In The Media

Rob Huebert: It’s time to talk about Arctic militarization

by Rob Huebert

National Post
May 5, 2013

Ahead of Canada assuming chairmanship of the multi-national Arctic Council this month, the National Post presents a week-long series where defence experts at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute offer advice on what Ottawa should do with this opportunity.

Canada is set to assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council this month, and in the days leading up to this important transition there has been considerable discussion of what Canada will do as chair. One issue that has not received much attention is the need to discuss the growing militarization of the Arctic. While the Arctic Council is formally forbidden from discussing military security in the Arctic, the time has arrived to rethink this policy.

The Arctic Council was established at the end of the Cold War, when Arctic activities were substantially reduced and such a prohibition made good political sense. However, in 2013, this is no longer the case. The militaries of most Arctic states are taking on new and expanded roles in the region that go beyond their traditional responsibilities, which may create friction in the region. To help manage these relationships the Council should reconsider its refusal to deal with the sticky issue of military security.

Why should Canada take on this issue when all states seem content to ignore it? “Let sleeping dogs sleep” would seem a wise approach, except for the troubling signs that both Russia and the United states have begun to view the region through a geopolitical lens. Both countries are developing capabilities in their territories to tackle threats that originate beyond the region. These new developments need to be discussed to ensure that all Arctic Council member states understand why they are occurring, and increase the confidence of members that these new developments are not about a conflict in the Arctic, but about the defence of core strategic interests.

In 2008, Russia released its National Security Policy, which outlined their primary security interests. At the very top of the list was the need to protect and maintain their nuclear deterrent capabilities. Since issuing this document, Russia has worked hard to rebuild its submarine-based missile arsenal. Though it has been difficult and expensive, Russia is now commissioning a new class of submarines that will carry a new nuclear missile. The bulk of these forces remain stationed with the Northern Fleet at the Severomorsk naval base near the port city of Murmansk. Russia plans to reinstate regular patrols, a practice it hasn’t pursued since the end of the Cold War. Any threat to this deterrent will be seen as a challenge to Russian security; therefore, it is critical to regional stability that Russia not feel this capability is threatened. But the question remains, will other Arctic states recognize that the maintenance of Russian deterrent capabilities are a critical security requirement that remains based in the Arctic?

Canada can show leadership by recognizing the need for a frank and open discussion on military issues before it is too late

On the other side of the Arctic, the Americans are taking steps to respond to the increased nuclear threat posed by North Korea. The U.S. will add 14 more interceptors to the existing 26 at their anti-ballistic missile base in Alaska in order to bolster its defences. The maintenance of a strong defensive system to repel attacks by rogue states remains a core defence interest of the United States, but will other Arctic states understand that the Americans are pursuing this course of action to protect their homeland, and not to undermine the defences of other Arctic states?

It is easy to see how both the Americans and Russians will become increasingly concerned about the security steps that the other is taking. But now is the time for all to openly discuss these developments so that old suspicions and distrusts do not resurface.

These are only two issues that will increasingly intensify the region’s strategic interests for the Arctic Council’s member states. The time has come to stop pretending that the Arctic has no strategic value. By creating a body — perhaps another working group — in which the Arctic states can agree to discuss security issues, (even in closed sessions), the Arctic Council will facilitate a common understanding of why these actions are taken. Canada can show leadership by recognizing the need for a frank and open discussion on military issues before it is too late.

Rob Huebert is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute and Associate Director of the University of Calgary’s Centre for Strategic and Military Studies.


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