In The Media

What does Arctic defence really mean?

by Adam Lajeunesse

The Hill Times
May 25, 2015

Last March, the Russian military launched a massive exercise across its Arctic lands and waters. Over five days, Moscow demonstrated its northern capabilities by deploying over 80,000 troops, 220 aircraft, 41 ships, and 15 submarines. Explaining the activity, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said “new challenges and military threats require further increase of the Armed Forces’ capabilities.”

Canada faces many of these same challenges, but it normally sends no more than 800 participants to its annual Operation Nanook, and nothing like the arsenal the Russians enjoyed showing off. This disparity of forces and capabilities has led many to question the seriousness of Canada’s commitment to the North and the ability of our military to fulfill its sovereignty and security missions.

While the Russians appear to be preparing for a new Cold War-style standoff, the Canadian military has spent years pursuing a policy based on a more realist assessment of the dangers and challenges present, and likely to develop, in the Arctic. Few in Ottawa anticipate a conventional threat and, instead, defence plans consistently focus on threats from criminals, polluters, trespassers, and the like.

When asked what his response would be if the Canadian Arctic was ever invaded, the former chief of the Armed Forces, general Walt Natynczyk, said that “if someone was foolish enough to attack us in the High North, my first duty would be search and rescue.”

With this in mind, Canada has foregone large-scale preparations for combat and instead built small, versatile, and cost-efficient units designed to move into the North in response to a wide variety of unconventional safety and security scenarios (such as a cruise ship running aground or a plane crashing).

In fact, the military is not even the government agency with the mandate to respond to most of the threats that it foresees. In the Arctic, the Armed Forces are really just a back-up force that, in a pinch, might have to step in to support other civilian agencies— something that the Forces not only recognize but are training for.

Behind the photo-ops of CF-18s flying over icebergs and armed men on snowmobiles, Canada’s biggest northern exercises (the Nanook series) is what’s called a “whole of government operation.” That means that it’s not about learning how to fight or manoeuver, as the Russians are increasingly doing; instead, it’s about the military and other agencies learning to communicate and work together to meet unconventional security situations. While this approach doesn’t produce the same image of strength and resolve, it’s far more grounded in reality and just as effective at guarding Canadian sovereignty.

The nature of Canada’s sovereignty position, and the challenges to it, are such that no amount of military presence is going to secure foreign recognition. Canada claims the Northwest Passage to be internal waters while the United States (and others) feel that an international strait runs through our Arctic islands. Strengthening our position means demonstrating that the waters of the archipelago are historic internal waters, a status that requires the exclusive and effective exercise of Canadian jurisdiction.

Demonstrating that effective jurisdiction is best accomplished by ensuring that Canadian laws and regulations are consistently adhered to. This, in turn, is something that the military encourages by supporting the RCMP’s Arctic activities and those of other departments exercising Canadian authority. The number of ships and soldiers we deploy is entirely irrelevant, except insofar as they are accomplishing this mission.

For those admiring Russia’s Arctic capabilities the question must be asked: what of substance are those forces actually accomplishing that could not be achieved by a small fraction of the numbers being trained and exercised? The answer is very little. They are an expensive exercise in political messaging, guarding a coast and resources that no one is threatening. Canada’s approach to Arctic security is far more subdued (and far cheaper) and more closely aligned with reality.

We may lack the big battalions, however, what we have built up over the past decade—and are continuing to build—is actually a far more appropriate response to the challenges facing the Arctic region and likely to develop in the years ahead.

Adam Lajeunesse, PhD, is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at St. Jerome’s University and a co-investigator on a SSHRC Insight grant examining northern defence activities and Canadian-American relations. Lajeunesse’s most recent paper, ‘The Canadian Armed Forces in the Arctic: Purpose, Capabilities, and Requirements’ was released in collaboration with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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