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NATO in Calgary? Maybe not so off base for off-base Alberta pitch says local defence industry firm

Brian Jean, Alberta’s Minister for Jobs and Economy, sparked a great deal of conversation about whether Calgary is the right home for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, after broaching the topic at a Chamber of Commerce event on March 23.

In that presentation, he said that the Alberta Government is pitching Calgary as an ideal location for a NATO regional office, citing the availability of qualified employees and ample real estate.

“The west end of downtown Calgary is ideally situated, connected to existing capable infrastructure, and would allow NATO to hit the ground running once a decision has been made,” said Minister Jean about the Chamber event on social media.

The Government of Canada had previously announced their intention to pitch Halifax as the North American Regional Office for NATO, as part of that organizations Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) program.

The goal of that program is to bring together private industry start-ups, researchers, and technology companies. NATO, in a press release sent in April of 2022, said that Canada was actively seeking to become the North American Regional Office.

Canada’s Minister of Defence, Anita Anand, said Canada’s proposal for Halifax would take advantage of being home to “several major universities and research centres, hundreds of science and technology start-ups and Canada’s Atlantic naval fleet.”

Among the reactions online to the pitch from Minister Jean, were questions surrounding the distance from military facilities in the city, and a lack of a local defence industry to support a NATO pitch.

Sundeep Kahrey, Vice President of Tacteris Systems—a local defence firm that creates command and control software solutions—said that often Calgary isn’t thought of as a defence city.

“I think a lot of people when they think about the defence industry, they don’t really think about Calgary on that front, but if you look at the landscape here, we’ve got some really major companies operating out here,” he said.

“We’ve got Lockheed Martin, in the north, we’ve got Raytheon offices here as well, and General Dynamics Mission Systems is here. And that’s to say nothing of some of the smaller companies that are sprouting up.”

The city is also home to many smaller firms that have received funding from the Department of National Defence, along with the University of Calgary, which has been previously contracted to do research and development for the DND.

Calgary’s own defence industry seldom in the public eye

Kahrey said that a lot of what is being developed to meet the demands of militaries has become divorced from physical facilities, like bases, because of the need for disruptive technologies.

“This could be anything from command and control architectures, to AI technology, or new ways of using drones or cyber,” he said.

“That’s not always the big companies that are spearheading that work, it is sometimes a mom-and-pop shop, it’s the small startups.”

He said that the work that his firm is doing on command and control and C4ISR—command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—is a good example of how a small local firm is working with big players in government and industry already.

“There’s modernization initiatives for this stuff in Canada, United States and across NATO, and it’s quite a pleasure to have some of these big companies come calling us saying, ‘hey, we’re very interested in what you guys are building.'”

He pointed to some of the other positive developments locally, such as the recent announcement of De Havilland Canada building an aircraft manufacturing facility near the city.

Canadian UAVs opened a Lockheed Martin Distribution and Service Centre in the city in November of 2022. At the time, Greenwood, president and founder of Canadian UAVs, said that the centre in Calgary would provide one-stop service to customers across Canada.

NATO DIANA footprint map from June 2022. NATO

NATO idea for Calgary has merit

Kahrey said that one of the things that has benefited the local defence economy, and especially the small firms in that space, have been the innovation programs and funding provided by the Government of Canada already.

“I can say one of the things—and this might speak to some of the NATO work that’s coming up—one of the things that’s really helped small businesses is some of these Canadian grant opportunities,” he said.

Tacteris was the recipient of a $1.2 million Ideas for Defence Excellence and Security (IDEaS) grant from the Department of National Defence, and Minister Aanard along with MP George Chahal visited with Tacteris at Platform Calgary in August of last year.

He said that industry collaboration in Calgary has been essential, given the difficulties that small- and medium-sized businesses have faced—not just in Calgary— in engaging with the DND.

“Defence departments around the world are not exactly sure how to engage with smaller businesses. They’re used to working with all the big, big players, and some of the bureaucratic red tape that’s involved in those processes is nicely established for those big players,” Kahrey said.

“Smaller players can’t afford to have all that red tape, but we do come up with really disruptive and interesting technology. And I can say, in the last few years, these IDEaS, ISC and other sort of engagement and innovation programs with DND have been immensely helpful.”

As for a NATO DIANA location in Calgary, Kahrey said that idea wasn’t off base.

“I think it’s an idea that has legs, I think it has a lot of merit, just given that there is a there’s a deep community here,” he said.

In terms of hypotheticals, he said that getting a NATO presence in the city would be a way to start establishing Calgary as a known defence city, work to unify some of the Western Canadian defence companies, and to promote the diversification of Alberta’s economy.

“We’ll bring them together, we’ll start working together, and start solving problems.”