Canada’s Sovereignty in the Arctic

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (FAAE)
feat. David Perry
October 24, 2018


Opening Statement

Mr. Chair, Members of the Committee, thank you for the invitation to speak to you today as part of your study of Canadian sovereignty in our arctic.  In my opening remarks I will focus on the aspect of your study addressing “Russian Militarization of their northern territories.”

These hearings are happening at an important time because the strategic environment in and around Canada’s Arctic is becoming increasingly complicated.  Advances in military modernization by Russia are presenting increasing levels of threat to Canada and our allies in, and through, the Arctic.  These factors require Canada to treat the defence of Canada against conventional military threats more seriously than it has in the past and enhance our ability to defend Canada and North America in the Canadian Arctic. 

Canadian policy regarding the Arctic is strangely inconsistent, however.  With our NATO allies we are strongly committed to the defence of Europe and deterrence of Russia, including in the Arctic. In fact, we are currently sending roughly 2,000 troops, four ships and eleven aircraft to participate in NATO’s exercise Trident Juncture in Norway as we speak.  Part of the objective of the exercise is to “ensure that NATO forces are trained, able to operate together and ready to respond to any threat from any direction.” 

And yet, as previous testimony from Canadian officials as part of this committees’ study has indicated, Canada’s official position is that the Canadian Arctic is a zone for peace and cooperation.  That is certainly a desirable outcome.  To increase the chances of realizing it, we should strengthen our ability to understand what is happening in our Arctic and bolster our defences there in an effort to better deter Russia.  In doing so we would be taking the same prudent approach in the Canadian Arctic that we employ in Europe and the North Atlantic with NATO of increasing our defensive posture and deterring Russian aggression.  As our Chief of Defence Staff General Vance has stated it is difficult to conceive of strategic threats to Europe which would not also manifest themselves in North America and at present these are most likely to emanate from the Russian North.  For this reason it is time for Canada to treat the entire Arctic as an integrated strategic region and adopt a consistent defence approach.

I say this because over the last several years the Russian military has significantly upgraded its air and naval forces and continues to do so.  Much of this activity, including that related to Russian strategic forces has been concentrated in the Russian North.  The Russians have demonstrated the effectiveness of this new equipment as well as a willingness to use it to advance their own interests.

In Syria, Russian forces successfully employed a new class of sophisticated conventional air and sea launched cruise missiles that have a greatly increased range, are difficult to observe, and are capable of precision targeting.  Three aspects of this development are troubling.  First, these weapons come in both nuclear and conventional variants.  This complicates efforts to assess the nature of Russian activity and provides them additional options for escalation in a crisis which could increase the changes of miscalculation.  Second, these missiles can be carried by Russian Long Range Patrol Aircraft as well as their newest and most capable submarines. Patrols by both aircraft and submarines have increased in the last several years, with the latter now at Cold War levels.  Third, because of the increased distances at which these new missiles can successfully hit targets and their low observability characteristics, the current arrangements for defending North America will have to be upgraded to counter them effectively.  Given the basing arrangements for many of these Russian assets, the Canadian Arctic will be heavily implicated in any future arrangements to defend North America against these threats. 

The increased Russian military activity in the Arctic requires that Canada enhance our understanding of what is happening in all of our air and maritime approaches, especially those in the Canadian Arctic.  To that end, progress should be made to further upgrade and extend the life of existing platforms that conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, and acquire new means of doing so, to improve our ability to maintain awareness of any activity.  This should include upgrading the Canadian component of the North Warning System with something better suited to current and future threat environments.  

In addition, the government should move quickly to replace our fighter aircraft with a fleet of highly capable fighters that are fully interoperable with the United States Air Force with whom Canada defends North America, often over the Canadian Arctic and its approaches.  Further, the government needs to invest in Anti-Submarine Warfare capabilities to be able to detect and deter Russian submarine activity.  Canada’s current submarines, our most capable Anti-Submarine Warfare assets, are approaching the end of their current lifespan.  The modernization and life-extension of that fleet should be expedited, and a project to acquire new submarines that could patrol all three of Canada’s ocean approaches launched as soon as possible.

Finally, Russian developments require Canada to improve its ability to operate in our Arctic.  While Canada has a number of military assets that it can deploy to our Arctic, all are based in southern Canada. The transit time to the Arctic is lengthy and the infrastructure in our North is limited. Advances in Russian military technology means that Canada needs to improve its ability to quickly move its forces into the Arctic, and project them further north than we have previously.  This all requires significant improvements in Canada’s logistical footprint in the Canadian north. 

Canada’s Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy made a number of commitments that would directly address many of these issues, once they are implemented.  To date though, aside from the recent launch of the first Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship, it is difficult to find evidence of progress in implementing these initiatives.  To respond to Russian militarization of their northern territories, Canada should expedite the implementation of the Arctic initiatives in Strong, Secure, Engaged and adopt a consistent approach to defending against and deterring Russia in the entire Arctic region, including the portion that is Canadian.

David Perry is Vice President and Senior Analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

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