A 21st century navy rooted in the past: The Royal Canadian Navy is no newcomer to the Arctic

By Andrew Warden

Later this year construction will commence on the new Harry DeWolf-class offshore patrol vessels (commonly known as the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship, or AOPS). This type of warship is new to Canada, and a long-awaited key plank in the Government of Canada’s Arctic strategy.
However, maritime operations in the Arctic have been an important mandate of the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) and other government organisations for decades.

 A conceptual design of Canada's new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships

A conceptual design of Canada's new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships


As any historian will argue, when talking about the future it is important to reflect on the past. While this new class of ship brings added capabilities for the Royal Canadian Navy, it will not be the first Canadian naval ship to operate in the Arctic. HMCS Labrador was a 3,800-tonne, 82-metre modified U.S. Coast Guard Wind-class icebreaker, commissioned in the RCN in 1954 — over 60 years ago. HMCS Labrador operated in the Arctic before Canadian Coast Guard existed. This was the first ship ever to circumnavigate North America in the same voyage and reached the furthest point northwards of any Canadian government ship at 81 degrees 45 minutes North latitude.


The work that Labrador completed was essential for the RCN to develop expertise in operating in such a hostile and remote—not to mention uncharted—territory as is the Canadian Arctic. Distinguished naval officers such as Captain O.C.S. Robertson, GM RCN and Captain T.C. Pullen, RCN served as Commanding Officers during its short tenure as a commissioned warship.


A particularly notable officer was then-Lieutenant Neil St. Clair “Chesty” Norton, RCN the hydrographic officer aboard Labrador during her voyages to the Arctic. Later in his career Norton commanded HMC Ships Fundy, New Waterford, Kootenay and Saskatchewan (he was captain of Kootenay during the infamous gearbox explosion in 1969). On retirement from the navy he returned to the Arctic with the Canadian Hydrographic Service as master of the survey ship CSS Baffin, completing several Arctic surveys.

 HMCS Labrador

HMCS Labrador

Labrador was transferred to the Department of Transport in 1957, and became part of the new Canadian Coast Guard four years later. Nevertheless, it was those three years Labrador served with the RCN, and the people like Robertson, Pullen and Norton, that laid the groundwork for today’s RCN to operate in the Arctic.


So, what will this new class of warship contribute to Canada’s maritime presence? Moreover as this class is arguably the first Canadian warship specifically designed to operate in the Arctic, it also brings up questions regarding their purpose, and more what a 21st century Arctic naval environment will look like?


With over 160,000 km of coastline, Canada’s Arctic Archipelago is most assuredly a maritime domain, and as such, will be an essential responsibility of the RCN throughout the next century. What was once isolated and inaccessible for the vast majority of the year is quickly developing into a future marine highway, and it will fall largely on the RCN to help police, monitor, and defend this maritime territory to the same extent that it already does on Canada’s two other coasts.


The main challenge for any navy wanting to operate in the Arctic is the sheer distances involved as well as maintaining first-hand knowledge and experience. To put things in comparison, it is approximately 4,200 kilometres from Halifax to Canadian Forces Station Alert, which is more than the 4,000 kilometres between Halifax to Ireland. In effect, any Canadian ship deploying to the Arctic will be going through similar challenges to deploying across the Atlantic, albeit with the added difficulty of having no major docking facilities once it arrives on station.


The first challenge, that of distance, can only be mitigated through establishing and maintaining forward operating facilities and storage depots that Canadian ships can draw on when in the Arctic. While not as robust as some would like, the proposed Nanisivik Naval Facility will at least address the issue of fueling up when on patrol in the Arctic. The second challenge is somewhat more difficult to address in that experience can only be gained over time. Since the summer of 2007, Operation Nanook has been taking place, providing the RCN an opportunity to participate in Arctic exercises. As the DeWolf-class come online over the next several years, it is paramount that there be enough sailors who have actually deployed to the Arctic to crew the new ships. This should help lessen any learning curve in operating in a new environment.

 Nanisivik now: Not much to work with for the RCN without some major investment.

Nanisivik now: Not much to work with for the RCN without some major investment.

The simple reality is that its sheer remoteness and hostile environment means that very few navies could actually operate in the Arctic environment. Cooperation will be key, and in this area, Canada is very fortunate. If you look at the Arctic nations (by membership in the Arctic Council), 5 of the 8 members are also NATO members, and of the other 3, only one could be described as less than friendly towards the West. This means that of the nations that currently operate in the Arctic and has access to some sort of facilities in the North, most can be relied on to cooperate and indeed assist the RCN within the Arctic.


Furthermore, cooperation in the Arctic should not be limited to just between nations, but also between departments within the Government of Canada. In order for any navy ship, or any other military asset for that matter, to operate effectively in the Arctic, cooperation with other government agencies is key. The Canadian Coast Guard in particular has been operating in the Arctic for decades and will be a key partner moving forward. However, cooperation is not limited to the Coast Guard as there are many other important government agencies who can help the RCN operate in the Arctic.


The conclusion that can be drawn from all of this is that any potential conflict that would occur in the Arctic in the 21st century is rather limited. There are few land based establishments and even fewer nations with any type of experience operating there. In contrast, Canada does have some infrastructure — albeit limited — in the Arctic and has been operating there in one form or another for over 60 years. This means that Canada is quite ahead of the curve and could have an advantage in any potential developments in the Arctic due to its experience in operating there. With the addition of the DeWolf-class, you can argue that Canada is well on its way to being a true 21st Century Arctic Navy.