June 5th, 2023
By Laurie Hawn & Phil D'Eon
China and Russia are clearly bullies on the world stage.
After learning about China’s bold interference in Canadian elections or witnessing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is there any doubt that these two superpowers won’t hesitate to use force to defend their interests?
Which brings us to the Arctic. Both countries have their eyes on this prize and that’s a clear and present danger for Canada.
Forty percent of Canada’s landmass is in the Arctic, and world powers are increasingly turning their attention towards it. Russia, China and others are doing much more than Canada to exercise their assumed rights in the region, including Canadian territory.
They are interested in its natural resources. The Arctic is assessed to hold 22% of globally undiscovered petroleum resources and immense diamond, gold, base metals, and iron ore deposits.
Russia has planted a flag on the ocean floor deep under the North Pole and considers “her” portion of the Arctic to contain massive reserves of natural gas, oil, and strategic minerals which she intends to exploit and defend. China has declared itself a “near-Arctic power” with governance rights and a claim to 18.2% of Arctic resources on the basis of its share of global population.
They are both interested in shipping transit. Opening of shipping routes through Canada’s Northwest Passage (NWP) and the Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR) will dramatically reduce transit times and shipping costs between world markets. China’s planned heavy icebreaker fleet will be used to develop their “Polar Silk Road” through the region. Several countries dispute Canadian ownership of the NWP and intend for it to become International Waters, with the attendant loss of Canadian jurisdiction, including over environmental protection matters.
Russia has the military capability to back up those interests. Its military expansion in the Arctic includes refurbishment of 13 air bases, 10 radar stations and 30 other facilities. Their Arctic Brigade and Northern Fleet regularly deploy to the region with the support of 40 heavy icebreakers and Russia has laid claim to a chunk of the Arctic seabed within 200 nm of Canada’s coastline.
Meanwhile, Canada’s Coast Guard operates only two outdated heavy icebreakers and lighter vessels all home-based in southern waters. The United States has one aging heavy icebreaker and one medium vessel ill-suited for Arctic operations. We and our Allies are not present enough in the Arctic.
Canada’s international military commitments are exercised through NORAD, NATO and UN special operations; and Canada is falling short of legitimate domestic and allied expectations. Our Allies and the world are judging us. The AUKUS agreement for nuclear-powered submarines is closed to Canada with our low defence expenditures. That situation should be addressed.
To be fair, Canada is doing something – just not enough. The NORAD agreement was updated in 2006 to include maritime surveillance and warning. Canada’s surface and sub-surface capabilities are critical to operating alone or with our Allies. The deep-sea refueling facility at Nanisivik on Baffin Island was announced in 2007 and may be open in 2025. That should be made available to our Allies within a cost-sharing arrangement. Our surface commitment will include two new heavy icebreakers with the first to be delivered about 2030. RCN ships should be Arctic capable, but our sub-surface capabilities are essentially zero with four submarines unsuitable for Arctic operations. Proposals for more capable submarines should be expedited.
We have announced refurbishment of aging NORAD infrastructure and acquisition of F-35 fighters. The F-35 will offer unprecedented capabilities for air defence, aerial surveillance and intelligence data sharing. Our maritime surveillance aircraft are being updated and will be critical to our collective Arctic defence.
These are good things, assuming we follow through. The two-decade plan for NORAD infrastructure includes improving our ability to detect, communicate and deter threats. This should be accelerated.
Arctic land bases are expensive to build and maintain with a permanent personnel establishment. Nevertheless, we must demonstrate the ability and resolve to deploy with force and exercise that capability.
Collaborative diplomatic efforts do exist. Canada, United States, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway comprise the Arctic Council which works to address Arctic issues through collaboration and consensus. Until now, Russia has been very careful to follow the international territorial claim rules in the Arctic and has peacefully legitimized many of their claims. After watching what’s happened in Ukraine, however, it’s clear that could change.
Canada must take individual responsibility for its Arctic, but we cannot manage it alone. Western members of the Arctic Council are members of NATO. Our NATO solidarity offers opportunities for collaboration. However, Russia will consider any Arctic Council / NATO group of Allies’ actions as threatening to their claims. We shouldn’t abandon diplomacy as a tool, but there is little doubt that Russia would use force to achieve their aims.
We need to show resolve in the face of what will become concerted threats to our Arctic aspirations. But resolve alone is not enough. Demonstrations of resolve must include a credible military capability. That will require decades to generate and will not be cheap, but we must act. The cost of conflict is incalculable.
Our Arctic future depends on our ability to defend it and we can’t delay.
Hon. Laurie Hawn, PC, CD spent 30 years as a fighter pilot in the RCAF and 10 years as a Member of Parliament. He is a member of the Centre Ice Canadians Advisory Council.
Phil D’Eon spent several years in the 1970s travelling Canada’s Arctic between Greenland and Alaska in bush planes, followed by a forty-year career in Toronto as a serial entrepreneur creating innovative software solutions for civil and military aviation that are used globally today.