By Jeff Collins, January 17, 2022
“If someone were to invade the Canadian Arctic, my first task would be to rescue them,” stated Canada’s then chief of the defence staff, General Walt Natynczyk, in 2009. The general’s quip captures one of the most salient defence capability tasks of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in the Arctic today: search and rescue. At nearly four million square kilometres, the Canadian Arctic is equal to 40 percent of Canada’s landmass. Yet, at 100,000 inhabitants, it is home to fewer people than Prince Edward Island, a province not even one half of one percent the equivalent in size.
It is this vastness and sparse population that makes securing the region and ensuring Canadian sovereignty there such a challenge. Fortunately today’s security challenges are more of the constabulary variety – from providing adequate search and rescue coverage, to monitoring for pollution, overfishing, and trafficking – as opposed to classic “higher order” threats like the naval arms race taking place in the South China Sea. These challenges are reinforced by the non-military multilateralism found in the Arctic Council, the region’s preeminent inter-governmental body composed of all eight circumpolar states: Canada, the US, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia.
However, geopolitical currents are not absent. The Arctic’s history of the last eight decades shows a region not immune to geopolitical contests, great power competition, advanced weapon threats, and the importance of Canada investing in hard power military capabilities and assets.
During the Second World War, the strategic importance of the Arctic was abundantly clear to both Allies and Axis powers alike. To Canada’s northwest, the US led the way in securing the northern half of the continent in 1941 by building the Alaskan Highway between British Columbia and Alaska. Canadian troops, sailors and air personnel played key roles in helping evict the Japanese from Alaska’s Aleutian islands over the following two years.
On the opposite end of the continent, Germany established a secret weather station in Labrador (and another in Greenland) to aid its dreaded submarine “wolf packs.” In return, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and merchant marine crews battled it out against Nazi attack planes, U-boats, and warships on Arctic resupply convoys (the most fatal routes of the war) to Soviet ports in Murmansk and Archangel.
Any thoughts of reverting eyes southward again after 1945 were quickly dashed by the Soviet-American rivalry in the Cold War, which erupted in full force by the late 1940s. As the shortest airspace route between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Canadian Arctic was flyover territory for any would-be Soviet missile and bomber nuclear exchange. Successive Canadian governments, Liberal and Progressive Conservative, invested significant resources and effort in building a continental alliance with the United States.
Canada’s defence ties with the US tightened once the now named North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) was created in 1957. Tasked with air defence, airspace awareness, and maritime awareness (since 2006), NORAD is the only binational command between the US and an ally.
To ensure interoperability with its continental ally, Canada moved in the late 1950s to purchasing US-made fighter jets like the CF-101 Voodoo, a practice that endures today. The current CF-18 Hornets have been used for air patrols and interdictions. Ottawa also cooperated with Washington in building radar lines to detect Soviet airborne threats. The first of these was the Pinetree Line set up in the early 1950s, followed by the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line in 1958. The most current system is the automated North Warning System built between 1986 and 1992 on a 60-40 cost-share formula between the US and Canada.
The immediate post-Cold War Arctic defence challenges are benign in comparison to those of the Cold War (and certainly the Second World War). However, this is largely a product of the American ‘unipolar’ moment that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The US and its allies, like Canada, focused heavily on global crisis management in the Balkans, Africa, especially after 9/11, Southwest Asia and the Middle East.
Search and rescue and pollution monitoring will continue to be a focus of the CAF from a capabilities acquisition and operational perspective. But three overlapping trends point towards a more contested Arctic – one that will require big dollars and hard decisions over the next 15 years as the Department of National Defence (DND) attempts to balance fielding a CAF that is equipped to meet expeditionary alliance commitments in places like the Baltics and Iraq while also securing Canadian Arctic sovereignty at home.
First, the twin impact of climate change and the race for rare earth minerals. Melting sea ice holds the potential for relatively easier (albeit still costly and navigationally complex) access to the Arctic. With the move away from carbon-intensive energy, locking down rare earth minerals sources like cobalt, lithium and nickel for electric battery production, for example, could very well shift business and government attention northwards as demand pushes commodity prices up. Tellingly, in 2020, Canada signed a Joint Action Plan with the US on critical mineral cooperation and axed the planned purchase of a $230 million Nunavut gold mine (albeit not a critical mineral) by a Chinese state-owned corporation on national security grounds.
Second, great power competition is back and the American unipolar moment is over. China declared itself a “near Arctic state” in 2018 and took an observer seat at the Arctic Council, yet its Arctic military capabilities remain uncertain for the time being. Still, Beijing has not hid its commercial interest in accessing the Arctic for its potential riches or waterways; the latter as part of its global ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ to link major markets at sea by Chinese commercial shipping. China will likely pursue trans-Arctic passage through Russia’s more established Northern Sea Route, as opposed to Canada’s Northwest Passage, if climate change and transport costs make it feasible. Regardless, the Arctic is on Beijing’s radar and if actions in the South and East China Seas are any indication, Canada will have to come to grips with the prospects of a Chinese naval presence in the region in the coming decades.
In contrast to China, Russia’s Arctic defence posture is reinvigorated. Russia’s primary nuclear deterrent remains in the Arctic with the Northern Fleet’s nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Old Soviet bases have been refurbished, icebreakers are equipped with anti-ship missiles, cruise missile testing persists, and Tu-95 bomber flights have resumed, all pointing to a pace of military activity not seen since the latter years of the Soviet Union. So far this activity largely remains within Russian territory and its exclusive economic zone. However, tensions in Ukraine point to a Kremlin (at least with Vladimir Putin still in command) willing to threaten military force to protect regional political, military and economic interests.
Finally, there is the future foreign policy alignments of two island jurisdictions, Greenland and Iceland. Domestic Greenland opinion favours independence and although the government in Nuuk has resisted plans by Chinese private and state-owned companies to buy a former Danish naval station, build airports, and develop iron ore, uranium, and critical minerals, this can be chalked up to Danish economic protection and foreign and defence policy control.
A future independent Greenland looking to curry investment in its vast resources and build transportation infrastructure may find itself saying ‘yes’ to China or Russia with potential significant geopolitical knock on effects in the region. True, Greenland is home to the US air force base in Thule but as Djibouti has shown in east Africa, a small, stable geostrategic important state can host multiple competing powers, and generate significant revenue while doing so. Similarly, an anti-alliance government that takes Iceland out of NATO is not unthinkable either and almost happened in the ‘Cod Wars’ of the 1970s with the UK.
Fortunately, the CAF are not completely unprepared for the growing range of challenges in the Arctic in the coming decade and a half. Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE), the Trudeau government’s 2017 defence policy, recognizes “the rising international interest” in the region. On the capabilities front, the first of the RCN’s six Arctic and Offshore Patrol ships (AOPS), HMCS Harry DeWolf, is already operational. The vessel is capable of transiting first year ice and in 2021 completed the RCN’s first continental circumnavigation through the Arctic since 1954. The Canadian Coast Guard is also getting two versions of the AOPS in addition to six ‘Program’ icebreakers and two Polar icebreakers with the first entering service by 2030; a significant boost to the world’s second-largest icebreaker fleet.
Sometime this year, the Trudeau government will select the next fighter jet for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). The $19 billion Future Fighter Capability project (FFCP) replaces the existing 76 (estimated) four-decade-old CF-18s with 88 new jets. Whether it’s the Saab Gripen or Lockheed Martin F-35, these multi-role jets will be used for northern continental defence. Moreover, the RCAF’s 14 CP-140 patrol planes are nearing the end of a $2 billion, extensive modernization project. The RCAF has already begun taking delivery of its 16 new C-295 fixed wing search and rescue planes while the RCN’s Nanisivik naval refueling station is due to (likely) open this year.
Yet much remains uncertain about Canada’s ability to safeguard its territorial claims; provide support to territorial and Indigenous governments and other federal agencies like the Department of Fisheries and Oceans; and monitor the increasing military and commercial activities in the region by friend and foe alike. For one, Canada’s procurement system remains something to be desired. By the DND’s own admission, it takes on average 15 years or more for a new major capability to be delivered. SSE declared that some 70 percent of defence procurement projects were subject to delay. In fact, the C-295 planes, fighter jets, and Nanisivik station are well over a decade behind schedule.
Critically, and although a project office has been stood up, there remains no financial commitment in SSE for a new submarine replacement. The same can be said for NORAD modernization. Canada’s four existing Victoria-class diesel-electric submarines are incapable of safely transiting under Arctic ice and are due to be retired between 2036-42. If Canada is serious about having situational awareness in the Arctic, including underwater, it will have to seriously consider nuclear submarines, a concept with a fraught domestic history.
The NWS radars built three decades ago as part of NORAD are nearing the end of their operational life. The Trudeau government, right before the 2021 federal election, issued a joint statement with the Biden administration on the need to modernize NORAD but there are no timelines, financial commitments, or shopping list of desired capabilities. The statement acknowledges Arctic geopolitical competition, the impact of climate change, and advances in conventional missile threats (e.g., Russian hypersonic missiles) and leaves it open to both parties on what those capabilities can be.
Crucially, a 2021 National Defence briefing note on a submarine replacement noted the role submarines can play in joint surveillance and intelligence gathering for NORAD in the Arctic, signifying a possible alignment between the two major Canadian Arctic defence capability gaps.
There could be opportunities to pursue closer minilateral ties with close allies to boost Canadian capability in the Arctic. For example, the UK has expressed interest in offering its nuclear submarines for Canadian Arctic surveillance in exchange for cold weather training and operational expertise. The 2021 Australian-UK-US (AUKUS) pact on nuclear submarine and advanced technology (e.g., cybersecurity) sharing is another allied model Canada could examine. However, such helpful arrangements are not without their drawbacks, including submarine availability, command and control issues, cost-sharing, and a break with longstanding Canadian concerns over NATO or allied involvement undermining Arctic territorial claims.
Any new defence capability investment, NORAD modernization, submarines or otherwise, still have to compete with the biggest hurdle of all: competing federal priorities and process. The fallout over massive COVID expenditures, negotiating necessary cooperation agreements with Indigenous peoples, and Canada’s protracted procurement system all need to be navigated to ensure the CAF acquires timely and effective capabilities. Either way, the time to decide begins now.
Jeffrey F. Collins is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Prince Edward Island and a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.