The Forgotten Frontier

By Tyler Hooper

In August 2014 Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke to troops on Baffin Island the day after the Canadian Armed Forces took part in Operation NANOOK, its annual northern military operation: “In Europe we see the imperial ambitions of Vladimir Putin (speaking to the conflict in Ukraine), who seems determined that, for Russia’s neighbours, there shall be no peace … And because Russia is also Canada’s neighbour, we must not be complacent here at home.”

Currently, conversations of the CAF tend to focus on the Middle East and combating terrorist groups like ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). However, in recent years countries like the U.S., Denmark, Norway, Russia and even China have attempted to lay claim to various ridges and boundaries around the North Pole. As a result, there has been some discussion amongst academics and politicians on how important preserving Canadian sovereignty in the north is, with most rhetoric looking at the perceived threat of foreign incursions from other nations, such as Russia, who have made several aggressive gestures, including planting a Russian flag near the North Pole in 2007.

This perceived Russian “threat” has led some to discuss the role of the CAF in protecting Canadian Arctic sovereignty and what should, or can, be done to improve Canada’s presence in the north. Is the CAF and current federal government doing enough to ensure Canada can protect its northern waters, resources and citizens? Are foreign incursions from countries like Russia really a threat, or are there other hazards to Canada’s north?

The Threat(s)

Michael Byers, a professor of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, says that it is undoubtedly true that the Arctic will play a greater role in Canada’s interests in the future: “Well, I think, the simple answer is it is going to play a much greater role, just because of the reality of climate change.”

Colonel (retired) Pierre Leblanc, who commanded the Canadian Forces Northern Area from 1995 until his retirement in 2000 and who now operates Arctic Security Consultants, explains why the north has become an international hot spot in recent years: “What has changed in the Arctic is in the past — when the Arctic was frozen basically all year round — it was basically a no-go-area; it was just too challenging to go there, and expensive. But with global warming more and more of the Canadian Arctic is opening up … and there is a lot of oil and gas in the Arctic.”

In essence, because of climate change, parts of the Northwest Passage (NWP) will open up due to the melting and thawing of ice, which will lead to opportunities for mining operations to extract these resources and this, in turn, will create more shipping traffic in the Arctic’s waterways. These factors, mixed with Russia’s aggressive gestures in the north, have some worried that the CAF is ill equipped to monitor and protect Canada’s northern land and waterways.  

Supplies out on parade during NOREX 2015.

Supplies out on parade during NOREX 2015.

Byers doesn’t see Russia as being an imminent threat towards Canada: “I don’t see any military problems between Canada and Russia, at least not ones that start in the Arctic.” But he elaborated that there are other potential problems Canada needs to prepare for: “The security challenges in the Arctic remain in a non-state character: illegal immigration, smuggling, the possibility of a rogue oil tanker trying to use the Northwest Passage and causing an oil spill …”
Leblanc echoed a similar sentiment suggesting that “The biggest threat we have to the Canadian Arctic (speaking as a retired joint task force commander) is to the environment and ultimately to the people … As more and more traffic increases … we want to make sure that whoever comes into the Arctic comes in under our rules and regulations …” Leblanc also suggested that because of the fragile nature of the northern food chain, avoiding an environmental disaster is imperative for the people, animals and wildlife that inhabit the region.

Auriel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto, said he also concurred that protecting the North’s fragile eco-system was undoubtedly important, but he also cautioned that Russia’s presence in the region cannot be entirely ignored.
“We are facing a Russia that has become extremely assertive and some would even suggest aggressive,” said Braun, adding that in recent years Russia has opened old military bases and is building new ones, many in its northern region.

In recent years Russia has also increased its military spending, with approximately 4.2 per cent of its GDP going towards military expenditures; in comparison, Canada’s military spending has decreased. Currently, Canada annually spends approximately 1 per cent of GDP on military procurement.

“There is a danger of an escalation [due] to Russian recklessness,” Braun cautioned. “That means we need to have forces up north, they have to be well trained and properly equipped.”
Whether the real threat is a foreign power, such as Russia, or an environmental disaster, many agree that more equipment, technology and manpower need to be directed towards Canada’s north. If this is the case, what should the CAF and Canadian government focus on procuring?

The Future of Canadian Military Procurement

Byers suggested that the CAF still needs to find more efficient and cost-effective ways to send troops and resources to the area in a timely matter. “I would actually argue that we have the equipment, we just don’t deploy it to the Arctic as much as we should,” said Byers. Overall, he attributed cost and logistics as two of the major hurdles to procurement and deployment of troops and equipment.  

Byers added that, although there are currently 14 search and rescue (SAR) helicopters in the country, most are stationed on either the West or East Coast, leaving the north vulnerable. Moreover, despite the Canadian military having close to 5,000 Rangers stationed in the north, they are ill-equipped; one example being Prime Minister Harper’s broken promise to replace the Rangers’ aging Enfield rifle with something more modern.

Setting-up a tent during NOREX '15.

Setting-up a tent during NOREX '15.

There has also been discussion around Canada’s desperate need to acquire proper icebreakers and vessels to patrol the Arctic waters. Prime Minister Harper has faltered on his 2005 promise to have several new Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers built. This has left vessels like the aging icebreaker the Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Louis St. Laurent, which was brought into service in 1969, patrolling Canada’s north. There are approximately five other “functioning” Coast Guard icebreakers in service, with only one new ship, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, scheduled to be built in the coming decade as part of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS).
Braun agreed that more Arctic patrol vessels and a proper, newer icebreaker fleet would be ideal for patrolling Canada’s north. “We need to move up on acquiring icebreakers that are effective, and acquiring first-generation aircraft,” said Braun.

The Harper government has yet to commit to a permanent plan to replace the aging CF-18s, flip-flopping on whether Canada will acquire the next-generation fighter jet, the F-35. The Joint Strike Fighter has proved controversial as many suggest its single-engine capabilities would be troublesome in the event of engine failure while on a long patrol over Canada’s desolate north. In addition, a recent report released by the Department of National Defence estimates Canada would end up paying approximately $46 billion dollars for 65 F-35s, which is far from the original estimated cost.  

So what should the Canadian government and CAF be doing to ensure Canada can protect its people, waterways and northern habitat?

Braun stressed that although we are not in another Cold War with Russia, “We, of course, need to be proactive … Sadly I would like to see more spending on education rather than defence, but in order to protect education in Canada we need to have a proper defence and that’s a reality.”

Leblanc stressed that Canada needs to be able to monitor foreign vessels coming in to Canadian waters to ensure they have proper equipment, such as spill kits and double hulls, while continuing to “increase our ability to monitor the Arctic … I recommended a number of years ago that we deploy high frequency surface wave radars at the choke points, the entry points, of the Canadian Arctic to make sure that we know who is coming in and what the condition of those ships are,” said Leblanc.

Ultimately, Byers said cost is the biggest hurdle in properly procuring military equipment for our northern forces, but also suggested our politicians and leaders need to recognize the importance of the north.

“This is not difficult, it is simply a questions of political will,” stated Byers. “And recognizing that the Arctic is important enough that we should spend the money necessary to be there … One of the ironies is the more often you send them (CAF troops), the better they get at it and that, in turn, reduces the cost the next time around … If you don’t train there, you won’t be able to operate there when the need arises.”