Canadian Defence Policy Briefing Papers

Photo courtesy of DND

Briefing papers on Canadian Defence Policy by Ernie Regehr, O.C., Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence, The Simons Foundation Canada. 

About Canadian Defence Policy briefing papers:

The public consultations on the 2016/2017 Canadian defence policy review engaged Canadians beyond officialdom and the established “defence community,” and led to the May 2017 release of “Canada’s Defence Policy: Strong, Secure, Engaged.”

The following briefings contributed to the consultation process in advance of the policy release, and continue as an ongoing contribution to the further public discussion of Canadian defence policy, including attention to the defence of Canada and North America, Canada’s contributions to international peace and security, and key procurement and program decisions.

Ernie Regehr, O.C.
Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence
The Simons Foundation Canada



Nuanced changes to the nuclear weapons elements of NATO’s new Strategic Concept do not alter its substance. Once again, the alliance propagates the dangerous myth that nuclear weapons are the “supreme” source of security, doubles down on the threat of nuclear weapons use in response to conventional attack, continues to insist that alliance security depends on stationing US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The overall nuclear posture remains stubbornly retentionist. It entrenches policies that bolster already daunting barriers to progress in nuclear arms control and disarmament and deepens strategic instability into the bargain.
The war in Ukraine once again confirms this inescapable nuclear reality – in war and in peace, nuclear weapons impose on humanity the daily, relentless imperative of figuring out how not to use them. Obviously, for no other weapon system is absolute prevention of its use the over-riding requirement. But the international community has declared nuclear weapons unique – the collective objective is to eliminate them, and most states, and certainly populations around the world, conclude that any use of a nuclear weapon would be “abhorrent to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.” And yet the nuclear powers continue to threaten their use, with Russia the most immediate and alarming example, and to extol the utility of these doomsday weapons. NATO’s current Strategic Concept confirms continued reliance on nuclear weapons in the collective defence of allies. But that strategic guidance document is now under review, offering Alliance members the opportunity to construct policy off-ramps from the path of nuclear peril they now travel.
Canada and all of NATO are necessarily rethinking their security postures in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, with all its ensuing horrors. But the haste with which NATO has come to focus on increasing military spending, in an already heavily armed alliance, ignores the centrality of non-military security measures. Peacebuilding and diplomacy, both seriously under-funded, are key to ending and preventing wars, and for building the conditions for sustainable peace.
Speculation about Canada joining the North American component of the Pentagon’s ballistic missile defence (BMD) system of systems makes periodic appearances in Canadian defence discourse – though direct participation has never gained broad political support. Now, with a more “progressive” Democrat back in the White House and NORAD modernization moving up the continental defence agenda, the Canada-and-BMD question could be cued for another round of attention. The context undeniably includes a persistent threat to North America from strategic range, nuclear-armed, missiles, but the American “homeland” missile defence system, due to technical and strategic constraints, offers no defence against the overwhelming majority of missiles aimed at North America.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) arrived in 2017 as a new and audacious addition to the nuclear arms control and disarmament landscape. It has not been an altogether comfortable fit – generating both ardent support and fierce opposition, with NATO notably aligned with the latter. The most recent iteration of Canada’s opposition to the TPNW offers but two basic criticisms: 1) “the Treaty does not contain credible provisions for monitoring and verification” of disarmament; 2) “the Treaty’s provisions are inconsistent with Canada’s collective defense obligations” as a member of NATO. To bridge these divides, both sides would benefit from a clearer appreciation for what the new treaty does not and does bring to the central commitment that supporters and critics alike continue to profess – namely, the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons.
Public awareness of Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) aid to civilian governments and agencies has once again come to the fore in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Military assistance to civil authorities is routine in Canada and variously includes emergency help in law enforcement, humanitarian relief, natural disaster recovery, and search and rescue. From the earliest days of the present pandemic, critically important CAF resources have been mobilized. An emerging question is whether these core civilian support roles, for which there is increasing demand, should be elevated for priority attention in military planning, training, and procurement, or whether they should continue to be treated as spin-offs from the primary combat-readiness focus of the Armed Forces. 
It’s clear from Cold War arms control agreements that political harmony and broad strategic cooperation are not prerequisites for progress on nuclear disarmament. It is nevertheless hard to see the US and Russia launching new rounds of nuclear arms control talks without some serious efforts at building mutual trust and understanding within the Euro/Atlantic political/security arena, even if that cannot be guaranteed to yield broad areas of agreement. Ultimately, better understanding and the rational management of conflicting interests will have to be underwritten by restrained political-military practices that seek to build confidence and, notably, point towards a renewed arms control agenda – in other words, the kinds of mutual security arrangements envisioned through the OSCE. The prospects for that level of political maturity taking firm hold in the current circumstances are not particularly bright – but that doesn’t mean they are any less necessary.
The ongoing forward deployment of non-strategic US nuclear weapons in Western Europe raises fundamental issues of strategic stability (including pre-emption, nuclear first-use, and war-fighting doctrines), public safety, and meeting Treaty obligations. American B61 nuclear gravity bombs are currently based in five European NATO member countries under NATO’s nuclear sharing policy, an arrangement that will come under increasing scrutiny as those countries are asked to accept new versions of the bombs that Washington is now “modernizing,” and as they think about including a B61 delivery capacity in their next generation fighter aircraft. And, given that nuclear sharing is explicitly prohibited in Articles I and II of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, concerns about treaty compliance generally, including the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, should bring attention to NPT compliance issues.
Last June there was all-party support for an extraordinary recommendation by the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence. It called on the Canadian Government to “take a leadership role within NATO in beginning the work necessary for achieving the NATO goal of creating the conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons.” In October, the Government responded to say it agrees with the recommendation but essentially argued that its current policies and activities already constitute such leadership. A closer look at NATO’s nuclear posture indicates there is still plenty of room for improvement.
No single issue has yet emerged as a central focus for the coming NATO Summit. Priorities listed by the NATO Secretary-General, as well as by some member States, include the need to reinforce alliance deterrence and defence (in the face of Russia’s new assertiveness, is how it’s usually framed), burden sharing (code for increased military spending as well as a greater military role for the European Union), reinforcement of transatlantic solidarity (code for trying to manage President Trump), projecting stability (a nod to continuing out-of-area or counter-terrorism operations), and attention to cybersecurity. Disarmament tends not to make such lists, but at least three nuclear issues warrant scrutiny and action by the NATO leaders: ballistic missile defence, the forward-basing of US non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe, and the ongoing nuclear posture of the alliance.
It’s hard to believe, but less than a decade ago, academics, policy analysts, and even officials were exploring US-NATO-Russia cooperation on ballistic missile defence – begging the question: why is that no longer considered an appropriate subject for polite company? Missile defence cooperation is still happening, of course, but it’s between Russia and China on one side and among the US and its friends and allies on the other. Unless, however, missile defence is pulled back from its current competitive dynamic to one of east-west accommodation and cooperation, nuclear tensions, and arsenals, will only grow. Canada has joined the competitive fray in Europe through NATO, but, to its credit, continues to resist direct involvement in the strategic North American version of ballistic missile defence.

To South Koreans well within the firing range of a regime and leader of dubious stability and demeanour, it might seem eminently sensible to pursue protection from Kim Jong-un’s brandished missiles and nuclear warheads, but those same South Koreans are far from united on hosting American missile defence batteries on their soil. Indeed, they’ve just elected the presidential candidate most critical of the rushed THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) deployment.

For Canadians keen on joining the American strategic-range ballistic missile defence system, the Administration of Barack Obama seemed to present the perfect opportunity. Under a president much-admired by Canadians, opposition to signing on to a huge, expensive, and highly controversial Pentagon program would arguably have been considerably muted. Added to that, North Korea’s apparently inexorable progress towards mating a credible intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead might have been expected to spark more intense Canadian interest in protection efforts. But there has never been a groundswell of public support for Canadian involvement in ballistic missile defence, so the issue only got as far as the new Liberal Government asking Canadians, in the context of the Defence Policy Review, whether this might be the time for Canada to pursue a direct role in North American missile defence. And Canadians seem to have responded with continuing ambivalence, an ambivalence likely to turn into outright rejection with Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House. And if that is not enough to close the door on Canada and BMD, last year’s report by the American Union of Concerned Scientists on the still unproven strategic missile defence system should do it.
NATO is now establishing what the Globe and Mail called “a modest NATO force to draw a line in Eastern Europe” and what NATO itself calls its “biggest reinforcement of collective defence since the end of the Cold War.” Either way, it hasn’t erased doubts about the willingness, or wisdom, of the alliance’s threat to take direct military action against Russia and thereby raise the spectre of nuclear weapons use. Indeed, these eminently rational doubts could sensibly be elevated to the level of firm policy – not only because any military confrontation in serious danger of descending to nuclear use ought never to be regarded an option, but also because redressing Baltic vulnerability to Russian interference has more to do with strong governance than heightened military firepower.
The UN Security Council has found little to agree on when it comes to Syria, but a year ago the Council did come to the unanimous conclusion that “…there can be no military solution to the Syrian conflict.” The obvious truth of that confession also applies in the 25-plus other wars currently underway – wars in search of military solutions through attacks on political opponents. There have been some 100 such wars since the end of the Cold War, and almost all of them proved that in the end there was no military solution. Armed interventions by powerful military coalitions in search of military solutions faced the same reality – a reality that should inform a new Canadian defence policy.
The current Canadian Defence Policy Review is not focused on questions of disarmament and arms control; Global Affairs Canada is the lead agency on those issues, and it would do well, by the way, to undertake a thorough review of related policies and priorities. Defence policies and postures do nevertheless help to either strengthen or undermine disarmament prospects. A case in point is NATO’s nuclear posture. Canada is involved as a NATO member and as a participant in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group and as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as well, Canada has a responsibility to pursue alliance defence policies and practices that are conducive to full implementation of the NPT and ending NATO’s reliance on nuclear deterrence. That would in turn also advance the individual and collective security interests of NATO member states, including Canada, and all the states of the Euro-Atlantic.

It is little credit to the practice of diplomacy in Europe and North America that their military alliance has been allowed to become the primary institution through which they now seek to understand and engage Russia. NATO defines the Russian threat and prescribes the response – habitually reorganizing, rebranding, and redeploying military forces which, if they ever came to serious blows with their Russian counterparts, would leave in their wake a trail of destruction out of all proportion to the political, economic, territorial, or moral interests and values at stake.

With the prolonged absence of military threats to North America, the prime Canadian security objective is to ensure that they remain so.  Meeting that objective is more a diplomatic challenge than it is a defence problem, but defence policies and military forces in North American certainly have a role in preserving this region as a cooperative security community – that is, a community of states that continues to enjoy the reliable expectation that its members will not “resort to war or military attacks to prosecute their disputes.” That happens also to be the formally affirmed expectation o

The promised public consultations on Canadian defence policy are now underway. They are intended to contribute to the development of a “new” defence policy for Canada, to be released in early 2017. The process will engage Canadians beyond officialdom and the established “defence community,” and the outcome will have important implications for the kinds of key defence decisions that every Canadian Government faces – including major procurement projects and the deployment of forces overseas.