Hudson on the Hill

Northern America vs. North America
HUDSON ON THE HILL  |  Sep 15, 2015

A Not-So-Fine Distinction

Mexico’s security concerns and social climate are arguably more aligned with Central America, especially in light of the region’s narcotics issues. Equally arguable, however, is Mexico’s status as a key economic player with the United States and Canada – and it shares some of our concerns about U.S. dominance. Is it essential to include Mexico as an equal defence partner with Canada and the United States? Not necessarily, but the nation has significant equipment assets, a standing army of some 270,000, and highly-respected Special Forces. So why doesn’t Mexico figure prominently in discussions about continental defence?

In the last Parliament, the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence devoted considerable time to assessing the Department of National Defence’s primary mission of domestic protection, as well as how we work with the U.S. on continental defence. But there was a huge hole in the Committee’s mandate and what it eventually reported to the House. Even though North America geographically includes Mexico, which is the third “amigo” in the North American Free Trade Agreement and the seventh-largest country in the western hemisphere, it received only cursory mention by the Committee. It reflects, in a sense, the language of the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy, which states that the “continental” defence provided by North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) really applies only to “Northern America”. For clarity, should the almost 80-year-old alliance be renamed as the Northern Aerospace Defence Command?

The seemingly well-entrenched policy of exclusion, or perhaps linguistic and cultural segregation, could be changing, albeit slowly. As the Committee noted in its only mention of the country with a population of 120 million, Canada “has been strengthening its defence relations with Mexico in recent years.”

Canada has been building that defence relationship since 1991, when a military attaché was assigned to the embassy in Mexico City. Today, the Mexican embassy staff in Ottawa includes two military attachés and has a liaison officer in the Canadian Joint Operations Command.

In 2011, Canada became a member of the North American Maritime Security Initiative, which began as a US-Mexico initiative in 2005. There have been staff-level talks since May 2011, and the following year saw the first trilateral defence ministers meeting.

As well, the Conference of Defence Ministers of the Americas, which met for the first time in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1995, presents an opportunity for bilateral sidebars within a multilateral framework. Canada hosted the 8th meeting in Banff in 2008 and the 12th is set for Trinidad & Tobago next year.

Then there is the Trilateral Meeting of North American Defence Ministers, inaugurated in Ottawa in March 2012.  “By virtue of our geography, our peoples and trading relationship, our three nations share many defence interests,” the Canadian government said. “We share a determination to enhance our common understanding of the threats to our security and of the approaches needed to address them.”

On the fringes of the second trilateral in Mexico City (April 2014), Canada and Mexico signed a Declaration of Intent on Defence Cooperation designed to strengthen the relationship. Cybersecurity, disaster response, humanitarian assistance and Mexico’s southern border were the key issues discussed by Canada’s Defence Minister, Rob Nicholson and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel with their hosts, General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the Secretary of National Defence, and Adm Vidal Francisco Soberon Sanz, Secretary of the Navy.

Nicholson also met individually with his U.S. and Mexican counterparts, calling the meetings “a valuable opportunity to further deepen our cooperation and collaboration towards our common goals of ensuring the security of our citizens and our continent.”

However, NORAD remains for the foreseeable future, a Canada-U.S. venture. Although formally set up in 1957, the seeds for NORAD were sown two decades earlier, in 1937, when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised reciprocal aid in the event of a third-party attack or invasion.

Then, in 1940, at a meeting in Ogdensburg, New York, about 80 kilometres south of Ottawa, Mackenzie King and Roosevelt agreed to a Permanent Joint Board on Defence (PJBD). This policy-level forum on “continental defence and security” continues to meet semi-annually, chaired alternately by a Canadian and an American.

The 2015 PJDB session, in mid-June, was held against the backdrop of a visit to Ottawa by U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bob Work, for talks with our Defence and Foreign Affairs ministers, among others. The agenda included continued collaboration against Islamist forces in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), beleaguered minorities in Syria, humanitarian aid for Kurdish forces in Iraq, and Russia’s adventurism in Ukraine.

On western hemisphere issues, the PJBD predictably supported NORAD and, given renewed concerns about the Arctic, agreed on the need to modernize the North Warning System. At a dinner celebrating the 75th anniversary of the PJBD, Work – a former US Marine Corps officer who went on to become Undersecretary of the Navy – reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the bilateral relationship.

Although unstated, the relationship going forward could involve a joint rapid reaction force for deployment to global hot spots. Comprising air, land, sea and special operations elements, the proposed Canada-U.S. Integrated Forces (CAN-US IF) came to light recently through a government briefing note released in response to an Access to Information request.

Written in October 2013, the note to General Tom Lawson, then Chief of the Defence Staff, contemplates not only how the military could remain globally engaged post-Afghanistan but also how “conceptual development” of a CAN-US IF would include practicabilities of the command structure.

Historically, the U.S. has preferred not to cede or even share overall command of joint missions, but that has been improving. Canadian officers are routinely embedded in various U.S. command structures and the new RCAF commander, Lieutenant-General Mike Hood, a Brigadier-General at the time, headed up the Combined Forces Air Component Command for Exercise Rim of the Pacific 2012, overseeing more than 200 aircraft from more than a dozen countries.

In the briefing note, Lawson was advised that a CAN-US IF would help this country “demonstrate a continuing commitment” to the U.S., and that “close engagement […] will enable the achievement of other regional objectives.”

The Arctic, which was the focus of 5 of the House Committee’s 18 recommendations in its report to Parliament, justifiably tops the list as Canada and the U.S. continue to address growing Chinese and Russian presences, both of which are driven more by resource economics rather than strategic needs.

It called on the government to ensure, “independently and through […] NORAD”, that “proper surveillance safeguards and operational measures are in place.” This would include “adequate” icebreaking capability “as soon as possible” and replacing or extending the North Warning System to include the Arctic archipelago, potentially augmented by drones.

Unless Canada wants to acquire large, remotely-piloted or autonomous systems such as the Predator built by General Atomics, effective drone surveillance would require forward-controlling centres actually in the Arctic due to the range and endurance limitations of smaller drones. Moreover, the committee’s recommendation that drones be unarmed, would create another challenge: that of responding to an identified threat in a region hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres from where RCAF aircraft are based.

In late 2012, at a PJBD meeting in Colorado Springs, Canada and the U.S. entered into an agreement designed to expand their security relationship in the region. The Tri-Command Framework for Arctic Cooperation emphasized that the Arctic is not a region of conflict, however the Canadian and U.S. militaries would support other departments and agencies in responding to regional threats and hazards through closer cooperation in training, capabilities, research and development, and domain awareness.

RCAF BGen Al Meinzinger, deputy director of NORAD and Northcom strategy, policy and plans directorate at the time (now RCAF deputy commander), pointed out that the U.S. DoD’s regional plan, signed off by President Barack Obama in April 2011, had assigned Arctic responsibility to Northcom and that the steadily increasing open-water season in the North had crucial strategic implications.

“With an opening Arctic, we see more vessel traffic, and obviously see a greater need for a deeper understanding of the domain there,” Meinzinger said. The Arctic nations (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Northway, Russia and Sweden) “understand […] that conflict is not on anybody’s priority list.”

The rest of the Committee’s recommendations were relatively anodyne, even predictable: more aggressive stances on terrorism “at home and abroad”; adequate safeguards against cyber attacks; better training for people involved in capital procurement so that the process works better; continued infrastructure modernization; maintenance of a “robust” recruitment for Regular and Reserve forces; and an assessment of the Reserves’ capabilities, and to preserve them with stable funding; and more support for cadet programs, the basic building block of Canada’s Armed Forces.

It obviously remains to be seen what the government will do, if anything, with what is nothing more than a package of self-evident truths.

Failure to follow through will only erode our allies’ confidence – including Mexico’s. Do we care? We should. The politics of inclusion tend to be far more productive that those of exclusion.

In September 2011, U.S. Army General Charles Jacoby, head of U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) at the time, tried to address the issue, noting that Mexico was “part of our North American family”, not just a geographic neighbour.

Jacoby, who has since retired, was briefing reporters at NORTHCOM HQ in Colorado, embedded in Peterson Air Force Base, in response to confirmation by the Mexican government that the U.S. military had been flying Predators over Mexico since 2009 in an attempt to gather intelligence about narcotics trafficking. The drones were simply a step up from more conventional aerial surveillance which had been going on for two decades.

Jacoby stressed that the Mexican government and U.S. diplomats, not the military, are the lead players. “It’s a supporting role that we play,” he said. But nothing has really changed in the ensuing four years, which tends to underscore the attitude that Mexico is not the full partner it should be in North America, an attitude reinforced by the House of Commons committee report.

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