Ottawa fast-tracks purchase of weapons for troops in Europe amid long-term challenges

Arms purchase expedited

Defence Minister Anita Anand is promising to address several glaring gaps in Canada's military capabilities by fast-tracking the purchase and delivery of anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-drone weapons to Canadian soldiers in Europe.

The commitment came on Thursday, as Anand addressed a major defence conference where senior military officers painted a stark picture of some of the numerous other challenges facing the Canadian Armed Forces.

That included a stark assessment of the military's ongoing personnel crisis by its top human resources officer, who revealed the Canadian Armed Forces is short 16,000 service members — far more than has been previously reported.

"These are real, serious risks to mission success," Maj.-Gen. Lise Bourgon told fellow military officers, foreign delegates, industry representatives and academics at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. "And this is where the CAF finds itself."

Attendees also heard a call for greater urgency from the commander of Norad as Ottawa and Washington continue to talk about modernizing North America's aging air surveillance and defence systems.

U.S. Gen. Glen VanHerck revealed that he is still waiting for Canada to tell him what the updated Norad system needs to protect, information that will be critical to deciding what the joint U.S.-Canadian command will — and will not — include and do.

"It took me almost two years to get that from the United States. I'm still working with Canada on that," VanHerck said, adding it is "really hard to build an operational plan to defend if you don't know what you're actually defending."

Anand kicked off the conference event by praising Ukraine's defence against Russia's invasion last year, while touting the numerous investments that the Liberal government is making into Canada's military.

Those include new F-35 fighter jets, a fleet of new naval warships and the modernization of North America's defensive systems.

"But we know that there are several crucial capabilities that we need to move ahead with faster," she said.

"Canada's largest foreign military deployment, as I'm sure you know, is on NATO's eastern flank in Latvia. And our troops there must have the equipment that they need to protect themselves and to do their jobs especially at this crucial time."

Canada currently has about 700 Canadian troops in Latvia leading a NATO battlegroup designed to help defend Eastern Europe from Russian attack. The battlegroup is poised to expand, however, and Canada has promised to provide certain new weapons.

Those include anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-drone systems, none of which the Canadian military currently has.

While the Armed Forces would almost certainly have faced a long wait going through a normal procurement, Anand said the government was declaring the weapons "urgent operational requirements" to get them to Latvia faster.

It represents the first time such a mechanism has been used since the war in Afghanistan, the minister's office said.

Yet even as Anand was plugging those holes in the military, Bourgon was pointing at 16,000 others, each representing a vacant position in the regular and reserve forces that needed to be filled.

And the shortfall is set to worsen, as Bourgon told attendees that the military is failing to meet its recruitment targets by about 25 per cent, while "the rate of attrition is higher than it's ever been."

To address the problem, the military has launched a new advertising campaign aimed at getting Canadians into recruiting centres. It also recently opened the doors to permanent residents, all in a drive to get more people into uniform.

But Bourgon admitted in reference to the military's challenge: "We need them a lot more today than they need us."

VanHerck was similarly frank in his appraisal of the state of North America's defences, describing the aging North Warning System, the string of 1980s-era radars in the Far North that forms the backbone of Canada's Norad commitment, as a "picket fence."

"The North Warning System was great in its time, and we've done a great job maintaining it, but now it can be exploited," he said.

Canada and the U.S. have committed tens of billions of dollars over the coming decades to upgrade Norad, which was instrumental in detecting and eventually shooting down a suspected Chinese spy balloon and three other objects last month.

VanHerck warned that North America's adversaries are growing more dangerous, with China having started mapping the Arctic for submarine operations even as North Korea continues to test nuclear missiles that are capable of hitting the continent.

The development of hypersonic and cruise missiles also poses a very real challenge.

"We can't take a decade to field those capabilities," VanHerck said. "We need to move faster, with a sense of urgency to make sure that we field them as soon as possible."

But rather than announce any new Norad moves, Anand instead launched public consultations to inform the government as it revisits its defence policy, which was released in 2017 with an aim to guide investments in the military over the next 20 years.

The review will look at five critical areas to ensure the policy reflects the current environment, which has changed significantly in the past six years with the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, the war in Ukraine and mounting tensions with China.

Those areas include how to address the military's personnel shortage and upgrade Canada's Arctic and continental defences.

"It is critically important that we get this right, which is why we have been engaging stakeholders across Canada, as well as our allies and partners, to inform our way forward," Anand said.

While consultations will run through next month, Anand did not say when the updated defence policy would be revealed. She also didn't speak to the degree to which cost will figure into the government's thinking.

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