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Winter Skies, Frozen Seas and Northern Shores II: Canada Part 2

Part 2: The Cold Dilemmas of the Maple Leave

2.2: ‘Protecting the Frozen Shores! Yes… but how?’

The environment and the provision of services and fulfilment of needs are naturally of utmost importance for every state whose main concern is to exert sovereignty – as with the case of Canada and the arctic – over its own territory. But beyond that, the issue of security by conventional means continues to be of even more importance since it is the provision of such security that can allow every development project to be executed and the environment to be effectively protected. And more importantly, according to Huebert (2009), the resources that are potentially present have to be controlled and protected.

But, to what extent has the provision of these basic needs been achieved? Have they been effective? Riddel – Dixon (n.a) remarks that the Canadian Strategy has a focus on Sovereignty and Resource Development, and that the first is a prerequisite for the second[1]. However, Riddel – Nixon (n.a) also points out that some measures regarding resource development are becoming very short on their intended impact. For instance, the Canadian government has invested 100 million Canadian dollars on resource research, and provided funds to Aboriginal businesses, entrepreneurs, and local development programs with a special focus on infrastructure. As a result, a fishing harbour in Pangnirtung is under construction. Still, some policies are not as effective as they could have been or have had little impact. Problems such as unemployment and economic depression continue to persist and the partnership between the Government and the Aborigines still has room for improvement, according to Riddel – Dixon (n.a).

In turn, and according to Riddel – Nixon (n.a), on the aspect of the problem and in the sphere of Sovereignty have been partially made or not made at all. For instance, an airstrip that was intended to be used by jet fighters has been increased in length and quality, enabling it to be used by other kinds of aircrafts. The communication systems are shown as being back-warded and the facilities are either non-existent or usable for only six months. Additionally, the control of the maritime transit is weak, according to Riddel – Nixon (n.a). Vessel registration is practically “voluntary” and only the ones that weigh over 300 tons have to register[2].  The lack of icebreakers compromises the capacity and readiness of the Canadian Coast Guard or Royal Canadian Navy to cope with any threat or emergency.

In the same way, Riddel – Nixon (n.a) identify a number of changes that Canada needs to make, such as: the need of the SAR (Search and Rescue) helicopter fleet to be modernized; the need to expand the Ranger forces – which have been insufficiently increased; the need to solve the maritime disputes that Canada has; and to define the areas that would be under Canadian sovereignty[3].  They also recommend that cooperation with the US regarding the Northwestern Passage must be made along with the agreements on the Beaufort Sea.

In 2008 Canada issued the Canada First Defence Strategy, which presented as main objectives for the Canadian Forces: the undertaking of national and continental operations, including the Arctic and through NORAD; the support of a major international event taking place in Canada (the 2010 Olympics); the response to terrorist attacks; the supporting of civilian authorities in case of a domestic disaster; the leading/conduction of any important international operation for a long period of time; and the deployment of forces as a response to a crisis and for a short period of time[4]. As a precondition needed for the fulfilment of the mentioned objectives, the Canada First Defence Strategy states that an increase of the defence budget of $490 Million Canadian Dollars for the period 2008 – 2028, and a renewal of some of the current assets that the Canadian Forces has by the hand of a partnership with the local Canadian Defence Industry[5], would be necessary.

The Arctic itself is being recognized by the Defence Strategy as an important issue given the changing climate conditions that makes the area more accessible to maritime traffic and economic activity such as tourism, resource exploitation and shipping. But it also means that the Canadian Arctic will be open for illegal activities and “new challenges from other shores” (Government of Canada, 2008, p. 6). Therefore, there are important challenges for Canadian sovereignty and security that will need the provision of military support. According to the Canadian Government (2008), any support will require a modern, well-trained, well-equipped military that possesses the core capabilities and flexibility to secure the Arctic (and to perform in the other specified missions)[6].

There are four pillars on which the Canadian defence strategy stands: Personnel, Equipment, Infrastructure and Readiness. All four of them are grouped under these headings and have set preconditions to be met, such as the increasing of budget and the renewal of assets important for the fulfilment of each. Regarding the pillar of Personnel, the strategy mentions an increase of the Canadian Forces and a Reserve personnel increase of 1000 and 750 effectives per year, while in the case of Equipment it suggests the purchase of 17 SAR aircraft, the construction of 15 frigates/destroyers to replace the current Navy ships, the buying of 10 – 12 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (the new Boeing P-8 Poseidon for example) along with 65 new generation fighters (such as the F-35 stealth Joint Strike Fighters, in which Canada has collaborated on its development) to replace the current CF – 18, and the introduction of new land combat vehicles and systems[7]. Radars and satellites for the improvement of surveillance in the Arctic were considered as well.

In the areas of Infrastructure and Readiness, the Defence Strategy recommends the replacement of the 25 – 50% of the structures owned by National Defence in the next 10 – 20 years, and the planned investment in personnel training and relief for both personnel and equipment, respectively.

But, as Lieutenant-General (Retired) Macdonalds (2009) points out, there is an even darker scenario than Riddel – Dixon (n.a) on the security or “hard” aspect of the Canadian Arctic dilemma. In the area of Personnel there is a problem of a decrease in experience and quality levels given the reducing numbers of active personnel. Furthermore, Macdonalds (2009) states that the plans for an increase of personnel have no size or capability equilibrium so there is a lack of capacity orientation, and an aim for a simple increase in numbers but not in quality. In the chapter of Equipment, Macdonalds (2009) points out that no new ships would be received after 2015, the new fighters may arrive by 2017, and by now the first of both the C – 130J Hercules and CH -47 would be arriving. Additionally, the SAR assets has seen no program executed while the old CP -140 Auroras will remain as maritime patrol aircraft until 2020. Only the program for the fighters’ replacement seems to be on the go (the F -35 would be on duty for 4 decades), being the exception of the mentioned ones and of other failed programs (like the Joint Support Ship) or ones as the Arctics/OPV[8]. Along with the fighters, the land combat systems programs have received more attention.

In the chapter ‘Infrastructure and Readiness’, Macdonalds (2009) also explains that there are no new projects in sight and that there has been a prioritization of replacements where the Canadian Forces are currently present inside the national territory. He also states that on the latter it is still to be seen what the impact will be since the Strategy effectively plans to put more financial resources in this area so there won’t be a shortage of spare parts and decreased training in the future so there will be more vehicles available either for training either for executing other operations.

According to Wezeman (2012), currently Canada has 18 ASW CP – 140 Auroras capable of operating over the Arctic from their bases on the Eastern Coast and 80 CF – 18 fighters that are being used occasionally over the Arctic with the task of intercepting Russian bombers that approach Canadian air space which are also able to operate in secondary bases in locations in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, supported by 7 tankers. The helicopter fleet and transport aeroplanes, being the new acquisitions of C17 Globemaster and C – 130J Hercules, are operating regularly in the area and using improvised bases on snow or ice for Arctic purposes. There are also some radars placed there as part of the NORAD defence network system.

Wezeman (2012) also points out that currently Canada has 5000 Ranger troops stationed in northern Canada, although their effectiveness and of other Canadian Army units were affected negatively by the focus in Afghanistan. There are currently two important bases: one in Alert (Ellesmere Island) and another one for training purposes in Resolute Bay. Wezeman (2012) also states that the 12 surface units and 4 conventional submarines are capable enough to patrol the Arctic, even though there is a lack of ice, and are strengthened for surface combat except for the 5 large or medium and 6 small icebreakers that are operated by the Canadian Coast Guard for 6 months of the year. The small coastguard base placed at Nanisivisk is being expanded into a naval base.

It seems then that although Canada is doing well in recognizing the Arctic as an important territory and that their plans are looking good, at least on the paper, that there is a great distance between the paper and the reality. The practical responses to the paper are not being carried out properly, and the fact that the programs for the renewal of equipment are suffering delays or cancellations due to the lack of political clarity and will is simply worrisome.

Canada needs to increase its naval assets in the Arctic so it can provide better protection of the territory with the commercial shipping lines that are emerging after the ice receding, the Aboriginal and Northern communities that currently live there, and the overall environment. The current financial situation of Canada and the whole world is a fact and must be taken into account, but cannot continue to provide Canada an alibi for its lack of actions, nor can the “political procrastination” as Macdonalds (2009) calls it .

The Coast Guard is part of the solution for the control of the more internal waters and sea shores, but without a doubt the presence of the Royal Canadian Navy is more than needed in an area that, as it has been pointed out in the two previous articles of the series, will become a very sensible and important geopolitical hot spot in the future – perhaps at the same level or greater than it was during the Cold War. The presence of foreign navies with a hostile attitude, for example, is a risk that must be taken into account and, as it has been possible to appreciate with the Chinese and Russian presence (especially the latter) it is a situation that is more than likely to take place in a mid or long-term future.

If Canada wants to protect and exert sovereignty on the waters it must create at least one or two more naval bases able to serve for both the Royal Canadian Navy and the Coast Guard, and provide both services with assets suitable to do the task in any condition of the year and in a meaningful number. It could also create a separate branch of the navy with the sole task of operating exclusively on the Northern and Arctic waters in either peace or war, capable of halting more effectively the transit of any ship and to tackle the risk of hazardous (illegal crime, terrorism and others) and hostile ships, and also to minimise any activity taking place within the Canadian Northern and Arctic territories[9]. Submarines should also be taken into account within the planned assets renewal, mainly because of the very potential presence of similar units from China and Russia, capable of launching nuclear missiles.

Canadian submarines, either nuclear or diesel-electric might be the perfect assets and a great contribution for the defence of both North America and the Canadian Arctic. It is very curious to feel the absence of a renewal in that sense[10]. Following the acquisition by Russia of 4 Mistral class amphibious assault/helicopter carrier ships from France, the Canadian Navy should be thinking on investing in hover landing amphibious ship to carry troops and equipment to the islands placed in the Canadian Arctic and following a possible Russian landing on those area, or even an airborne assault against those islands.

The secondary aerial bases from which the current CF – 18 operate should be transformed into permanent, strengthened and main bases for the future fighters or at least an important number of them, able to secure air superiority over the Arctic air space and to provide the Navy/Coast Guard with air support, as well as to the army units in the area[11]. The positive aspect is that the land combat systems have received enough attention, as Wezeman (2012) remarks, capable to execute operations in the area – although the capacities have been compromised not only by previous policies but also because of Afghanistan. The army would have to increase their capacities to operate and respond to any threat against Canadian Northern soil.

Finally, cooperation not only between the Canadian Armed Force branches and the Coast Guard is needed, but also the cooperation between Canada and the United States, as well as with other NATO countries with territory in the Arctic. This also implies that every territorial dispute must be solved and that an agreement must be reached, as Griffiths (2009) and Huebert (2009) also point outs. With all of the mentioned policies in the matter of defence, Ottawa might have a shield to provide the needed protection of the Arctic environment, the provision of socio – economic and infrastructure development to the Aborigines as well as of the new resources.

The Maple Leaf may perceive the Northern and Arctic territories as a heritage, a north and a future. But without the provision of an effective protection, it may become the north, the heritage and the future for other nations.


[1] And actually, as the author is pointing out, the policies oriented on promoting social and economic development are orbiting around the Resources Development/Exploitation.

[2] Riddel – Dixon (n.a) furthers on this point by pointing out the gap formed by such regulation, and that which would be used by international terrorism, organised crime and illegal migration with vessels below the mandated 300 tonnes.

[3] Riddel – Nixon (n.a) mentions that the (scientific) data to support the claims is to be delivered to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf by the end of the current year, so it seems that the areas under Canadian control will be defined by early-mid 2014. It will be interesting to see the results and the answer given by the Commission.

[4] See: Government of Canada (2008). Canada First Defence Strategy, p. 3.

[5] It is important to highlight the importance of the general frameworks of the Defence Strategy, since those same frameworks can provide the Canadian Forces to exert sovereignty and protect the territory and population, as well as to respond effectively to any military threat against the country’s Northern and Arctic territory.

[6] The Defence Strategy remarks that the defence of the Arctic is somehow vital for the defence of North America and not only Canada. And also, that the Canadian Forces need to receive adequate resources for training, spare parts and equipment if they aim to be effective in the Arctic scenario. See: p. 18.

[7] During the development of the Canada First Defence Strategy, the Canadian Government introduced strategic and tactical transport air platforms like the C – 17 Globemaster, the C-130 Hercules, the CH – 47 Chinook helicopters, trucks, new battletanks (Leopard II) and mine – protected vehicles, along with new Arctic/offshore patrol vessels, the Maritime Helicopter Project, and the Joint Support Ships (though this one was cancelled). See: Government of Canada (2008). Canada First Defence Strategy, p. 16. And, Lt – G(R) Macdonald, G (2009), The Canada First Defence Strategy – One Year Later, p.4. Wezeman (2012) points out the incorporation of 6 UAVs for maritime and Arctic patrol (p. 3).

[8] In the case of the F – 35, it seems that Ottawa has not decided yet to proceed with the purchase. In the case of the Arctic/OPVs, Macdonalds (2009) points out that the requirements were decreased, compromising the utility: First, the fire power was decreased (from 40 mm guns to 25 mm guns) as well as the type of ship (ice – cutter). Second, the size, speed and capabilities were reduced as well. And third, there is a lack of political support and the task of securing the Arctic would fall into the hands of the Canadian Coast Guard rather than the Canadian Royal Navy.

[9] Since the Canada First Defence Strategy mentions the importance of the Canadian Defence Industry, those ships should be made locally, with an export of technical know – how from the South Korean shipyards or with local research to acquire that technical capacities. Doing so may enhance the aim of jobs creation for the industry.

[10] A very interesting discussion and review on the submarines topic can be found in: Gordon, R (June 11 2013). Canadian’s submarine fleet’s future could be at risk. Available at

[11] Provision of an AEGIS system as it has been done in the Norwegian frigates could be an ideal, previous technical assistance of the fabricants of the Frigates, the Spanish firm NAVANTIA, and the US approval and support.

*Cover image ‘Incoming Icebreaker (Samuel Risley)’ by E Green


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