When Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom announced their new “AUKUS” defence and security pact in September, 2021, it took Canada by surprise.
Though Canada joins those nations and New Zealand as members of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing club that traces back to the Anglo-American alliance in World War II, it was only the three bigger players on security and defence who went in together to share nuclear propulsion submarine technology and to explore cyber, quantum, artificial intelligence (AI), and related technology issues from a defence perspective.
In fact, Canada wasn’t even told about the new pact in advance.
The question is: why?
Canada was likely left out of the arrangement due to the nation’s relative lack of serious engagement and investment in defence. Despite coveted memberships in virtually all the world’s prestigious political and economic clubs – NATO, the British Commonwealth, la Francophonie, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and even the Group of Seven (G7) – Canada has long been a laggard in defence spending under both Conservative and Liberal governments.
In practical terms, Canadians have historically under-invested on defence, operating under the presumption that the US would never leave its northern neighbour at the mercy of a foreign aggressor. Outside of a few interludes like the Afghanistan combat mission, governments of all stripes since the 1950s have typically done the bare minimum – famously phrased as “just enough” by political scientist Joel Sokolsky three decades ago – in equipping the Canadian Armed Forces and deploying them in support of the country’s two key alliance frameworks, the continental North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) and the transatlantic NATO.
The formation of AUKUS is a symptom of the fact that this scenario is no longer viable. The world has returned to an era of great power rivalry, with China and Russia in particular driving that trend and the US and liberal democratic allies largely reacting to it. There are few bipartisan areas of agreement in Washington, DC today but asking longstanding allies to do more in the face of Moscow and Beijing’s efforts to outright undermine the post-1945 international order is one of them; a point repeatedly expanded upon by the American ambassador to Canada. Bluntly, this is why Australia – a non-NATO member that has spent near or more than 2 percent of their GDP on defence and invested significantly in boosting its naval capabilities – got AUKUS.
To signal defence and security seriousness, and to qualify for membership in “mini-lateral” clubs like AUKUS that will drive the future of defence and security innovation, Canada needs to take three very important steps.
First, make it clear that Huawei, the unofficial technology arm of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, is unwelcome in Canada’s universities. The current federal government took a positive incremental step in May by banning Huawei and ZTE Corp, a Chinese state-owned company, from this country’s 5G telecommunications systems. Yet Canada’s post-secondary institutions are still not prevented from sharing intellectual property in Huawei-funded research partnerships. Federal leadership is necessary for disentangling Huawei influence and resources from Canadian campuses in a way that respects academic freedom and ensures proper research resourcing by ethical and secure sources of funds.
Canada delayed toughening up on Huawei much longer than our allies, likely due to the unlawful detainment of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. With that issue now settled, Ottawa needs to lead the way on tackling the research end of the spectrum. This could conceivably be achieved through Canada’s new planned innovation agency, inspired by Israeli and Finnish models, or from the envisioned “CARPA” research and innovation platform being considered by the federal government.
Second, use the defence policy review announced in Budget 2022 to lay out a new comprehensive, long-term funding plan that finally clarifies whether Canada plans to meet, exceed, or come close to the 2 percent of GDP defence spending target agreed by NATO members in 2006 and again in 2014. Defence Minister Anand promised “aggressive options” on defence spending this year, and took a good step with the planned $6.1 billion boost over five years that was recently announced. Yet this amount still falls far short of the pre-budget aspirations.
Specifically, if Canada hopes to hit the 2 percent target, we would need to spend an additional $13 billion and $18 billion per year by 2027, according to a recent report by the Parliamentary Budget Office. In a time of high inflation, social program pressures like dental coverage arising from the Liberal-NDP supply agreement, and a general fiscal hangover in government from COVID spending, an updated funding plan that accounts for how the government buys defence capabilities is needed now more than ever.
This is especially true if Canada is serious about acquiring big ticket, multi-billion-dollar tools like submarines or modernizing NORAD, neither of which were funded in the original 2017 defence policy, or restocking and re-equipping weapons long thought to be Cold War relics but which have taken on a new life thanks to Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine, such as ground-based air defence.
Third, Canada finally needs to determine if it is serious about acquiring an under-ice submarine capability, something claimed by the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) as a must in recent years. If Canada is serious about such a capability then nuclear submarines need to be on the table for consideration. Options include either a direct acquisition or through some form of partnership arrangement, akin to that used by the RCN with Spain and Chile when two supply ships were suddenly retired without a ready replacement in 2014-15. To date, nuclear-powered – not nuclear armed – submarines remain the only proven technology to safely transit the high-risk environment of the Arctic.
Diesel-electric submarines, like Canada’s four Victoria-class vessels purchased second-hand from the British in 1998, are too small, lack the proper design for ice operations, and need to resurface regularly to recharge their batteries. Nuclear submarines used by the US and UK face no such limitations.
Underwater drones and submarines with air independent propulsion (AIP) systems like Japan’s Sōryū-class hold some promise but as of yet remain unproven for under-ice Arctic missions. For drones, the nature of under-ice operations presents communication linkage challenges to say nothing of the remoteness of the region with its lack of supporting information technological infrastructure. AIP submarines rely on alternative battery systems like fuel cells to power a submarine underwater for extended periods. This represents a potential hybrid solution between nuclear and diesel-electric submarines yet carries significant developmental costs and risks as no existing AIP submarine has been purpose built for under-ice operations.
A nuclear submarine option would align Canadian defence posture with the core purpose of AUKUS – sharing allied nuclear propulsion technology – while ensuring Ottawa access to quantum technology and AI innovation opportunities.
History, in terms of great power rivalry, took a vacation for a few decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it’s back now with a vengeance. Canada needs to align with its allies and prepare to defend liberal democracy from its swelling ranks of adversaries.
Matthew Bondy, MA, is vice-president of external relations at Communitech Corporation. Jeffrey F. Collins, PhD, teaches international relations at the University of Prince Edward Island. A long-form and peer-reviewed version of this article will appear in the July issue of the Australian Naval Review.