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What Canada’s New Defense Policy Means for the Arctic

Canada plans to upgrade the gear that underpins its Arctic military operations, including satellite links, radar systems and snowmobile fleets, says Adam Lajeunesse, Irving Shipbuilding chair in Arctic marine security at St. Francis Xavier University.

Written by Adam Lajeunesse Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Operation nunalivut
Canadian soldiers consult their checklist while loading equipment into a qamutiik, a traditional Inuit sled, in preparation for a patrol during Operation Nunalivut 2017 near Hall Beach, Nunavut, in March 2017.Photo Courtesy Canadian Armed Forces/PO2 Belinda Groves

Last week Canada’s Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau released its long-anticipated defense policy review, setting out its vision for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) over the next decade. In a surprise to many, it sets out an aggressive approach to rebuilding the forces. More money is earmarked for special forces, cyber defense and surveillance, with additional billions promised for new warships, soldiers and fighter jets.

One of the few areas to see no sweeping changes, or major capital allocation, was the Arctic. This stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by the previous Conservative government, which focused a great deal of attention on the region, and launched several major defense projects designed to expand the CAF’s capabilities and reinforce Canadian sovereignty in the region.

The language in the review also marks a notable divergence from the Conservative tradition. No longer is the term “sovereignty” deployed so aggressively to justify activities and programs. In fact, it appears only 10 times in 113 pages, and only three times is it applied to the Arctic – a semantic trend that will likely continue as the Liberals shift away from that terminology toward words like “control” and “surveillance.” This is a welcome development, given how broadly sovereignty was used by the previous government, having come to represent everything from legal control to physical security to presence.

Despite the changing language, the Liberal approach retains the core elements of the old Conservative Arctic strategy. Five to six offshore patrol ships will be built to expand the armed forces’ capabilities in the northern waters, which is not a surprise since few expected this 10-year program to be canceled. These vessels will also support other government departments with mandates in the region.

This whole-of-government framework has been the modus operandi of the CAF and civilian partners for years, since first being mentioned in the Canada First Defence Strategy in 2008. The Liberal plan to “leverage our new capabilities to help build the capacity of whole-of-government partners” sounds much like the armed forces plans in its 2010 Arctic Integrating Concept for the “mobilization of [government of Canada] resources across its breadth and to the scale necessary to succeed.”

The government’s threat perception remains largely unchanged, as well. While former prime minister Stephen Harper was vocal about the threat posed by Russia, even implying a Russian threat to the Canadian Arctic, CAF policy as outlined in nearly 10 years of reports and doctrine clearly placed little weight on the possibility of a conventional conflict in the Canadian Arctic.

Rather, the concern has long been that increased shipping, resource development, tourism and human activity more generally will lead to security and safety issues requiring armed forces’ support to civilian agencies. The defense policy review wisely adopts this same line, assuming that future threats will continue to fall on the safety/security side of the spectrum.

This continuity is a good thing. The whole-of-government approach, while operationally tricky, is crucial to bringing necessary resources to bear in an area where Canada has little infrastructure and relatively few assets. It is also wise for the CAF to retain a focus on unconventional security.

The defense policy review mentions the threat posed by Russia, stating that “a degree of major power competition has returned to the international system.” This is caused in part by Russia’s ability to “project force from its Arctic territory into the North Atlantic.” Still, there is no discussion of any conventional threat to the Canadian Arctic and this absence is a welcome recognition that, while Russia’s Arctic forces may threaten other NATO regions, they do not pose an immediate danger to the Canadian North.

While the defense policy review does not significantly diverge from past Arctic strategy, there are several important points of refocusing. The Liberal government has identified three key areas for targeted investment: surveillance, communications and tactical movement. In doing so it has zeroed-in on some of the most serious hurdles to effective operations.

Canada’s Arctic is enormous and surveillance is crucial to addressing threats of all sorts. The government has promised new aircraft, drones and satellite capability. It is also taking bids for a technology demonstration project designed to monitor surface and submarine activity through the Northwest Passage.

Poor communications in the North have, likewise, plagued the armed forces’ missions for decades. Limited satellite coverage and incompatible radio frequencies and encryption types, coupled with natural interference created by the atmospheric conditions in the Far North, have made inter-service and joint operations a challenge. Making sure everyone is using the same technology (and that that technology works) would go a long way toward making the armed forces more effective in everything they do in the region.

Finally, buying new snowmobiles and enclosed snow vehicles will be essential to moving the Canadian Armed Forces farther out from the communities and existing supply bases. Plans to acquire a new ground fleet have been in the works for years but deliveries have been limited. Giving the Army the ability to project a critical mass of ground forces across the tundra means delivering vehicles in quantities to Canada’s dedicated Arctic units (the Arctic Response Company Groups) – rather than dispersing them among the divisions, as in the past).

The government has also announced plans to expand Canada’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), in which aircraft are expected to identify themselves, into the Queen Elizabeth Islands. While this would seem like a natural move, questions remain about Canada’s ability to cover this entire area effectively with fighters based in the existing Forward Operating Locations. A CF-18 flying out of Inuvik, for instance, must make a 4,000km (2,485 miles) round trip to intercept a Russian bomber off the northwest coast of Ellesmere Island – roughly 700km (435 miles) farther than the aircraft’s maximum (unarmed) range.

How Canada intends to police this new ADIZ is left unstated. So, too, is how the country intends to renovate the North Warning System. It will need to be replaced in cooperation with the U.S. government and work is ongoing to discern which new technologies will be deployed. Conversations are likely ongoing as well to determine who will cover the enormous costs.

Finally, the Department of National Defence will “enhance and expand the training and effectiveness of the Canadian Rangers.” Promising increased support for the Rangers is a tradition in Canadian defense policy that dates back to the 1970s, and for good reason. The Rangers are Canada’s most effective presence in the North and they’re cheap. What’s more, they certainly align with the Trudeau government’s focus on aboriginal empowerment.

Still, some caution should be exercised in expanding Ranger requirements. Because they are such an effective force they have been overused in recent years. Adding more training or increasing their operational tempo for political reasons risks wearing the force down over the longer term.

As a defense policy for the Arctic the review hits the right notes of continuity and renewed focus. The problem areas identified in the document – communications, tactical movement and situational awareness – are the right things to put new emphasis on. Meanwhile, the continuity from Conservative policy preserves what was best from that time. Some questions remain, such as how to effectively patrol an expanded ADIZ or how to replace the North Warning System. However, all things considered, the defense policy review represents a sober and realistic approach to Canada’s defense requirements in the North.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

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