Canada’s Defence Policy Update: Driven by Geopolitics and Overcoming Internal Challenges

The Department of National Defence has released a defense policy update (DPU): Our North, Strong and Free: A Renewed Visions for Canada’s Defence.

This DPU was ordered in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when the governments of liberal democracies around the world were shocked that war had returned to Europe creating the imperative for self-assessment of current capacity and a strategic plan for future readiness and deterrence.

But a secular trend was already brewing in the background. The Canadian Armed Forces are dealing with myriad challenges from culture to procurement that has catalyzed media attention and murmuring amongst the ranks. The DPU offers a policy omnibus of sorts tying together a range of front-page issues and policy wonk sleepers to deal with old demons while preparing to fight new ones. Importantly, it finds a consensus amongst the military, bureaucratic and political levels.

Geopolitical Trends Create the Catalyst

The DPU starts off (after the cursory political messaging, which included not only Defence Minister Blair but also Foreign Affairs Minister Joly) with a geopolitical assessment of the world today. Minister Joly didn’t mince words, stating that we’re living through an “international security crisis.” So, what might that entail? The update finds what we could call three “Triple A” trends that are driving the geopolitical imperative: the Arctic, Autocracies, and A.I., while making the case for a renewed vision.

The Arctic gets a big shout out and is conveniently tied together with another government priority, climate change. DND notes that climate change will make the Canadian Arctic a geopolitical priority as new shipping lanes open. It also flags that Russia, a circumpolar state – and one that hasn’t had reservations about stirring up controversy in the North in the past – “possesses a robust Arctic naval presence with submarines, surface combatants and an icebreaker fleet much larger than those of other Arctic powers,” which points to a clear need for improved investment and capacity. But DND’s northern security concerns aren’t limited to Russia, China also is flagged for its ambitions to become a “polar great power” and its concomitant Arctic activities, including a “surveillance platforms” and “dual-purpose research vessels.”

Another feature emerged from the Arctic-Climate Change nexus which might get less attention amidst all the geopolitical chatter, that is a natural disaster emergency response. Last year’s record-breaking forest fires prompted military deployment to help bring added capacity to bear. This reference in the DPU highlights that attention will not be limited to big “S” security concerns alone.

The second big theme is the challenge stemming from autocratic regimes, which was the premise for the policy re-think. As mentioned, the Russian invasion of Ukraine drove this review in the first place. Throw in the shift in government thinking on China, and a conflict in the Middle East that is risking regional spillover and it’s easy to see why DND is galvanized.

The DPU frames this aspect as “strategic competition over the norms and [international] rules,” making it clear that it sees liberal internationalist values under threat. Indeed, one of the strongest statements deserves to be quoted at length. The DPU asserts that Russia, China, North Korea and Iran while “pursu[ing] different goals at different scales, they share a broader disregard for the stable and predictable rules that have governed our international relations – sovereignty, non-intervention, basic principles of human security and free and open trade. Through their actions, they normalize the use of violence, coercion and intimidation to achieve their political ambitions. These efforts and the increasing cooperation among them allow them to share military technologies and resources and direct them at democratic states.”

The last big trend of note is how technology, including artificial intelligence, is changing the nature of conflict. This will manifest itself beyond just the battlefield and extending into attempts to drive political instability. “Disinformation and influence campaigns, malicious cyber operations, espionage, and foreign interference activities” are all radar risks. This tech-talk included references to quantum computing, space technologies, drones, and other issues concludes with an acknowledgement of the role that innovation has to play, which will likely impact private sector players in multiple ways, from new incentives to increase their participation in the defence economy to disincentives and restrictions on commercial transfers of sensitive technology that could possibly expand those that already exist under the Investment Canada Act, export controls, and research security initiatives.

Vision and Implementation

After laying out the case for “why,” the DPU turns to “what” when outlining the vision of what needs to be done. First and foremost, DND commits new spending by projecting that Canada will reach 1.79% of defence spending to GDP ratio by 2029/30 – something that anyone who’s been paying attention knows is needed to show key NATO allies (read the U.S.) that Canada isn’t a freeloader. Furthermore, the subsequently announced Budget 2024 proposes $73 billion of investments over 20 years into DND, the Communications Security Establishment, and Global Affairs Canada “to ensure Canada is ready to respond to global threats and to protect the well-being of Canadian Armed Forces members.”


The other big takeaway here is the commitment to move away from ad-hoc reviews (like this one) to a systematic approach that includes both policy reviews and publishing a National Security Strategy every four years.

In terms of implementing the micro details, DND wants to start at “the foundations,” which is people. Human resources issues have brought a lot of negative press to DND in recent years, so it is no surprise that the DPU offers an opportunity to make a public statement about next steps.  This means a “culture change” that will drive “recruitment, retention, and personnel management.”

Next in line is the hardware and assets that give the military bark its bite. As anyone that has friends in the ranks knows, there are some real shortcomings driven by an outdated and inefficient procurement process. Fortunately, DND is committing itself to not only review the defence procurement system, but also find ways to speed up acquisition. This has the potential to open new opportunities for the private sector. Indeed, the DPU includes a recognition of the important role that the private sector plays in the military industrial base and the economy writ large. This extends not just to the big firms but also the technology eco-system, where it reminds readers that Canada has joined the NATO Innovation Fund, which “is the world’s first defence-focused multi sovereign venture capital fund, providing investment in start-up firms developing dual-use, emerging and disruptive technologies critical to our defence.”

Summing It Up

The DPU is an important document that does many things. It doesn’t necessarily signal a turning point, but it does highlight where convergence of priorities and vision exist amongst key government stakeholders. Some of the elements are new, reflecting how the world’s security environment has rapidly shifted in the last few years. But some of it is focused on dealing with on-going challenges that have plagued the department and the forces over the years. In the case of the Arctic, there is a long list of initiatives that seek to bolster government attention on this critical region, and which were a focal point for the previous Conservative government under Stephen Harper.

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