A multibillion-dollar strategy outlined by the Liberal government last week will position Canada’s military to negotiate an “uncertain world” while improving the way it treats troops at home, Gen. Jonathan Vance says.
Canada’s big-ticket defence policy will give the military greater capacity to operate in a world of complex threats — superpower aggression, challenging peacekeeping missions and the spread of “terror armies” — while transforming the way it looks after its troops at home, Gen. Jonathan Vance says.
Vance, the chief of the defence staff, says the strategy unveiled by the Liberal government last week will influence the country’s military for decades.
He said the welcome commitments of new equipment and big investments come at a time when the Armed Forces are confronted with increasingly complex conflicts, from regional terror cells to Russian aggression and North Korean threats.
At home, the military is called on to help Canadians caught up in natural disasters, from the Fort McMurray wildfire to a New Brunswick ice storm and, in recent weeks, flooding in Ontario and Quebec.
“It’s a far more uncertain world, far more fluid. Threats emerge faster and when they emerge, they stay. Intractable conflicts,” Vance said.
“There’s definitely an issue of scope and scale. It’s not a matter of being ready for a conventional fight on the German border. Now you’ve got to be able to do more things with the Armed Forces,” he said in an interview Friday in his office at Defence headquarters in Ottawa.
In a speech this week, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland suggested that Canada must prepare for a world where the United States under President Donald Trump is less prepared to engage in world affairs.
But Vance says the defence policy was written to spell out what Canada could do on the world stage, “regardless of the comings and goings of allies.”
“Canada wants to be a good ally,” said Vance.
The new defence policy, titled “Strong, Secure, Engaged,” details plans to spend heavily on military hardware and on the welfare of its personnel.
The defence strategy outlines 111 initiatives. Among them is a call for 15 new warships and modernized submarines, 88 new fighter jets — up from the fleet of 65 proposed by the previous Conservative government — new hardware for the army, and 300 new civilian and military intelligence experts.
The plan commits to boosting annual defence spending from $18.9 billion now to $32.7 billion by 2026-27. Over 20 years, it promises an extra $62.3 billion in funding for the military. That spending is “affordable, achievable,” the strategy claims.
Vance said much of the plan consists of renewal and modernization of existing capabilities.
He said it will give the military greater capacity to conduct multiple operations at home and abroad at the same time, both big and small, “particularly in terms of joint force enablers, all those things that allow us to run theatres, logistics, medical support.”
But he said the plan will bring transformation on one front — how the military looks after its personnel, from the time a new recruit dons a uniform to their transition back to civilian life.
Indeed, a quarter of the plan’s initiatives involve personnel issues, including promised investments of $342 million in resource centres and a health and wellness strategy.
“It’s a fundamental alteration of our personnel policy … It doesn’t transform us away from being combat-ready, service before self. But I think there are more ways to allow our population to serve,” Vance said.
Vance says the military must offer more varied career paths and more flexibility to allow injured personnel to remain in uniform. “We can do a much better job of making it a great place to come to work,” he said.
As the military looks to boost the ranks of regular and reserve forces by 5,000, Vance says it must get better at recruiting by actively going after talent. “Industry goes out there and gets people … right now, we wait for them to come to us,” he said.
He conceded that headlines about military suicides and sexual harassment in the ranks are a barrier to attracting talent.
The strategy reaffirms Vance’s goal of having women make up 25 per cent of the military by 2026. “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s absolutely doable,” he said.
In his conversation with the Star, Vance touched on other highlights of the defence plan, including:
- Drones, some for surveillance, others to pack a lethal punch on the battlefield with the ability to launch missiles at targets below. Vance said that drones are “modern enablers.”
“Without it, you are nearly irrelevant in the battle space. Our adversaries, even Daesh (also known as ISIS or ISIL), have armed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). They are homemade, jerry-rigged, but they use them,” Vance said.
“This isn’t black ops, assassination, Hollywood-style at all. This is a conventional weapon for conventional purposes for striking legitimate military targets with a much greater chance of avoiding civilian casualties,” the top general said.
- Enhanced capabilities to conduct cyberwarfare. “It’s a domain where military forces are operating now, adversarial forces are operating now,” Vance said.
“We need to be able to operate in an offensive manner, even if it’s just to protect ourselves,” Vance said. “To be able to disrupt or prevent an enemy from acting by effective use of cyber-power, along with everything else, I think will save lives.”
- A “significant” boost to shadowy Canadian special forces, with a commitment of 605 new troops, bringing their ranks to 2,700. “It’s an acknowledgement that on the spectrum of conflict, there are a great number of areas and types of operations that will demand the unique expertise of special forces, from counterterror to capacity building,” Vance said.
Vance, a military veteran, has seen defence plans come and go. But he says he’s confident this one will stand the test of time and changes of government.
“It’s a realistic view of the world today … and a realistic view of Canada’s role and what forces it might use in the world,” Vance said. “I have absolute faith that this policy will be implemented.