Canadian Defense Review Depicts Russia as an Arctic Adversary

by Rob Huebert

Arctic Deeply
July 4, 2017

The recently released Canadian defense review has attracted attention for its promises of substantial funding increases. The Liberal government has noted the need to spend more on Canadian defense and seems poised to do so. What has not been so widely noticed is the continuation of the commitment made by the previous government, led by the Conservatives’ Stephen Harper, to increase Canada’s military capabilities in the Arctic.

In fact, the Liberals under Justin Trudeau are now preparing to take Canadian Arctic securitization even further than Harper. While preceding Canadian governments have talked about the need to defend Canadian Arctic sovereignty, this defense paper is almost entirely focused on defending Canadian Arctic security. Furthermore, and most importantly, the focus is on improving Canada’s military security and not on its human security requirements.

The reason why was made clear in a speech to the House of Commons by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland the day before the release of the defense review. In a coordinated effort to establish the foreign, defense and development policy of the Trudeau government, Freeland stated that the government recognizes that Canada is facing an increasingly dangerous and uncertain international system. She specifically focused on the assertive/aggressive actions of the Russian government and the uncertainty that Donald Trump’s administration has created.

The defense review also specifically names the growing Russian threat. In one section Russia is identified as a renewed threat to international peace and stability. Specifically, “Russia has proven its willingness to test the international security environment. A degree of major power competition has returned to the international system.” The review also makes a direct reference to Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea. In short, the review and the Freeland speech make it clear that the Canadian government now views the Russian government as a renewed threat.

The defense review does state that Russia has been able to cooperate with Canada and the other Arctic nations in that region of the world, but it is careful to specify that this cooperation is within the context of economic, environmental and safety issues. It does not suggest that there is any level or form of cooperation on issues relating to security or other strategic concerns between Russia and the other Arctic states.

So what is being promised regarding Canadian Arctic security? First, the government has committed to completing the five to six Arctic offshore patrol ships initiated by the Harper administration. While these vessels are mainly designed for constabulary functions, they will give the Navy its first major capability to operate in the Arctic since it gave up its one and only icebreaker in the 1950s. The government also maintained its commitment to completing the refueling site in Nanisivik.

The review also recognizes that there is a need to modernize the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). It makes it clear that the alliance needs to be reinvigorated through an extensive effort to improve its surveillance capability. The modernization effort is to include 88 new fighter jets to replace the existing F-18 fleet, new satellite capabilities, drones and other new equipment. This will be very costly and raises the question: Why spend the money unless the government believes that there is a pressing need to do so?

The review states that there is a need to modernize one of the most important elements of NORAD: the North Warning System (formerly the DEW Line). It explains that “while the current NWS is approaching the end of its life expectancy from a technological and functional perspective, unfortunately the range of potential threats to the continent such as that posed by adversarial cruise missiles and ballistic missiles has become more complex and increasingly difficult to detect.” The only two states that currently have the ability to launch cruise missiles from within the Arctic are the United States and Russia. The use of the term “adversarial” makes it clear which one the Canadian government sees as the threat.

Even more striking is the defense review’s acknowledgment that there is a need to work more closely with NATO allies in the Arctic. This was something that the Harper government resisted. Wikileaks has revealed that the Harper government made it very clear to NATO that it did not support the efforts of some within the alliance to increase their focus on the Arctic.

In contrast, the defense review explicitly states that “among the challenges at home is the need to operate in the Arctic, alongside the Canadian Coast Guard, and alongside allied partners.” The review states that “NATO has also increased its attention to Russia’s ability to project force from its Arctic territory into the North Atlantic, and its potential to challenge NATO’s collective defense posture.” That includes Canada and its NATO allies being ready to “deter and defend against any potential threats,” such as the encroachment of naval vessels approaching Allied territory in the North Atlantic. This is one of the most important changes from the defense policies of the preceding government. In fact, the Liberals have put the threat in the Arctic in the starkest terms since the Brian Mulroney government’s defense policy of 1986.

Overall, the 2017 Liberal defense review provides a clear expression of the government’s understanding of the changing security environment as it pertains to the Arctic. The terminology is no longer cast in terms of defending Canadian Arctic sovereignty, but is now clearly about defending Canadian Arctic security. The government has also identified a clear path as to how it plans to undertake this defense. While there are questions as to whether or not the government will do what it promises to do, it is clear that it understands that the security challenges in the region today are not the ones that were assumed to exist throughout most of the 1990s and 2000s.

Rob Huebert is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary and a senior research fellow with the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies. He is also a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Image credit: Virginia Mayo / AFP

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  • commented 2017-07-06 23:21:07 -0400
    There is no threat to the arctic. DND knows this. Why else would the armies contribution to the north be Rangers in hoodies and ad hoc reserve companies from the south on an annual summer exercise. Apart from humanitarian missions and peacekeeping the only sure way to get the left to buy into the military is to worry about arctic sovereignty. Any government mention of the north is just a ploy to keep some of the left on side. There are no major bases planned for the north. No regular combat troops stationed there. No military ice breakers. Nothing has changed from the last years of the Tory government. Nor should it.

    There is also no real increase in defence spending planned unless you count massive cost overruns on ships and planes already accounted for. DND’s budget is planned to stay at less than 1% of GNP for most of the next decade- before the inevitable cuts due to the need to deal with the debt, a probable recession and normal DND inability to spend the cash it does get.
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