Canada and NATO

feat. Andrea Charron

42nd Parliament, 1st Session
22 November 2017
2:30pm – 4:30pm


I wish to raise 2 issues concerning Canada’s involvement in NATO. The first is a neglected area of strategic significance, namely the Greenland, Iceland, UK (GIUK) gap which is the very busy sea line of communications (SLOC) in the North Atlantic notorious during the Cold War for enemy sub activity. The other is NATO’s potential participation in Canada’s Arctic which I suggest should be discouraged.

The North Atlantic and the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) to NATO Europe are returning to prominence. This is largely driven by Russian naval developments, and to a much lesser degree Chinese. North American maritime defence cooperation, therefore, needs to be re-considered. 

The end of the Cold War had removed the North Atlantic from the defence and security agenda. Supreme Allied Command Atlantic (SACLANT) was the primary structure for allied North Atlantic defence but it was stood down and was replaced by the generic Allied Transformation Command (ATC). Allied naval cooperation moved to the periphery, concentrating on missions in the Persian Gulf and off the Horn of Africa (Somalia and the Gulf of Aden) related to the series of conflicts, which captured allied attention. More recently, allied naval attention has concentrated on the Mediterranean, the Black, and Baltic Seas in response to Russian activities, attended by the two Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMG), under the command of Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM), located in Northwood, England.[1]

With the North Atlantic returning to the defence agenda, several priorities emerge that naturally raise issues for the CANUS relationship. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and United States Navy (USN) have a long history of cooperation, dating back to World War II, and through the Cold War. Since then, the RCN has remained actively engaged with the USN, particularly evident in the ability of Canadian vessels to integrate, and thus replace American vessels, in US Carrier Task Forces. This also extends to select NATO nations, especially the United Kingdom and its Royal Navy (RN). However, this capability has been largely limited to the tactical level of cooperation. Command and control arrangements, like those under SACLANT during the Cold War, and with them related exercises among the allied navies, and the formal division of areas of responsibility in protecting the SLOC, are largely absent.

At the same time, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), especially related to the North Atlantic, and former Soviet threat, are also absent as a training priority. The RCN, in particular, once the allied exemplar, has largely lost its ASW expertise. Post-Cold War tasks naturally obtained priority over ASW, reflecting the threat environment of the last two plus decades, even though submarines proliferated within the developing world. Nor was there any pressing need to exercise the reinforcement of NATO’s northern flank. Limited, and shrinking naval resources on both sides of the Atlantic relative to political and operational demand required choices to be made, and the obvious choice was to neglect the North Atlantic. Moreover, Russian naval activity in the North Atlantic largely disappeared as a function of the end of the Cold War adversarial relationship, and the lack of resources in the context of the political, social and economic upheavals following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even with the emergence of the post-9/11 terrorist threat, and its maritime dimension, there was no need to resurrect these arrangements. The maritime terrorist threat to the east coast of North America in particular was primarily an area for intelligence cooperation.

Over roughly the last decade, however, political relations between NATO and Russia deteriorated, especially following the Russian actions in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. Russian naval activity in the North Atlantic has increased substantially. New generations of Russian naval capabilities, including longer range surface and sub-surface cruise missiles (SLCMs), pose a growing maritime threat. As a result, NATO’s northern flank has re-emerged as a security concern. Maritime defence cannot be ignored, and this issue, especially over the Atlantic, brings the coastal European allies and thus NATO into play.

There are two distinct, albeit inter-related, perspectives on North Atlantic maritime control: NATO Europe with an emphasis on the members bordering the North Atlantic, and USNORTHCOM/NORAD. To cut to the chase, the issue is the seams and gaps between EUCOM and NATO, NORAD and USNORTHCOM and USNORTHCOM and EUCOM and ultimately Canada’s assistance to all of these organizations.

The other issue I want to touch on is the suggestion, at least by my reading of Strong, Secure and Engaged, that NATO exercises in Canada’s Arctic may be a possibility in the future reversing a long-standing practice of inviting individual NATO members but not NATO as a whole.  This I think needs to be discouraged.

Of course this sound very contradictory. If Russia and the sea lines of communication are potentially at risk in the North Atlantic (a NATO region) why say yes to more attention to the GIUK gap and not to Canada’s Arctic?

My answer to this is that Russia is attempting to upset European security of which the GIUK gap is one conduit and an essential transatlantic link. To date, however, Russian participation and activity in the Arctic has been productive (largely a function of the Arctic Council and its mandate) and the importance of the Arctic for Russia. I am not suggesting that Canada cease to surveille the Arctic (which it does principally via NORAD and its air/aerospace warning, air control and maritime warning missions). Instead, I am suggesting Canada needs to reinvestigate, with our allies, the surveillance responsibilities of the North Atlantic which will necessitate a conversation with NATO, NORAD, USNORTHCOM and its US Fleet Forces Command (USFFC) as well as EUCOM.

[1] SNMG1 and 2 were established in 2005, replacing the NATO Standing Naval Force Atlantic and Mediterranean. They rotate as the NATO Reaction Force, and undertake a range of missions, training and exercises among the NATO allies. SMNG2 has largely been dedicated to maritime security in the Aegean and Black Sea. There are no USN vessels formally attached to either Group.

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