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Make Resolute Bay a Canadian Arctic Security Hub

THE HILL TIMES: Resolute Bay is ideally positioned as a base for Canadian security operations in the Arctic, writes Pierre LeBlanc, former commander of Canadian Forces Northern Area.

Written by Colonel Pierre Leblanc (retired) Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Exercise arctic ram
Resolute Bay could be used as a base by Canadian Forces, Natural Resources Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as well as by border and intelligence services, argues Pierre LeBlanc.Canadian Army Public Affairs/MCpl Louis Brunet

A number of years ago, I recommended that Resolute Bay be developed as a major government Arctic security hub. A number of recent events make it timely to revisit this recommendation.

Global warming has continued to make the waters of the Arctic Archipelago more accessible to maritime traffic. Data from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre suggest that 2016 will be yet another record year. This summer, the Crystal Serenity plans to transit the Northwest Passage with more than 1,500 on board, raising concerns about our ability to deal with such a large search and rescue operation.

Arctic nations have realized that they are ill prepared to deal with a major maritime emergency and, under the leadership of the Arctic Council, have put in place the agreement on cooperation on aeronautical and maritime search and rescue in the Arctic so that they can combine their resources. It has also been reported that the Chinese government has published a book on how to navigate through the Northwest Passage, a clear indication that they plan to do so as the Northwest Passage becomes more and more accessible. The new Liberal government [in Canada] has committed to the security of the Arctic and it is in the process of consultation on the development defence policy.

It would be useful to review once more why Resolute Bay could be developed as a security hub in the Arctic. It is centrally located in the middle of the Arctic Archipelago and sits on both the classical Northwest Passage and the most used of the seven possible transit routes. From there, it would be easier to monitor activity in the Arctic as well as support search and rescue, safety and security operations.

Resolute Bay already has a number of federal assets in place. These can provide an excellent base from which to develop an imposing security hub located at the geographic center of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago. In terms of operations, Resolute Bay is practically equidistant from the east and west coasts of the archipelago, the northern tip of Ellesmere Island and the Arctic coastline of continental Canada to the south. Deployment time of resources from Resolute Bay would be approximately the same in all directions. Furthermore, Resolute Bay is located on the southern edge of Cornwallis Island, where the Northwest Passage is only 33km (20 miles) wide. Any surface or subsurface vessel using the Northwest Passage to transit from the Arctic to the Atlantic Ocean would have to sail past Resolute Bay. While vessels could potentially use the very narrow strait between Somerset Island and Boothia Peninsula to avoid detection, the narrowness of this strait would discourage most and it could easily be monitored remotely from Resolute Bay.

I recommended that Resolute Bay be further developed to host a multidepartmental facility that would include an all-season paved runway supported by modern instrument approaches, a long-range air traffic control radar, subsurface monitoring devices, a polar orbit satellite download farm, a ship and aircraft refueling capability and a protected docking facility. This multipurpose facility would house the seasonal presence of several federal government departments.

The Canadian Forces already have a ranger patrol in place at Resolute Bay, which has since been developed as its Arctic training center. A paved runway opens up the possibility of using Resolute Bay as a forward operations base for the Aurora Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft, CF-18s and Unmanned Arial Vehicle (UAV) used for surveillance. The enhanced runway and related facilities would support the Canadian Forces’ and Coast Guard’s search and rescue operations. Underwater sensor monitoring devices in that natural choke point would allow the detection of submerged vessels. Submarines would not likely use the very narrow strait between Somerset Island and Boothia Peninsula.The Resolute Bay location would also facilitate the presence of naval boarding parties ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice within the Arctic Archipelago.

The Coast Guard already uses Resolute Bay to store environmental response kits, to make crew changes and to resupply. The installation of an appropriate fuel tank farm would permit Resolute Bay to become a refueling facility to support its Arctic Archipelago operations.

Transport Canada could utilize an air traffic control radar to be erected at Resolute Bay to increase radar coverage in support of transpolar flights and search and rescue operations. The radar facility could be integrated into Canadian Forces’ contribution to NORAD operations and provide additional coverage north of the North Warning System, which is currently established along Canada’s Arctic continental coastline – leaving the top of the Arctic Archipelago with limited or no coverage.

Natural Resources Canada already uses Resolute Bay to provide weather services and to support research in the Arctic through its Polar Continental Shelf Program. It is recognized that we lack a solid understanding of global warming as it affects the Arctic. To the extent increased research is merited in the Arctic, it would be well supported from an enhanced facility.

The establishment of a multipurpose facility in Resolute Bay would also improve the delivery of services of other government departments. These include the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, whose members could be used to deal with security issues in support of other departments or deploy their immediate reaction teams as required, and the Canada Border Services Agency and Immigration Canada, which could facilitate the clearing of people who use Resolute Bay as a first point of entry into or exit out of Canada. The cruise ship industry has been using Resolute Bay for that purpose for a number of years. It could also be used by the Canadian Security Intelligence Services to gain a better understanding of the Arctic environment, by Fisheries and Oceans for their fisheries patrols and by Environment Canada for their ice patrols. It would provide a command and control centre for regional military and civilian disaster-response operations.

The facility would be used on a seasonal basis. During the active shipping season it would see peak operations. Some personnel would be permanently stationed in Resolute Bay, while others could be added to deal with increased activity.

Increasing the capacity of Resolute Bay would generate publicity, which would convey the message that if one wants to transit the Northwest Passage one will invariably have to sail in front of this federal government facility. My concern is not with the responsible shipping companies that may consider the Northwest Passage an economically viable route – for such firms are likely to have purpose-designed reinforced hull vessels, qualified pilots, suitable equipment, appropriate maps, insurance and so on. Given the growing access to the Arctic, my concern is with the fly-by-night, uninsured or unscrupulous operators who may have little regard for the environment; criminal elements; or the activities of rogue nations who may, for example, attempt to move illicit goods or weapons through this area in the hope of being undetected.

An approach drawing upon the full range of federal and territorial resources will increase opportunities for gainful employment for the people of the Arctic. Many of the operational and support positions could be filled by the residents of Resolute Bay and the adjacent Nunavut communities. Such employment would
be challenging and rewarding and would contribute to improving the capacity of northern residents to achieve sustainable development goals in this hostile climatic environment.

Developing Resolute Bay further might bring fringe benefits, such as increased ecotourism and commercial opportunities like cold-weather testing of aircraft, vehicles and equipment, as well as an alternative runway for polar flights – providing fuel savings for airlines. As such, the development could be done through a PPP (public-private partnership) program.

Developing Resolute Bay as an Arctic security hub would underline Canada’s position that the waters of the Arctic Archipelago are internal waters of Canada and that the various routes of the Northwest Passage are not an international strait.

This story was originally published in The Hill Times and is reproduced here with permission.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and may not reflect those of Arctic Deeply.

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