Military seeks public input on how to cope with low recruitment and a world of threats

Minister of National Defence Anita Anand makes a keynote address at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence on March 9, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Minister of National Defence Anita Anand makes a keynote address at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence on March 9, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Department of National Defence (DND) and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have announced they're launching public consultations on Canada's military and defence strategy — a move that comes as the armed forces grapples with challenges ranging from growing foreign threats to recruitment woes.

DND and CAF said in a news release that the Defence Policy Review (DPU) "will build on Canada's current defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE) and will enable the Canadian Armed Forces to meet any threat in the changed global security environment."

SSE was launched in 2017 as a 20-year plan for building a combat-ready, highly-trained and well-equipped military. DND and CAF acknowledged that the global security and geopolitical environment has changed significantly since the plan was announced.

The military has also since faced a flood of sexual misconduct allegations, some involving senior officers.

"Russia's invasion of Ukraine has changed the threat landscape, as have increased cyber threats, Russian and Chinese military modernization, the increased presence of nontraditional actors in conflict, the acceleration and intensification of climate change, and Canadian Armed Forces' increased role in domestic crisis response," the news release reads.

"To ensure the Canadian Armed Forces' effectiveness in responding to these threats, we must continue to focus on building lasting, positive culture change in the military."

Defence Minister Anita Anand announced the consultation during a keynote address at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence.

"We are at an inflection point in the history of conflict, and that is why the need to build, and rebuild, the Canadian Armed Forces so that we are ready for tomorrow is increasingly pressing," Anand said in her remarks Thursday.

"Together, we will build a Canadian Armed Forces that is equipped for the challenges ahead."

The government will review submissions from March 9 to April 30, 2023.

The Canadian Armed Forces largest current operation is Operation REASSURANCE in Eastern Europe. Approximately 1,000 CAF soldiers are deployed on the operation to help guard NATO's eastern flank. CAF personnel have also trained over 35,000 Ukrainian troops as part of Operation UNIFIER, which started in 2015.

Anand also announced Thursday fast tracked procurement of anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-drone weapons for Canadian soldiers deployed in Eastern Europe — equipment the Canadian military has lacked.

"The urgent procurement of these capabilities will improve the self-protection of military members deployed in Eastern Europe as part of Operation REASSURANCE," a government news release says.

CAF is dealing with a personnel shortage. Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre said the military is 10,000 regular force soldiers below full strength. The military has opened up applications to permanent residents and has loosened dress and deportment restrictions in an attempt to boost its ranks.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Members of the public can send feedback through a web platform. The consultations also will include conversations with industry and experts, input from parliamentarians, discussions with Indigenous communities and talks with international allies.

The review will look at five critical areas, including the personnel shortage, the need to upgrade Arctic defences and a assessment of the equipment and capabilities needed for modern warfare.

"This input will be crucial to updating Canada's defence policy, and to ensuring that our country is prepared to respond to new and emerging threats in the current geopolitical landscape — all while creating economic opportunities and jobs for Canadians," the news release said.

The consultations will also look at how the military can continue to pivot to the Indo-Pacific region. The government announced an Indo-Pacific Strategy last year, which largely focuses on the threat posed by China.

"China is an increasingly disruptive global power. It increasingly disregards international rules and norms, and it is making large scale investments to establish its military capabilities," Anand said.

"In order to respond to global challenges like these and to protect Canadian interests both at home and abroad, we must build a Canadian Armed Forces ready for tomorrow."

Consultation needed, expert says

Stéfanie von Hlatky, a professor at Queen's University and a Canada research chair on gender security and the armed forces, said the consultations are necessary given the ramped-up Russian war on Ukraine, internal issues in the armed forces and other challenges.

"Post-COVID, too, I think there were certain strains as well on personnel issues that needed to be addressed more fully than individual reviews. Certainly, accompanied with a leadership crisis, this posed unique personnel challenges," she said in an interview.

Von Hlatky added that the consultations could put more emphasis on important issues like modernizing the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and North American continental defence.

NORAD was in the spotlight recently when the Canadian and American militaries identified several suspected Chinese spy balloons, which were later shot down. Eyre also has expressed concern about Russian and Chinese threats to the Arctic.

"Certainly, we see how important that dimension of Canadian defence policy has been in the last year," von Hlatky said.

But von Hlatky said the most important priority for the military is boosting combat readiness through recruitment and addressing culture issues in the CAF.

"I know there's often a temptation to frame all of these priorities as separate, but to me they're all interrelated and equally important," she said.

"I know it's going to require more resources, but I think the threat environment requires it."

Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the consultations could boost public faith and trust in the military.

"It's going to be complicated to get something that Canadians will accept if they haven't been consulted and heard," she told CBC News. "I think it's an exercise in democracy."

Duval-Lantoine said the military should focus on building a better culture and support services.

"When we talk about operational effectiveness, we usually think about equipment and infrastructure, but it's really the people that make all of this happen," she said.