The Canadian Armed Forces and the Arctic: Maintaining a Suitable and Sustainable Role

This piece was originally published by the Conference for Defense Associations Institute. It may be read in its original form here.

In this new CDA Institute Analysis, Adam MacDonald looks at the military requirements for Canada in the Arctic, concluding that the capabilities need to be suitable for the security environment and financially sustainable given other defence commitments. The following is an excerpt of the Analysis.

rsz macdonald analysis may 2016coverDue to its increasing accessibility resulting from climate change, the Arctic could become a contested and militarized arena in which states within the region and beyond attempt to secure and gain access to lucrative shipping routes and resources. Such an eventuality poses particular challenges to Canadian sovereignty and security. Stemming from such a characterization, the Harper government had long prioritized the Arctic as a defence issue, raising the spectre that Canadian sovereignty in the North could be irrevocably compromised – we either ‘use it or lose it.’

While silent on which potential adversaries were threatening to usurp Canadian ownership, the Harper government sought to restore a military presence in the Arctic by “placing more boots on the Arctic tundra, more ships in the icy water and a better eye-in-the-sky.” In his 2005 campaign, in particular, Harper promised a litany of Arctic-specific defence projects to rectify the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) dearth of presence and operational experience in the region. The promotion of the ‘sovereignty at risk’ narrative seemed to justify the construction of a robust and permanent military presence in the Arctic. In reality, however, Canada requires a different type of military presence and capability suite than commonly perceived (or advocated).

Canada’s security challenges in the North do not emanate from a military threat but are rather largely constabulary in nature. Defending sovereignty is the perennial duty of the military but in the Arctic there is no credible, state-based threat capable of challenging Canadian ownership of its waters and territories, with a few exceptions which are well managed. Despite its sometimes fiery rhetoric, the former Conservative government’s various Arctic policy documents reflected such an appreciation of the threat environment. With the near absence of state-based threats, military requirement in the Arctic need to be suitable for this particular security environment and sustainable given the operating challenges of the region, as well as other competing military priorities.

At present, the military is focusing their Arctic efforts on increasing domain awareness via surveillance and maintaining a light regional footprint to facilitate Northern operations and, when required, support the deployment of southern based-units which are increasingly training in the North, often in conjunction with other security agencies and regional partners. Deploying large contingents of combat capable forces is ill-advised given the nature of the threat, prohibitively expensive given the harsh operating environment (especially the High Arctic), and potentially compromising other missions and mandates by drawing resources away.

The Arctic Security Environment

With the end of the Cold War, the strategic importance of the Arctic diminished significantly allowing for the construction of regional forums dedicated towards common interests, specifically climate research. Rapidly changing environmental conditions, however, are transforming the Arctic landscape by increasing accessibility to human activity to an unprecedented level. Amongst this uncertainty, issues of ownership and access have fueled the development of a narrative of the Arctic as moving away from a politically stable region to one of high geopolitical importance characterized by growing complexity, competition, and perhaps even rivalry. In such a narrative, the current regional architecture is simply unable to adjust and accommodate the expected scramble for resources and political influence.

Not surprisingly, a popular theme has been the growing ‘militarization’ of the Arctic over the past decade. There is no denying that all Arctic states are augmenting their military capabilities in their northern territories, including the stationing of combat-capable units. As one commentator has remarked, “we may be entering the first stages of an Arctic arms race, in which competition and conflict may overwhelm our desires and rhetoric to have a cooperative régime for the developing circumpolar world.” The augmenting presence, capability development, and employment of military forces in the Arctic is an emerging reality, but their use is, by and large, within recognized national borders and waters.

Moreover, they are largely focused on exercising sovereign control to ensure compliance with state laws, border control, and search and rescue. Retaining combat forces to defend against state-based threats in the Arctic is a marginal requirement at this time. Arctic countries are more concerned about increasing their domain awareness in parts of their jurisdictions characterized by large geographic areas, small and sparse populations, and a lack of infrastructure, surveillance, and response capacities.

The flurry of recent Russian military projects in the Arctic, including icebreaker construction and the re-activation of air and army bases on their northern islands, are in part aimed at establishing unquestioned ownership of the Northern Sea Route, regardless of legal objections by the US that the waters constitute an international strait. This is not to suggest that developing a war-fighting capacity in the Arctic is not an objective of Moscow. However, domestic political calculations and constabulary requirements have heavily shaped the makeup and operational nature of military developments thus far in the region. Some military developments in the Arctic, furthermore, are based on larger, extra-regional factors. Modernization of the Russian Northern Fleet, for instance, is designed to upgrade their nuclear submarine deterrent and for global operations. Similarly, the US ground-based interceptors in Alaska are meant to counter a missile attack from a rogue state, specifically North Korea.

Most commentators are quick to assert that militarization is becoming a dominant force driving regional politics, but are at a loss in not only providing an operational definition (e.g., what does ‘militarization’ mean?) but also in explaining how this process will contribute to the destabilization of the region beyond simplistic narratives (Russia versus NATO; non-Arctic states versus Arctic states). There are no territorial disputes in the Arctic, with the exception of the relatively benign dispute over Hans Island between Canada and Denmark, and there is no evidence to suggest Russia or any other Arctic nation is moving to employ military forces over contested Extended Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) or to gain unobstructed access to polar shipping routes.

Click here to read the rest of the CDA Institute Analysis.

Adam P. MacDonald is an academic based in Halifax, Nova Scotia specializing in geopolitical developments in the Arctic and East Asia. He is a regular contributor to the Canadian Naval Review, East Asia Forum and Frontline Defence.

Featured Image: Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker. Photo: Lucie Lefrancois. 

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