The recent passage of a Chinese spy balloon over Canadian and U.S. airspace puts a “sharp focus” on why Canada must prioritize modernizing its military in the face of growing incursions from China and Russia in the Arctic, former defence minister Peter MacKay says.
The balloon’s appearance — and the response to three more airborne objects that were shot down over North America last weekend — has raised “broader questions” on how secure Canada’s Arctic is from foreign threats, MacKay told Mercedes Stephenson in an interview on The West Block Sunday.
The answers to those questions, he added, do not cast Canada in a favourable light.
“If anything, this balloon incident, which looks to be overblown — pardon the pun — has put a sharp focus on what will be required,” MacKay said. “We haven’t taken the situation seriously enough, in my opinion.
“We simply need much more in terms of our protection of sovereignty and projection of Canadian military capability.”
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The Chinese spy balloon travelled across Alaska and unlawfully entered Canadian airspace between Jan. 30 and 31, flying south across Yukon and central British Columbia before hovering over the U.S. Midwest, Canadian officials revealed Friday. It was shot down by U.S. fighter jets off the coast of the Carolinas on Feb. 4.
That incident prompted NORAD — the continental air defence network — to scrutinize North American airspace, ultimately leading to the discovery and shooting down of unidentified objects over Alaska on Feb. 10, Yukon on Feb. 11, and Lake Huron on Feb. 12.
The objects posed a risk to civilian aircraft, U.S. and Canadian officials have said, but are believed to not be tied to China or any other foreign surveillance operation, according to U.S. intelligence. Recovery operations for the objects have been hampered by poor weather, which led the search for the Lake Huron object to be suspended entirely.
Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden have stressed their collaborative approach to the three takedowns, MacKay is confident that America was the one calling the shots.
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That’s because Canada’s influence within NORAD is diminishing as its military assets grow older, he said.
“We’re losing face and we’re losing that influence when we’re not upping our game,” said MacKay, who served as defence minister in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government from 2007 to 2013.
“We don’t have modern aircraft. We don’t have the ships that we need. We certainly don’t have the number of submarines that the U.S. and the U.K. and others have.”
The federal government is still working to replace its aging naval fleets and bring new F-35 fighter jets into the country, projects that are years behind schedule.
Canada is also still waiting on the delivery of AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles and advanced radars — the very same heat-seeking systems that brought down the flying objects last weekend — more than two years after they were ordered from the U.S.
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In 2021, Australia, Britain and the United States formed the AUKUS security pact designed to counter China’s growing military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, where Canada has growing economic and security interests. Canadian officials have been mum on whether Canada was invited to join the pact, suggesting only that the partnership was primarily focused on procuring nuclear submarines — something that the Liberals are not in the market for.
That has prompted concern within Canadian Forces leadership that Canada won’t have access to the same cutting-edge military technology as its closest allies.
MacKay cast the absence of Canada from the AUKUS pact as a sign of the country’s waning clout, which he attributes to the federal government not meeting NATO’s military spending standard of 2.0 per cent of GDP.
“All of this in accumulation does diminish Canada’s voice at a lot of tables,” he said.
NATO’s latest figures show Canada’s ratio of defence spending to GDP fell from 1.36 per cent in 2021 to 1.27 per cent in 2022.
Ottawa projects the ratio will grow to 1.43 per cent by 2025 with billions in promised further spending, which would still fall short of the target. The parliamentary budget officer says the federal government would need to spend an additional $75.3 billion over the next five years to reach 2.0 per cent.
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In meetings with her U.S. counterparts in Washington last week, Defence Minister Anita Anand noted the importance of modernizing NORAD and security measures in the Arctic in the face of the Chinese spy balloon, which the U.S. has warned is part of a broader foreign surveillance program run by Beijing.
MacKay agrees, noting China and Russia are taking “opportunistic” approaches to the Arctic — and not just in the airspace.
“With the opening of Arctic waters, similarly, the Russians are more active, the Chinese as well, in sending these research vessels through our waters,” he said.
“The Russians are much more prepared, much more armed and much more able. And so this will pose certain challenges to Canada in particular, but to NORAD and North America.”
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Russia’s increasing presence in the Arctic is in line with the aggression displayed in its nearly year-long invasion of Ukraine, MacKay said, which will “continually test the commitment of NATO and the West.”
But he added Canada and the rest of the Western allies must do more to help Ukraine win the war, which he fears is “far from over.”
“Sending in tanks, air defence systems, everything short of, quite frankly, boots on the ground has to continue,” he said.
“This is a quintessential threat not just to Ukraine, but to global security and the whole order of peace in the world. This is on Europe’s doorstep.”
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