Canada’s top soldier warned MPs that this country’s “tenuous hold” on its Arctic territories will come under increasing challenge in the decades ahead as China and Russia expand their presence in the region.
General Wayne Eyre, the Chief of the Defence Staff, also raised the possibility during testimony to the Commons defence committee that a weakened Russia, isolated because of its war on Ukraine, could become a “vassal state” of China as it increasingly relies on Beijing.
He warned that if Russia and China were to co-operate in the Arctic, it would “pose significant threats to Canada’s ability to protect its sovereignty.”
Gen. Eyre made a pitch for additional defence spending tied to the Arctic, saying Canada needs better underwater presence to track foreign activity entering the region, as well as an increased capacity to move troops there if necessary.
“Our hold on our Arctic would be much more secure with greater subsurface domain awareness at sea and with greater capacity to deploy forces from the south strategically and efficiently on land,” Gen. Eyre said.
The general emphasized he saw no present threat to Canadian Arctic territory, but cautioned this could change down the road, saying Canada needs to make investments early enough to be ready for this.
“In the decades to come, that tenuous hold we have on our sovereignty at the extremities of this nation is going to come under increasing challenge,” he said.
Canada pledged nearly $5-billion in June to help upgrade North America’s air defences, addressing the growing threat posed by hypersonic missiles and advanced cruise missile technology developed by Russia and China. That money is spread over six years. That was part of a modest boost in military spending announced in the April budget. This will include over-the-horizon radar, which has a far greater range of detection – as much as thousands of kilometres away.
Defence analyst David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said Canada’s subsurface awareness of traffic in the Arctic could be improved through new submarines or a network of sensors to better track foreign submarines. “I don’t think we have enough ability to track where Russian submarines or Chinese submarines are operating,” he said.
The Canadian military is reportedly preparing a pitch for new submarines to replace the four aging vessels Ottawa purchased second-hand from Britain in 1998. These subs were built in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Mr. Perry said the time required to purchase and take delivery of new submarines is 10 or 20 years. “Whereas the Russians made those investments decades ago,” he said.
Daniel Le Bouthillier, head of media relations for the Department of National Defence, said one of Canada’s four submarines is operational.
Major-General Michael Wright, commander of Canadian Forces Intelligence Command, told MPs that China and Russia are both “revisionist authoritarian regimes who are seeking to reshape the rules-based international order to fit their world view.”
Gen. Eyre said during the Cold War Canada and its allies only had to “laser focus on a single strategic competitor.” But today, he said, the task is greater. “Now we must face the reality that we live in a tripolar security environment where liberal democracies must divide our attention between two competitors who employ different strategies but pose the same danger to the security and stability we have enjoyed, for the most part, for generations since the Second World War.”
Separately, the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force was asked about British media reports that Canadian ex-military pilots were among those being hired by Beijing to train the Chinese to shoot down Western aircraft.
The Daily Mail reported that up to 30 former British fighter pilots recently moved to China after securing contracts for £250,000 ($389,000) a year to teach Western flying procedures. The report also said “pilots from Australia and Canada have also been lured to China on huge contracts.”
Lieutenant-General Eric Kenny, commander of Canada’s air force, said he was aware of the reporting but he offered no insight into whether ex-military pilots from Canada are taking part in this work. “We work very closely with all our partners to make sure we are doing appropriate vetting when it comes to security of those that work within the Royal Canadian Air Force and we work with our partners to make sure we understand what is going on around the world.”
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said he hopes this matter is being taken seriously and that the military has ways to stop individuals who are being “lured away because of huge financial rewards for trading away what I consider a state secret,” and that there be reprimands if any Canadians are doing this.
Gen. Eyre was asked whether China and Russia would co-operate in the Arctic. He said this could happen if China – which is not an Arctic state, but has designs on the region – finds a way to make use of Russia’s presence there.
China is buying increasing amounts of Russian petroleum and providing financial services for Russia as sanctions have blocked access to Western banking. “As they [Russia] become more isolated, they become more beholden to China – much more of a vassal state, perhaps – and perhaps what we may see is some of the reluctance to co-operate to a greater extent in the North – perhaps we see that going away.”
SENIOR PARLIAMENTARY REPORTER
The Globe and Mail, October 18, 2022