By Ann Fitz-Gerald and Jason Donville, June 9, 2023
By admission of the country’s Chief of Defence Staff himself, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are facing a crisis. This point has been substantiated by the CAF’s inability to respond to routine operational demands both in Canada and internationally. The breakdown is also seen by our allies, which have publicly questioned Canada’s commitment to collective defense, and our military recruiters, who have indicated that attrition is now at critical levels.
Rather than focusing on how we arrived at this situation, it would be more productive to rebuild based on the type of armed forces the Canadian public is prepared to support. Given the competing demands for taxpayer dollars, and the decades-long diminishing investment in defence, rebuilding plans should strike a mutually reinforcing balance between the investment required to meet our allied commitments, and an investment supporting a niche capability of world class excellence that would be valued both domestically and internationally. Canada should therefore commit to creating a national armed forces that projects strength and impact in something that the average Canadian can relate to and support. That focus should be on cybersecurity.
Canada is already at war. The daily headlines are filled with stories of one Canadian entity or another under cyber attack. These attacks target institutions ranging from non-profits to public corporations. Virtually every organization in Canada has either been attacked or is preparing itself for an inevitable attack. Few Canadians would require convincing. According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, nearly half of all small businesses surveyed have experienced a cyber attack in the past year, which is an alarming number.
Cybercrime has been identified as Canada’s most significant national security threat, and our allies are also likely to view that threat as their highest national security priority. If Canada could develop an above average cybersecurity skillset it would win the country a great deal of credibility in the eyes of our allies, and would mitigate the risk of being left out of major allied defence and security discussions and formal agreements. In addition, developing a world-class cyber security skillset is relatively inexpensive considering that a single frigate costs $1.2 billion, and that a single F-35 fighter jet costs $100 million – and Canada needs more than 100 F-35s. At the same time, the armed forces are struggling to attract recruits because it is seen as an underfunded organization, with outdated assets.
An armed forces focused on cybersecurity could attract both domestic and international support; an armed forces committed to leading-edge technology is far more likely to attract recruits who, on leaving the armed forces, could also be productive in most areas of the Canadian economy.
Can Canada devise a defense strategy focused on Cybersecurity excellence, whilst meeting its international defence spending commitments? Yes, it can, and it could do so reasonably quickly. Canada is one of the world’s leading Artificial Intelligence (AI) centers, and its universities produce world-class tech talent. A cybersecurity focus is (1)politically realistic, (2) relatively inexpensive to develop, and (3) essential to our responsibilities under collective defence in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).
Most importantly, the global recognition that the Canadian military could win for its leadership in cyber defence – with such leadership and capability also recognized and appreciated domestically – would help restore a much-needed sense of pride in the CAF and support the broader investment the institution requires to retain its membership and standing in the organizations of its like-minded allies. While many Canadians may not see, or experience, the direct utility and value in procuring planes, ships, and tanks, there is broad support for investments in world-class cyber security capabilities that protect Canadian communities everywhere from attacks, including bank fraud, community service disruptions, election interference, and disinformation. An investment in a tank is primarily an investment in a piece of hardware that will never be deployed on Canadian soil. A cyber-security investment is mainly an investment in people; and a capability that will be deployed in a war that Canadians can understand and are already seeking protection from.
The decision to invest aggressively in cybersecurity assets does not obviate the need for Canada to invest in new ships and fighter jets. Even with a leading-edge cybersecurity capability, conventional assets will still need to be deployed as part of our collective defense obligations in NORAD, NATO, and the United Nations – and also in aid of our civil powers. A productive, and mutually reinforcing balance needs to be struck; a balance which recognizes the importance of public support for defence, and the reality that the next war is not likely to be fought with tanks rolling through the streets of a Canadian city. The next war has already started, and it’s a digital war. Canadians understand this because they see and experience this phenomenon every day. It’s time for our defense policy to better reflect what Canadians already know they need and what they are prepared to support.
Ann Fitz-Gerald is the Director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs; Jason Donville is a Toronto-based hedge fund manager. Both are graduates of the Royal Military College of Canada.