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Canada's Security Agenda

Interviewee: Rear Admiral David Gardam, Rear Admiral, Canadian Navy
Interviewer: Toni Johnson, Senior Editor, CFR.org
May 31, 2012

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With their shared border, strong trade relationship and participation in NATO, the United States and Canada have long had a close security relationship. As the two countries work to secure their borders, they need to ensure that trade isn't hampered, says Canadian Rear Adm. David Gardam, who participated with the Canadian Navy in the 2012 U.S. Fleet Week, which commemorates the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Gardam says that the transition in Afghanistan, where Canada has committed "blood and treasure," is proceeding as expected. He notes that "per capita, Canada has lost more soldiers, sailors, and airmen than any other nation in that fight," and says that Canada will continue to help foster the conditions for a successful transition. Though Canada is in the midst of a major naval upgrade, Gardam--noting the increasing number of failed states, many of which are coastal--says Western navies are downsizing, which creates the need for greater coordination among countries for security.

What are the greatest challenges to the U.S.-Canada security relationship?

I would flip that around and say, "What are the greatest opportunities?" For me, the greatest opportunity we have is to continue to leverage the incredible trade relationship that we enjoy, which means that when it comes to things like security, we need to make sure we don't thicken our borders, [that] we have the right level of perimeter security to permit us to have a seamless trade environment. That's probably the greatest opportunity we have in the next ten to twenty years. Of course we are our nation's two greatest trading partners.

The United States and Britain are looking to slash their defense budgets, but Canada's defense budget is growing. What's going on in your defense sector, and what does it mean for international commitments, particularly with NATO?

Canada's defense budget over the last seven years has grown each year. Canada has what is called a "Canada First" defense strategy, a strategy that was initially announced in 2008 and will be doing a reset in 2012. [It] articulates Canada's roles and mandates as a military and aligns our defense spending to achieve those goals.

The navy is going through a rebirth over the next ten years. We will rebuild the Royal Canadian Navy, with the introduction of shore patrol ships, which will be primarily for use in the Arctic; joint support ships will replace old auxiliary oilers; [we will] refit our current frigate fleet, [introduce] the Victoria class submarine into operation capability, and launch fifteen new Canadian surface combatants. The air force is also looking at procuring the joint strike fighter and the army is in a process of rejuvenating much of its equipment, which was battle damaged in Afghanistan, and procuring new capabilities as well.

What it means from a NATO and defense perspective is that we are resetting our infrastructure and our capabilities to meet the challenges of the future. Canada first and foremost relies on its incredibly strong partnership with the United States. So it's Canada first, it's U.S. second, and it's NATO when it makes sense.

NATO has blossomed from the original thirteen [nations] to twenty-nine. NATO is an organization based on consensus. So getting a coalition force, a NATO force, to do some of the heavy lifting is difficult. So Canada often will work with the United States and other like-minded countries to do some of the heavy lifting that needs to be done. I don't see that changing in the foreseeable future.

What is your take on the security issues discussed at the recent NATO summit, including the Afghanistan strategy?

First and foremost, there is an exit strategy that will now be implemented starting in 2013, where the expectation is that the Afghan National Army and police will start taking a clear leadership role and ownership of their own security domain. That, to me, is moving clearly in the right direction. The other piece that came out was the need to provide stable funding, so that we enable the Afghans to take their rightful place as the caretakers of their own security. That piece, NATO nations are all contributing. I think Canada has offered over $100 million over the next three years to permit that plan to be funded, and other NATO nations have been doing the same.

We cannot stay in Afghanistan forever. It has been a war where we are taking a force that before did not truly have a capability to defeat the enemy, and now they do. So now it's kind of its graduation day and coming quickly.

With the troop drawdown looming, what role does Canada expect to play in the Afghan transition going forward? What stake does Canada have in the region as a whole?

We have Canadian treasure and blood at stake. Per capita, Canada has lost more soldiers, sailors, and airmen than any other nation in that fight. So we need to make sure this is right. Canadians will not forgive us if we walk away and we have achieved nothing. It is very important that the conditions for success are properly established and we can do a transition. Our development agency has been in Afghanistan. It was there before we arrived and will be there after we leave. Canada will continue to provide aid to the country to move forward, and we'll see where this goes in ten years' time.

At a time when we need them more, because navies are expensive initially to procure, all Western navies are reducing in size.

Capacity building is something that we're trying something new. Instead of just going in and saying, "We fixed it all, here you go," what we're saying is, "We're going to help you help yourself." I'd like to see where we are in ten years and hope that what we have done has made a difference.

[Also] the real question is not Afghanistan, it's Pakistan. Pakistan's nuclear [capability] is something that needs to be watched very closely as we transition out of Afghanistan.

What other security issues most concern Canada?

One of the biggest issues is the ability to keep sea [lanes] open. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of disenfranchised and failed and failing states, all coastal, many of them coastal--you just have to look at Somalia or what's happening in Yemen, the Straits of Malacca, piracy. Events which are impacting global trade. When you put that environment with terrorism and disenfranchised youth and no apparent means for success, which is why we had the Arab Spring, I would say the increase of global terrorism is a clear concern.

Ninety percent of the world's trade is on the world's oceans. Imagine if someone said, "I'm going to place a mine in the Straits of Hormuz." The number of millions of barrels of oil that go through that strait is astronomical. It would have a crippling effect on the global economy. In 1956 the Suez Canal was closed. We didn't have global engaged economy then.

One of the more interesting developments is the security situation in the Arctic, as changes in ice cap melting times has opened up a potential new sea route and territory for oil and gas production. How has Canada preparing for this new challenge, and what does it mean for Canadian security?

The government of Canada has articulated its Arctic engagement strategy. Since 2006, the Royal Canadian Navy has been in the Arctic [and] we do combined and joint exercises to establish not only our presence, but to gain better knowledge of an environment that is very austere, and very much a theater of operations, because there is nothing there to support.

The biggest concern in the Arctic is not [that] it's going to be a warzone. The biggest concern is the risk of an environmental disaster. And it's not so much from drilling a well, but the shipping of that oil when it comes in. The Arctic is a harsh environment. The visibility is often poor, navigation routes [are] challenging, and [there are] hidden dangers. It's quite a challenging navigation route. Any sort of accident that causes an oil spill could have potentially quite catastrophic impact in the Arctic. That's our biggest concern. So you have to know what you don't know. Right now we are [spending] time learning more about the Arctic, about the climate, about who is there and who is not, so that in the next ten to fifteen years, as we continue to do more and more exploitation of that region, we have the knowledge so that we can react accordingly.

Is there anything else you want to highlight?

I would say in a time when we have more failed and failing states, and we have more pressure on the global commons, I find it somewhat paradoxical that all the Western navies are shrinking in size. So at a time when we need them more, because navies are expensive initially to procure, all Western navies are reducing in size. We have to get smarter with how we use our resources, because we are not going to necessarily get more. The idea of a coalition working together is that much more important.

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