COMMENTARY: Canada needs an Arctic defence strategy as Russia, China eye the north

The crew of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter was surprised this summer to find the Chinese and Russian navies conducting a joint exercise in open water in the Arctic Ocean.

Details about what was apparently a serendipitous discovery of the Chinese and Russian vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard were sparse.

Until this chance encounter near the top of the world, Western countries with an interest in the Far North, such as Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, the United Kingdom, France and the United States, were unaware of what was going on, a former commandant of the coast guard told a recent virtual conference hosted by the Defense News.

The intelligence lapse was telling. The U.S. and its allies, including Canada, are doing more in Arctic waters in response to global warming and Russian and Chinese military activities and shipping there.

Despite underwater monitoring systems, as the U.S. Coast Guard found out, potential enemies are probably doing a lot more there than is generally known. A major shortcoming, according to Defense News, is that satellites tend to be oriented toward more target-rich environments that are a lot farther south.

American and British submarines, and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which has naturally been more concerned with the air domain, have been building up their ability to monitor the northern, western and eastern approaches to the continent. What is lacking is a common western strategy to defend the Arctic or the fantastic oil, gas, mineral and fisheries reserves that lie within or near Canadian, American and Greenlandic territory up there.

Canada’s approach has been typical. During the five years that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been in power, there has been almost no talk about doing anything in Canada’s north, let alone consideration of an Arctic strategy, either with the military or in concert with the Inuit.

Were Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole to become prime minister, he has said that he would make building up Canadian defences in the north a priority. The stumbling block for any government is that building and maintaining anything in the Arctic is hugely expensive and the national debt has been growing by the minute this year.

Any attention from the politicians would be greatly appreciated by the tiny band of Canadian academics and even smaller group of journalists who take this issue seriously. For Canadians, it should be as much a question of sovereignty (use it or lose it) as of devising a policy to protect it or exert control over the vast, fragile environment.

Politicians are not the only ones to blame for this historic lack of interest in the Canadian Arctic. They take their cue from Canadians, including educators, who often claim a great sentimental attachment to the north but have never pressed their governments to do anything about it.

There are glimmers of hope. The Canadian Coast Guard is in the High Arctic every summer and fall. The Canadian Armed Forces has been testing unmanned sensors and underwater microphones. The Royal Canadian Navy has operated in Baffin Bay and the Beaufort Sea in recent years, sailing with the Canadian and U.S. coast guards and European and American warships. Canada’s navy, air force and army participated in a major NATO land, sea and air exercise two years ago in Norway.

The RCAF has been busy nearer home this summer, dispatching CF-18 Hornets to intercept Russian strategic bombers, fighter jets and reconnaissance aircraft escorting top-of-the-line U.S. air force bombers on long exercises across the Canadian North.

Ordered 13 years ago by the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper, the Royal Canadian Navy now has two of its eight De Wolfe class Arctic patrol vessels in the water. While the RCN is happy to have anything new after decades of government neglect, the De Wolfe class ships have limited ice-breaking capability and cannot operate in the High Arctic during the winter.

The least expensive way for Canada to get a better grip on what Russia and China are doing in and near its territory is to have much better intelligence from satellites and relatively inexpensive surface and underwater monitoring systems. The best way to monitor the polar region is with under-ice capable submarines, though each one will cost close to $1 billion.

If Canada is serious about its Arctic interests, it needs to finally deliver its long-discussed new icebreakers, which cost nearly $800 million each. As for subs, recent technological breakthroughs by the Japanese have produced batteries that make it possible for the first time for non-nuclear submarines to operate under the ice cap for many weeks at a time.

Russia has about 40 old icebreakers and is building a fleet of at least 13 modern Polar Star icebreakers designed to cut through as much as three metres of ice. After several years of technical glitches, the biggest icebreaker ever built finally left St. Petersburg a few days ago to begin its first Arctic mission.

President Vladimir Putin has been pouring resources into Russia’s north. It has 13 military airfields, top-of-the-line anti-aircraft missile batteries up there, and has been sending a new generation of submarines to its Northern Fleet. Thousands of combat troops have been posted to new or refurbished Cold War-era bases along the Arctic coast or on Arctic islands. Though it has been hard to figure out why, Moscow has even put tanks above the Arctic Circle.

China, which has declared itself “a near Arctic state,” is a new factor. Beijing has two medium-strength icebreakers, is building the first of a new class of much more powerful icebreakers, and, ominously, has said it regards the north as an area for all countries to exploit.

The clock is ticking. If Canada wishes to have any influence over what happens on its northern border, Ottawa and its allies will have to prioritize developing an Arctic defence strategy and spend a lot of money. Otherwise, it will be another easy victory for Russia and China.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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