The House: Threat assessment at Halifax International Security Forum

The House has a front-row seat at the Halifax International Security Forum, an annual gathering of the world's top security and defence officials. We'll dig into the most pressing international security challenges, from regional wars and terrorism to cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, shown in a 2009 file photo, is one of the main topics of discussion at the tenth annual Halifax International Security Forum, a gathering of global security and defence officials. (RIA Novosti/Reuters)
Listen to the full episode49:59

The Cold War may have ended decades ago, but today's uneasy détente between the allied nations of the West and Russia shows major signs of fraying. 

Both sides staged their largest ever military exercises recently since the height of the superpower era, and as allegations of cyber hacking, poisoned spies and interference in elections continue to mount, The House is in Halifax for the tenth annual Halifax International Security Forum.

This gathering of some of the world's top defence and security leaders is focused on everything from regional wars and terrorism to cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns. On this week's show, Chris Hall sits down with some of those officials to discuss these pressing issues.


NATO second-in-command on a European army: good idea?

In the era of "America First", Europe's leaders are pushing their own "Europe First" agenda — one that could potentially include a continental army of their own.

Both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are calling for a European army, arguing that a mutual defence force is needed to protect Europe from Russia and China. 

So should Europe be military master of its own house?

NATO's deputy Secretary-General Rose Gottemoeller doesn't necessarily think it's a bad idea. 

"The notion that Europeans as a group should be putting more resources into defence capabilities, into their armed forces, is one that I think is a very positive thing," she told Chris Hall in a phone interview from Deer Lake, Nfld., where her flight to Halifax was rerouted due to poor weather.

"But we always stress that this cannot be something in competition with NATO. It has to be complementary."

Despite U.S. President Donald Trump not being a fan of the idea, Gottemoeller thinks it has value. 

"We're not talking about some kind of concept of strategic autonomy, but European forces that would be inherently at one with the forces that NATO deploys, forces that would contribute to the collective defence."

NATO's Deputy Secretary-General sits down with Chris to discuss whether Europe needs its own army, what that could mean for NATO, and how to get members of the alliance - including Canada - spending more on defence. 9:51

Canada's military mission in Mali to end in July, Sajjan confirms

Canada's defence minister Harjit Sajjan says Canada has fulfilled its obligations by going to Mali. (CBC)

Canada's peacekeeping mission in Mali will end in July as planned, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has confirmed.

"The United Nations is working with other nations to look at replacing us," Sajjan told Chris Hall in an interview airing today on CBC Radio's The House. Sajjan spoke to Hall before his speech Friday to the tenth annual Halifax International Security Forum, a gathering of global leaders discussing major security and defence issues.

Sajjan said Canada will have fulfilled its year-long promise to head the Mali mission by July. The Canadian Press reported this week that the UN has quietly asked Canada about extending its role.

"The discussions I've had with other UN security generals has not led to that," Sajjan said.

"We've said this for a year. We wanted to offer up support for what the UN wanted to do. One big ask they had was the concept of smart pledges. Nations come, take a yearly responsibility. We have done that."

The minister added that there will be a transition period before Canada leaves Mali, much like the one that occurred when the German-Belgian helicopter mission in Mali was winding down and Canadian personnel were arriving last year.

Canadian troops arrive at a UN base in Gao, Mali, on Monday, June 25, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Although an official announcement has not been made, the Canadian Press is reporting that Romania is expected to take over from Canada, but not until October or November — months after the Canadians have left.

"The UN is on track to be able to find a replacement," Sajjan said. "We will work with whoever steps up."

Most dangerous UN mission

Canada currently has eight helicopters and 250 military members in the sprawling West African nation to rescue injured peacekeepers and UN workers and to transport troops and equipment.

The Mali mission is considered the most dangerous UN mission in the world; 22 peacekeepers were killed this year alone and 177 have been killed since the mission began in 2013. About 15,500 people are part of the Mali mission now, which began after a rebellion in the north and a coup in the capital in 2012 resulted in a surge of violence.

Canadian peacekeepers have so far conducted four emergency evacuations in Mali. The most recent was on Nov. 1, after two civilians were injured when they were attacked with an improvised explosive device while driving.

More permanent presence needed in North

Sajjan also discussed Canada's defence goals in the Arctic, telling Hall that more permanent troops are needed in the far north to respond to threats such as increasing Russian aggression and Chinese interest in the region.

"We did identify that we do need to do more," he said, adding that a broader approach to the Arctic is necessary.

"Sovereignty [in the Arctic] isn't strictly about defence. It's about supporting our communities up there. We're looking at this from a whole-of-government approach."

Sajjan pointed to investments in Arctic offshore patrol vessels and satellites with greater coverage as two examples of government efforts to "sustain our ability to respond in the North."

The Canadian military has had increased presence in the Arctic over the past several years. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

In August and September, Canada's largest annual Arctic sovereignty exercise, Nanook 2018, took place in Northern Labrador, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Sajjan himself visited various Canadian Armed Forces installations in the North in August. 

With approximately four million square kilometres of Arctic land to keep an eye on — that's about 40 per cent of Canada's total land mass — Canada won't be able to ramp up its polar presence overnight, Sajjan acknowledged.

"We have increased our spending year by year, but it's going to take us a little more time to get to the efficiency we want," he said.

In its updated defence policy released last year, the federal government committed to pushing Canada's defence budget to $32.7 billion annually in the tenth year, with expenditures set to rise the most after the 2019 election.

Specific Arctic investments will include updating Canada's ability to monitor air traffic over all of the 36,000 islands in Canada's Arctic archipelago, and buying ATVs, snowmobiles and other vehicles as part of an $8.8 billion, 20-year commitment to new equipment.

The navy also will receive five to six armed and "ice-capable" ships, meant to keep the government informed of activity in Arctic waters.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan discusses the future of Canada's peacekeeping mission in Mali, and what he's realized Canada must do in the Arctic to maintain sovereignty in the region. 8:14


General Jonathan Vance on Canada's defence dangers

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance is pictured at the UN base in Gao, Mali, where he arrived with Canadian troops on June 24, 2018. Stephanie Jenzer/CBC (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

It can be a scary world out there. But Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance says there's no need to panic — at least, any more than we used to.

"I don't think we should be more worried than we have been before," he said Friday. "The world is technically more at peace by some metrics than it has been in the 20th century."

Whew. But wait ...

Vance didn't sugarcoat the threats Canada is facing, telling Chris Hall that NORAD — the U.S./Canada bi-national organization charged with monitoring continental airspace and maritime warning and control — needs to be modernized in order to counter what he called "threat vectors."

"Weapons are being modernized by potential adversaries, the rate of activity is increasing, the nature of Russian activity, their intent. It means that we must be able to protect Canada first," Vance said.

Vance said the updating of NORAD is ongoing, with both the U.S. and Canada "convening to begin the process of determining what a modernized NORAD is." But the process will take time.

Until then, Vance said, the military is continuing to look "holistically" at the larger security issue. 

"We have to think about new ways to deal with these threats. Not everything is a shoot-down type of scenario. We have to watch technology, those things that at a strategic level could cause potential harm to our countries," he said. 

"There continues to be an absolute certainty that conventional warfare remains a potential threat, so we must exercise and be trained to respond to that, but just doing that alone isn't sufficient."

That's not quite the reassuring message Canadians are hoping to hear. But Vance said he remains confident in the direction of the country's armed forces.

"I'm confident that executing the [defence] policy, the spirit and intent of that policy, will put us in a position to approach mid-century as a credible force," he said. 

And he remains committed to the job.

"It's hard, it can be dangerous. What we do is important for the country and the nature of the preservation of our values. That job is a good one to do. It's an honourable thing to do."

Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff doesn't pull any punches in this interview with Chris, discussing the 'threat vectors' currently facing Canada, from challenges for NORAD to mass migration and Chinese posturing in the South China Sea. 9:09

'We see conflict and challenge everywhere'

US soldiers from the 2d Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion are pictured in a LAV-25, an eight-wheeled amphibious armored reconnaissance vehicle, during the Trident Juncture 2018, a NATO-led military exercise, on October 30, 2018 in Byneset near Trondheim, Norway. - Trident Juncture 2018, is a NATO-led military exercise held in Norway from 25 October to 7 November 2018. The exercise is the largest of its kind in Norway since the 1980s. Around 50,000 participants from NATO and partner countries, some 250 aircraft, 65 ships and up to 10,000 vehicles take part in the exercise. The main goal of Trident Juncture is allegedly to train the NATO Response Force and to test the alliance's defence capability. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP) (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images) (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

NATO flexed its military muscles recently in the alliance's biggest war games exercise since the Cold War. With almost 50,000 soldiers, 65 ships and nearly 10,000 vehicles participating, the large-scale military show of force was by design, said British Air Chief Marshall Stuart Peach.

"It demonstrates to any theoretical adversaries that we have adapted to the times we're in," Peach, who chairs NATO's military committee, said in an interview with The House Friday.

"It sends a message to the world that we're ready, 360 degrees, to defend and if necessary, to deter."

Trident Juncture 18 was aimed at training the Alliance to mobilize quickly to defend an ally under attack. It took place in Norway and will shift to another location in two years' time, Peach said.

In this age of disinformation campaigns and "fake news," Peach said, NATO must continue to be transparent about its goals and capabilities.

"We have to make sure our own narrative is truthful. I think the public diplomacy aspect of the alliance is important — to tell the story to the people of alliance countries why NATO matters, why NATO continues to adapt, and how we have to respond in a world where some information is inaccurate and misleading with our own version of the truth that people can trust," he said.

British Air Chief Marshall and NATO military committee chair Stuart Peach calls on NATO to continue to be transparent about its goals and capabilities in the era of disinformation and fake news. 6:13


'Russia came back to KGB tools,' says head of NATO Parliamentary Assembly

"The target of Putin is not the Baltic states, Putin's target is Western democracies," says Rasa Jukneviciene, head of NATO's Parliamentary Assembly (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool). (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Rasa Jukneviciene wants to make one thing clear — it's not just countries like her own native Lithuania in Russian President Vladimir Putin's crosshairs.

"The target of Putin are not the Baltic states. Putin's target is Western democracies," the head of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, also meeting in Halifax this weekend, told Chris Hall Friday.

"Putin's target is to attack NATO as a structure. Putin's target is for the EU to be divided."

Jukneviciene is in Halifax as over 270 lawmakers from across the 29-member military alliance discuss security priorities, from strengthening deterrence to protecting elections from foreign interference.

Broader military challenges, including Russia's violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and its muscle-flexing on NATO's eastern borders, also form a key topic of discussion for the group's annual session.



"It's very difficult to fight when one side plays basketball with basketball rules, and the other side pretends to play basketball but in reality plays boxing or something like that," Jukneviciene pointed out.

The former Lithuanian defence minister pointed to the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in the United Kingdom last spring.

"What does it mean, the poisoning of two people on the soil of Great Britain, on the soil of a NATO country, one of the most powerful NATO countries?" she said.

"It means [the Russians] are using methods or tools that are unconventional. It's like KGB. Russia came back to KGB tools. At the time the name was Active Measures. Now we call it hybrid warfare."

Rasa Jukneviciene wants to make one thing clear - it's not just countries like her own native Lithuania in the cross hairs of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 6:31

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