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Lee Harding“Canada needs to be in a position to defend itself and defend its values,” U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien told delegates at the Halifax International Security Summit recently.

He urged Canada to keep its NATO commitments and increase defence spending. He also warned that Chinese company Huawei must be shut out of building 5G networks in Canada.

“You get Huawei into Canada or any other Western country, they’re going to know every health record, every banking record, every social media post,” said O’Brien.

“They’re going to know everything about every single Canadian and so put aside the issue of sensitive data, Five Eyes intelligence sharing, obviously that’s something (that) will be impacted if our close allies let the Trojan horse in the city.”

O’ Brien’s comments suggest that the Five Eyes – an intelligence alliance comprising the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand – will have all that information, which is disturbing enough, let alone China having it as well.

Canada has neither committed to nor refused to let Huawei build 5G networks, a stance also held by NATO ally Germany. Other major allies have been more decisive. The United States, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands have shut Huawei out, while the U.K. has restricted the company from the main parts of its network.

Russia, however, has signed a deal with the company.

O’ Brien had a small note of praise for Canada’s new Arctic offshore patrol ships. He sees the Arctic as an increasingly important zone for national defence, since Russia and China have expressed intentions to increase their presence there.

“There are very serious threats to our freedom and our security and if NATO is going to be effective, and if we want to put our money where our talk is, we got to spend that money to defend ourselves,” O’Brian insisted.

“We expect our friends and our colleagues to live up to their commitments and their promises.”

At the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, Canada joined its allies in a pledge to increase its military spending to two percent of gross domestic product. In 2016, Barack Obama prodded Canada on this commitment when he became the first U.S. president in 21 years to address the House of Commons.

“As your ally and as your friend, we’ll be more secure when every NATO member, including Canada, contributes its full share to our common security,” Obama said.

President Donald Trump and his administration have been even more strident in their calls to increase this commitment – publicly and privately. Multiple sources told Global News that the Trump administration sent a “blunt” letter to Canada’s Department of National Defence over its spending.

“Sending a démarche (diplomatic letter) is really ratcheting it up a notch,” said Peter MacKay, who was Canada’s minister of Defence for six years in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. The letter was, in his words, “a very serious diplomatic slap – not on the wrist, but in the face.”

Despite the criticism, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan insists, “The defence relationship [with the U.S.] is even stronger now because they see a tangible plan that we have created is working initially extremely well.”

In 2017, the Liberal government laid out a policy report that called for defence spending to increase from $18.9 billion in 2016-17 to $32.7 billion in 2026-27, an increase of 70 per cent. At its current C$22 billion, Canada is the sixth largest contributor to NATO, but as a percentage of GDP, its 1.27 per cent contribution ranks it at 20th out of 29 member countries. The scheduled $33 billion in annual spending by 2026 will only represent 1.4 per cent of annual GDP.

America has every reason to insist on its NATO allies pulling more weight. A NATO press release in June said the United States spent $752 billion, or 3.42 per cent of GDP on defence. The U.K. was second in military spending and far behind at $60 billion. Take the U.S. out of the equation and the average NATO country dedicates just 1.55 per cent of its GDP to defence.

Some of Canada’s airplanes are so old, they fall out of the sky with no one shooting at them. In October, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot ejected from his Snowbird plane at an air show in Atlanta. No wonder – the airplanes are 56 years old.

“We deferred purchasing new fighter planes and did the same thing with our frigate fleet,” says David Perry, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and one of Canada’s foremost experts on defence spending and procurement.

“We just kicked the can down the road on fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft. There was a bunch of other projects that fit the same vein.”

Fifteen surface combatant ships (navy frigates) will be built in the early 2020s for $60 billion. Replacements for Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets are long overdue, forcing the nation to import second-hand F-18s from Australia until it’s replaced with an as-yet-unchosen aircraft in 2032.

Things might soon change for the better. The Liberals promised to create a defence procurement strategy, which would take the process out of four separate departments and put it under one jurisdiction.

The move comes none too soon. Just 11.2 per cent of Canada’s military spending is on equipment, ranking it 25th among NATO allies and far short of the organization’s 20 per cent target.

The new Arctic offshore patrol ships, though cause for optimism, reveal Canada’s failure to supply necessary equipment in a timely manner. The vessels were first promised in 2007, with the expectation they would be built in 2013 and deployed in 2015. Instead, construction began late in 2017, as the first navy ships built in Canada in 20 years. Their deployment, expected in the summer, was delayed by sea trials.

Whenever the six ships arrive, they still leave much to be desired. They are “All sight and no fight!” as military expert Robert Smol puts it. They won’t have the standard cannon, surface-to-air missiles and anti-submarine warfare torpedoes that comparable NATO Arctic naval and coast guard vessels do. They only have a single, remote controlled machine gun.

These vessels “are not being built or delivered to deal with the Russians,” Admiral Mark Norman, then commander of the Navy, told a House of Commons committee in 2014.

They can’t even deal with the ice. A Senate defence committee report issued in 2017 questioned the adequacy of the ships. “This (concern) is based on the fact that these ships cannot operate in ice more than a metre thick, are slower than a B.C. Ferry, can only operate in the Arctic from June to October and will require a coast guard escort when in the northern waters.”

Were this a hockey game, Canada would face the Russians with no sticks.

O’Brien is right when he says, “Canada needs to be in a position to defend itself and defend its values.” But that’s hard to do when your Arctic ships can’t even take to the ice.

Lee Harding writes for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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