military would be “hard pressed” to do anything more than simply meet its NATO pledges — and it’s not alone.
“We’re not the only ones facing the people crunch. I’ve had good chats with Australia, New Zealand, NATO counterparts — this is a phenomenon across the West – tight labour force, not as much interest in military service,” Eyre said.
“That worries me from a collective ability to defend democracy at large,” Eyre said. “So we’ve got to do our part. We’ve got to do our part with getting our numbers back up … I am concerned, but I’m concerned for the wider West as well.”
The Canadian Armed Forces have been facing a significant personnel crisis in recent years.
While it is supposed to be adding about 5,000 troops to regular and reserve forces to meet a growing list of demands, the military is instead short more than 10,000 trained members – meaning about one in 10 positions are currently vacant.
In addition to a lack of recruits, the Canadian military continues to face longstanding challenges in procuring new equipment, maintaining aging gear, and tracking down replacement parts.
There are also ongoing questions about whether the federal government will move to contract replacements for the weapons, gear and other equipment such as ammunition that the Canadian military has been donating in the billions to Ukraine.
While military officials aren’t placing blame on any single issue with respect to the recruitment and retention problems, the Canadian Forces have been shaken in recent years by a sexual misconduct crisis that touched even the highest ranks, along with wider attention on systemic racism.
The reputational problem has been compounded by concerns about the presence of right-wing extremists and racism in the ranks, which a review said last year were factors “repulsing” new recruits.
Defence Minister Anita Anand announced last year that fixing the military’s culture was her top priority.
She also finalized a deal to procure new F-35 fighter jets, but the first aircraft aren’t set to be delivered until 2026. The full fleet won’t reach operational capability until around 2033.
In last year’s budget, Canada also announced plans to review its defence policy. Speaking during his interview with Stephenson, Eyre said he’s hopeful that review will prompt changes aimed at “fixing the foundation of the Canadian Armed Forces.”
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“The training, the people, the equipment, the serviceability, the ammunition … all of those aspects that go into readiness, and then look at the capabilities that we need, capabilities that we’ve seen from Russia’s brutal war of aggression in Ukraine that are increasingly relevant,” Eyre said.
On top of that, the Forces need a pay boost — badly, the defence chief said.
“We urgently need a pay raise for the Canadian Armed Forces. We urgently need to bring in the replacement for our post-living differential,” he said.
“We need our members not to have to worry about their own financial security, not to be constantly looking over their shoulders, to see if their families are having to go to a food bank. So, yeah, it’s got to be addressed urgently.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s war in Ukraine is continuing to rage on.
Ukraine is located near many NATO allies. Should Russia opt to expand its aggression to neighboring countries and Canada finds itself called on to fulfill its pledges to the treaty, the readiness issues could complicate things, Eyre said.
“We spent a lot of time focused on what our commitments are to NATO, what capabilities that we’ve pledged to NATO if that happens. And so if we did have to respond, we would meet those pledges, but it would be a challenge,” he said.
“It would be an all hands on deck event.”
Eyre said in the interview he worries that as it stands now, Canada’s military is not ready for the challenges the future holds as the global security situation continues “deteriorating.”
“Do you think that you are ready right now?” Stephenson asked.
“Right now, for the challenges that lie ahead? No,” Eyre said.
“That’s why it’s so important that we reconstitute our force, get our numbers back up, that we get the capabilities in place that are relevant for the future security environment, while at the same time, as we focus on that future piece, being able to respond today.”