Security on a Changing Frontier
Sep 15, 2010

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There’s no doubt that the Arctic already plays a major role in Canada’s national psyche and sense of identity. “The true North strong and free” resonates as much for Canadians when they sing their national anthem, as “the rockets red glare” does for Americans. And yet, few Canadians have directly witnessed the High North’s forbidding beauty, or experienced its harsh tyrannies and extremes of climate, remoteness and austerity.
The Arctic Archipelago is one of the world’s largest – and it’s a long way from anywhere. The Northwest Passage, for example, is further from Halifax and Victoria than are London and Tokyo respectively.
Fundamentally, the Arctic is a maritime theatre – there will not likely be an explosion of road and rail connections to drive and sustain development, as was the case with the great western movement of settlers across North America. Northern communities, as they develop, will be connected by air and sea. They will be supplied and sustained by ship, not by rail car.
The Arctic is an ocean space, a vast archipelago enveloped in an oceanic icefield that both defines and dominates the environment. And unlike most other ocean spaces in the world, it is virtually inaccessible for all but short seasons in the late summer and early fall. Even then, the oceanic icefield is at best only partially navigable by vessels that are specifically designed to operate in multi-year ice that can be as hard as concrete.
For much of the remainder of the year, winter retains the High North in an icy grip. Nowhere else on earth, with the exception of Antarctica, is less forgiving to the unprepared.
Despite its surreal and almost alien beauty – the Arctic brooks no mistake, leaves little margin for error and demands exceptional forethought and planning in order to work and survive there.
A Parable of Change for this 21st Century
Just as all lines of longitude meet at the North Pole, many of the drivers and trends shaping our 21st century are also converging in the Arctic, compelling us northwards. In fact, we are likely to see more change in the Arctic in the coming two to three decades than since Europeans first arrived in Greenland.
Indeed, strategic consideration of the region is being propelled into the foreground – bringing the five coastal states that encircle the Arctic Ocean, and the eight nations stretching north beyond the Arctic Circle, towards the center of world affairs.
Predictions may vary, but all of the analyses of which I am aware suggest that climate change will open the Arctic Ocean as a commercially viable sea-route between Europe and Asia for the first time in recorded history. Recent trends suggest that such an eventuality could arrive much sooner than many thought possible even a few years ago. In all likelihood, a northern sea route will emerge across the Arctic Basin well before the fabled Northwest Passage. And the advantages for ‘transit’ shipping of this long-sought northern passage across the Arctic Ocean are such that shipping patterns world-wide are likely to be altered significantly, with consequences that will be felt not only in the northern hemisphere but even on the other side of the equator.
In conjunction with climate change, improvements in extraction technologies will make Arctic seabed resources commercially exploitable, again potentially much sooner than many had previously envisaged, with prospects of greatly increased ‘destination’ shipping (such as cruise ships) going in and out of the Arctic rather than through it.
And the economic stakes are enormous. Awaiting each of the five Arctic coastal states in their offshore estates are precious inheritances for decades to come – vast energy and mineral reserves that have been already discovered, or are believed to lie, in the Arctic Basin and its periphery.
All of this will bring new and unprecedented levels of human activity in the high North, including not only a host of economic opportunities in northern societies, but also accelerating social change as traditional lifestyles are progressively altered, as well as greater risks to the environment as climate change continues to alter fragile Arctic ecosystems.
Elsewhere, pressures of this kind would lead invariably to a significant rise in tension and confrontation, as we have seen recently in headlines describing the dispute between Japan and China over a small island chain in the South China Sea which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands and China calls the Diaoyutai.
However, as the recent boundary delinea tion agreement between Russia and Norway attests, we have every confidence that competition for resources in the Arctic will be moderated by cooperation, and disputes reconciled by law and diplomacy.
Defence analysts do not envisage a conventional military threat in the Arctic for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the prospects of greatly increased economic activity will bring with them increased risks of marine incident and environmental accident from both transit and destination shipping, while affording to others the opportunity to mask their criminal or terrorist undertakings at sea or ashore.
Maritime Role in Canada’s High North
At the most fundamental level, the navy’s role in all three of Canada’s ocean spaces, including the Arctic, is to assist the other elements of the federal family to regulate our ocean approaches.
This is what we do today, and have always done, in the Atlantic and Pacific approaches to Canada. The Arctic will be no different – our role will not change in northern latitudes. What makes the Arctic unique, however, is the extreme climate, the remoteness and austerity that make it a true frontier. The prospect of ongoing and potentially accelerating change, that we cannot fully predict, presents rising security risks and consequences that we must assuredly help to address.
Accordingly, we must hasten the delivery of Canadian Forces capabilities that will safeguard our northern sovereignty, as well as underwrite the peaceful and regulated development of our High North.
From the military perspective, this translates into a need to improve our ability to (a) monitor what’s happening in the Arctic maritime domain from the seabed to near-space, and (b) exert a controlling presence where and when needed, in support of other Government departments.
New Military Initiatives
The Canadian Forces already maintains a number of assets in the North, but the Canada First Defence Strategy identified five new initiatives that will begin to enhance our needs for greater maritime domain awareness and presence in the region:

  • Acquisition of 6-8 Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships whose hull design will feature the characteristics needed to operate with assured independence in the Arctic ice field: the ocean-going stability required to operate in northern Atlantic and Pacific waters at other times of the year; with the requirement for redundancy in mission-critical systems to avoid becoming trapped in ice by equipment failure when the closest assistance may be many weeks or indeed months away; and with the endurance needed to deploy thousands of nautical miles to our High North and to operate there for extended periods of time at extended range.
  • The Arctic Berthing and Refuelling Facility that will be established on Baffin Island.
  • Establishment of the Canadian Forces Arctic Training Centre in Resolute Bay to facilitate training in this uniquely challenging climate.
  • Use of the RADARSAT II satellite for wide-area surveillance.
  • Expansion and modernization of the Canadian Rangers, part-time reservists who play a key role in providing persistent presence and surveillance in northern coastal regions. Indeed, they are truly Canada’s “eyes and ears” in the northern lands.

National and International Cooperation
Effective stewardship of the Arctic will be achieved through the cultivation of productive partnerships between all levels of government and with the peoples of the North. To this end, our annual deployments involve significant cooperation and participation with other federal departments, and territorial and municipal departments and agencies, as we learn to adapt what already works well in the Atlantic and Pacific to this new and most challenging third maritime theatre.
But cooperation also extends beyond our borders, as nations that have common interests must also find ways to work together. And because conditions in the North make operating in those regions demanding and costly, governments must pursue innovative means to overcome these obstacles.
Attention that is drawn to disagreements, such as over the status of the Northwest Passage, is in my view misplaced. This is one area where the U.S. and Canada have agreed to disagree. But with the public focused on such issues, insufficient attention is paid to the extensive international cooperation that does take place.
Canada’s relations with our Northern neighbours are actually very positive. From an institutional perspective, northern issues are systematically addressed through the Arctic Council, which brings together the eight Arctic states and indigenous organizations. Cooperation on the planning and conduct of search and rescue operations is progressing to multi-lateral arrangements through that forum.
Canada is cooperating on the scientific work to delineate the extent of our continental shelf with the U.S. and Denmark, and contributes to similar multi-national efforts with Russia and Norway as well.
The Canadian Coast Guard transports supplies to the U.S. base at Thule, Greenland, and the joint Canada-U.S. NORAD is responsible for continental aerospace control and maritime warning.
Direct military cooperation is also evident in how our operations are evolving. For example, the U.S. and Denmark both participated this summer in the military Exercise NASIQ, as part of Operation Nanook, in the Davis Strait/Baffin Bay area.
So, there are many opportunities for – and examples of – valuable collaboration and information exchange in the North.
Looking to the Future
The Arctic long ago captured the hearts of Canadians. It must now occupy our minds (as well as our pocket-books) as we grapple to address the consequences of dramatic change that are begin to unfold in our High North – consequences that are beginning to emerge along every human axis: social, cultural, technological and political.
It is a truly strategic decision to not just look north, but to go there. And go there we most assuredly will. The Canadian Forces will be an integral and significant part of Canada’s move to safeguard our precious national inheritance and fulfill our responsibilities as both a coastal state and an Arctic nation.

Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden was appointed as the head of Canada’s Navy in June 2009.
© FrontLine Defence 2010