Bigger battle groups, more reinforcements: What overhauling NATO means to Canada

NATO's Secretary General has announced that alliance's battle groups in Eastern Europe will get bigger and as many as 300,000 troops across the 30 member states will be put on a higher state of readiness. The decision, when formalized later this week by NATO leaders will have profound implications for Canada.

'This constitutes the biggest overhaul of our collective deterrence & defence since the Cold War:' NATO chief

A Canadian soldier carries spent light anti-tank weapons following the conclusion of Exercise Steele Crescendo, which took place outside of Riga, Latvia, in 2020.
A Canadian soldier carries spent light anti-tank weapons following the conclusion of Exercise Steele Crescendo, which took place outside of Riga, Latvia, in 2020. (NATO)

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, likely didn't set out to steal anyone's thunder — but it was hard for anyone at the G7 Summit in Germany to ignore the man on Monday.

Affable, seemingly awkward sometimes, the former prime minister of Norway has been a steady, usually unflappable presence on the international stage, especially during the years when Donald Trump was U.S. president.

In typical understated fashion, he peeled back the curtain on anticipated decisions by NATO leaders later this week in Madrid, Spain

When one says 300,000 Western troops, drawn from 30 countries, will be put on a higher state of readiness; it's fair to say people would sit up and take notice, especially with the horrors of Ukraine on full display and Russia's waving around of nuclear missiles last spring.

The announcement is almost an eight-fold increase in the size of the NATO response force, up from the existing 40,000 troops, aircrew and sailors.

Separately, but in tandem, the Western military alliance plans to turn its eight battalion-sized battle-groups already in Eastern Europe on Russia's border — including the one led by Canadians in Latvia — into full combat brigades, effectively doubling their size, depending on the contingent and their composition. 

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Stocks of extra military equipment will be sprinkled at pre-positioned points across Europe and taken up by tens of thousands of reinforcements that would be rushed to the continent's eastern flank with Russia in the event of a crisis.

"Together, this constitutes the biggest overhaul of our collective deterrence and defence since the Cold War," Stoltenberg said at NATO headquarters on Monday. 

All of it will have profound implications, especially for Canada.

'Canada has already stepped up:' Stoltenberg

Both Britain and Germany, which lead the multinational battle-groups in the other two Baltic states — Lithuania and Estonia — have already signaled they intend to beef up their presence in the countries where they have troops.

Canada has been silent.

Originally conceived as a reassuring presence for Eastern European allies unnerved by Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, the battle groups have been described somewhat pejoratively as "trip wires" for NATO; big enough to buy time, but only that.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Baltic leaders have demanded something more substantive.

Canada and Spain had been the two biggest troop contributors to Latvia for almost five years, but following the full-on invasion of Ukraine, Denmark dispatched several hundred reinforcements to the country.

NATO is looking to those countries first to further fill out the ranks in Latvia, and to Canada in particular as the leader of the force.

Watch: Western military aid to Ukraine 'not sufficient': NATO Secretary General:

Western military aid to Ukraine 'not sufficient': NATO Secretary General

1 year ago
Duration 11:14
"When I say they need more, they need more," said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on military aid shipments to Ukraine in an exclusive Canadian interview with Power & Politics. "The price of not supporting Ukraine will be much higher than the price you pay today by providing support."

Perhaps even more politically and institutionally troubling for Canada will be the expectations surrounding the increase to the NATO response force and the demand that troops be kept at a higher state of readiness.

"To do this, we will need to invest more," Stoltenberg said.

Last winter, Defence Minister Anita Anand indicated 3,400 soldiers, sailors and aircrew were set aside under the old NATO reinforcement plan.

Speaking to CBC News Network's Power & Politics late Monday, Stoltenberg said there are expectations Canada will have to meet.

"There will be specific targets for different countries, including Canada," he said. "I'm not able to share with you the exact number for Canada now, but what I can say is that Canada has already stepped up."

Recruiting challenges in the Canadian Forces

Canada did dispatch modest reinforcements to Latvia — an artillery battery — last spring. 

Last weekend, the Department of National Defence quietly let it be known that two of its coastal defence vessels, ships originally conceived as minesweepers (HMCS Summerside and HMCS Kingston), were joining NATO's deterrence mission in Europe, bringing the total number of Canadian navy ships in the region to four. 

However, it is in the demand that troops be kept at higher state readiness, where the real ponying up of cash will have to take place.

Being ready means being trained and being trained costs money and there has to be troops, aircrew and sailors around to exercise and the Canadian military faces recruiting challenges.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg greets Canadian troops during a visit to Adazi Military base in Kadaga, Latvia on March 8, 2022.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg greets Canadian troops during a visit to Adazi Military base in Kadaga, Latvia on March 8, 2022. (Roman Koksarov/The Associated Press)

The country's top military commander, Gen. Wayne Eyre, told a defence conference last fall that it could take up to seven years for the Canadian military's recruitment efforts to recover from the fallout of both the sexual misconduct crisis and the pandemic.

Figures presented last fall showed the full-time military was 7,500 people short of its required strength — an enormous gap in a regular force of around 70,000.

Filling the ranks is going to be expensive and time consuming.

Last spring, Eyre said the readiness level of the military was "one of the things that keeps me awake at night,."

The federal budget, tabled last spring, boosts defence spending by $8 billion over five years.

Stéfanie von Hlatky, an associate professor and defence policy expert at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said the bulking up of NATO forces in Eastern Europe had been expected, but she wonders how nations will react when the bills start coming in.

Political cohesion across the alliance, not just in Canada, will be a problem, she said.

"I believe people's assessments of the situation when they say it's going to be a long war and this is exactly why I identified political cohesion as the foremost challenge to NATO going forward," von Hlaky said. "Because even though in the short term everyone has rallied [around Ukraine and NATO's response], in the long term, it's really unpredictable to see how that political unity will be maintained."

That political unity will be further tested as Canada faces increased pressure to meet NATO's benchmark goal of spending two per cent of its gross domestic product on defence.

"I expect all allies, including Canada, to invest more and to meet the two percent guideline," Stoltenberg said.

At the moment, Canada spends 1.5 per cent of its GDP on defence and more significantly has no clear, stated plan to reach the alliance's goal.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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