Military and geostrategic dimensions of Canada’s Arctic presence


In the twenty-first century, the Arctic is high on Canada’s policy agenda. The Canadian Arctic comprises 40 percent of Canada’s land mass and 75 percent of its coastline, but is home to only 1 percent of its population. Geopolitical developments in the region in recent years have led to radical changes in Canada’s defense strategy and foreign policy

Accordingly, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are seeking to increase their presence in the region as a way of defending Canada’s sovereignty and security against multiple potential threats. The acceleration of inter-Arctic relations, contacts and activities, the climate change causing glacial melting in the Arctic. New partnerships are being formed as a result of the Arctic, the ensuing development of abundant surface and subsurface resources, and the opening of new trade routes.

While Canada sees no imminent threat in the Arctic and North for now, as the physical environment of the region changes, the circumpolar region is becoming an area of strategic international importance, with both Arctic and non-Arctic states seeking to consolidate their various economic and military interests in the region. Given the growing international interest and competition for the Arctic, Canada may need to have an effective and deterrent defense strategy for its continued security and defense in the Arctic. However, the opportunities, challenges, increased competition and risks posed by a more accessible Arctic are also expected to lead to a greater presence of security organizations, strengthened emergency management, effective military capability and enhanced situational awareness.

While the Canadian Army may not be regarded as a powerful military in the global community, it has a growing number of soldiers trained to be useful in an Arctic deployment. Many experts believe that they are able to move tactically and deploy on a small scale, all while maintaining their own sustenance for about three weeks. Given Canada’s limited military resources, it remains to be seen how the country will respond to the sovereignty and security threats it is likely to face in the coming years.

When we analyze the past, one of the first things that catches our eye is that the Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, came to power in 2006. Since then, the Arctic has become more prominent both in the Harper government’s policy agenda and in public discourse. Prime Minister Harper has made frequent visits to the Arctic, and it can be concluded that he has taken care to put it high on his country’s agenda. While many political observers agree that these policies and public debates have become one of the defining characteristics of the new Conservative government, on the other hand, the fact that the rivalry between the US and Russia is beginning to spill over into the Arctic Ocean proves that the Harper government is not wrong. And for many Canadians, the fight over the Northwest Passage in particular is at the center of concerns about the Arctic. Slogans like “The Arctic is Ours” have also grown over time, demonstrating Canadians’ interest in the region. Taking all of this into account, a geostrategic analysis of Canada’s military moves in the Arctic will help us better understand the issue.

Canada’s geopolitical and military history in the region

Threats to Canada’s sovereignty in the region date back to just after Great Britain ceded the Arctic Islands to Canada in 1880. For a long time after that, many countries violated Canada’s sovereignty. In the early 20th century, Canadian politicians began to put the Arctic on their agenda, and from time to time, artists were also involved in creating a national image and narrative for Canada. The Second World War and the Cold War necessitated cooperation between the US and Canada.

The sovereignty narrative began to be articulated in parallel, and started to serve as a way to preserve a national Canadian identity rather than security cooperation. This security-sovereignty dichotomy explains why Canada is the most sovereign Arctic state. It also reflects Canadians’ historical concerns about their southern neighbor’s intentions in the Arctic.

Nevertheless, particularly in response to the Soviet threat, Canada and the United States agreed in 1957 to establish a centralized “North American Air Defense Command” (NORAD), a bi-national command centralizing operational control of continental air defense. The agreement contained 11 principles governing the organization and operation of NORAD and provided for its renewal in 10 years. The first renewal of the agreement took place in March 1968. The NORAD Agreement has been reviewed, revised, renewed or extended several times since then.

The March 1996 renewal redefined NORAD’s missions as aerospace warning and aerospace control for North America. The new agreement included a consultative mechanism on matters related to aerospace defense cooperation and a provision for the review and management of environmental practices related to NORAD operations. As part of its aerospace control mission, NORAD also assists civil authorities in detecting and tracking aircraft suspected of smuggling illegal drugs.

While partnerships with Washington through the development of the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) and the joint North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) have served as a force multiplier for Canada in the region and strengthened the country’s ties with the US-led Western bloc, the simultaneous increased US interest and presence in the Arctic has put Canada in a difficult position. In 1969, when the US oil company Humble Oil sent a ship from Alaska to the Northwest Passage without permission from the Canadian government, this caused a public outcry, and when the Polar Sea, a US coast guard ship, passed through the Northwest Passage in 1985, Canadians were outraged.

Of course, there have been a number of developments beyond these. For example, the Nordic Council, established in 1972 for cooperation on regional and common political issues, is one of them. Furthermore, the establishment of the Council of the Baltic Sea States in 1992 and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council in 1993, and the adoption of the European Union’s Northern Dimension Action Plan in June 2000, reflect the wider European integration process aimed at bridging common northern interests. Also, as they are increasingly focused on, the US “Northern Europe Initiative” is aimed at preventing the emergence of a socio-economic and environmental fault line on the eastern border between the enlarged EU and its northeastern neighbors and Russia. Similarly, the “Canada-Norway Partnership for Action” emphasizes Arctic cooperation as an area of common interest in the context of joint pursuit of a human security agenda.

In the post-Cold War era, Canada’s diplomatic strategy shifted from great power alliance to multilateralism. As noted in the introduction, Canada’s Arctic strategy changed significantly during Harper’s premiership. Trans-Arctic shipping and resource exploration became more feasible as a result of Arctic warming, and the region’s resource and material wealth in particular increasingly attracted both Canadian and foreign firms. The Harper administration embraced economic sovereignty as a national security interest, and thus saw the Arctic as a strategic region. As a result, it changed the tone of Arctic politics and policy. Whereas earlier liberal documents such as the “Northern Dimension” had emphasized the interconnectedness and international character of the Arctic region, Harper began to focus his discourse much more on the Canadian national interest, abandoning the cooperative policies pursued by previous governments and returning to a distinct Canadian identity that was Northern but distinct from “other” Arctic countries, especially Russia, but also from the United States.

Current threats and strategies for the region

The Harper government’s Arctic policy is characterized by the link between security and sovereignty and a focus on hard power. In 2008, the “First Canadian Defence Strategy” emphasized the defense of Canada’s territory and sovereignty in the Arctic and pledged to increase defense spending, declaring that “the Canadian Forces must have the capacity to control and defend Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic”. Not content with this, he declared the Arctic one of his six core missions, announced funding for surveillance equipment, including radars and satellites, and renewed his earlier announcements to build Arctic/Coastal Patrol Ships. The prioritization of Arctic sovereignty culminated in the “Canada First Defence Strategy” and the Conservative election platform entitled “True North Strong and Free”. In support of the Arctic vision, two successive policy documents were published; the 2009 “Canada’s Northern Strategy: Our North, Our Heritage, Our Future” in 2009, followed by “Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy Statement” in 2010. These two policy statements have been characterized by a greater emphasis on regional border security for Canada’s Arctic policy.

Canada’s Northern Strategy, released in 2009, reiterated earlier defense commitments, including new patrol vessels, the establishment of an army training center, increased support for the Canadian Rangers, a deepwater port at Nanisivik, and the construction of a new polar-class icebreaker, the “John G. Diefenbaker”, named after the Conservative Prime Minister who formally established the Canadian Coast Guard in 1962 and pursued a national development policy in the North, also gave the other three priorities to development, the environment and Northerners. The inclusion of these non-military objectives was perceived as providing the first glimpse of a slight shift in the government’s views on Arctic policy from hard security to human development.

The 2010 Arctic Foreign Policy Statement reaffirmed Canada’s status as an “Arctic power” and declared sovereignty as the country’s “number one Arctic foreign policy priority”. In general, the more assertive and aggressive policies pursued between 2006 and 2009, in which hard security and defense issues took precedence over all other considerations, have been replaced by an increasing search for cooperation with Arctic littoral states that think in parallel with Canada. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Harper said after visiting the North in 2010 that “we are doing this because this is about nation-building. This is a frontier. This is the place that defines our country”.

Between 2015 and 2017, there was a resurgence in Arctic politics during the brief period when former US President Barack Obama’s term in office overlapped with that of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The two leaders with liberal roots seized the opportunity to advance the North American agenda on climate change, energy development and Arctic leadership, including a bold moratorium on new offshore oil and gas drilling. Under Trump, who soon became President of the United States, relations have never returned to that level.

The Trudeau government released the much-anticipated Arctic and Northern Policy Framework (ANPF) the day before the 2019 federal election to replace policy documents released in 2009 and 2010. Intended to guide the Government of Canada’s priorities, activities and investments in the Arctic and the North until 2030 and beyond, and to better align Canada’s national and international policy objectives with the priorities of Northerners, the document did little to establish a national Arctic agenda or unlock new resources to address Arctic challenges.

Today, amid economic challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, new assessments of the pace and scale of global climate change, and a changing conjuncture in international relations, the Arctic is once again at the forefront of global politics. Despite a series of setbacks, the Trudeau government has succeeded in building a network of state partners and institutions, almost entirely composed of the state’s traditional North American and European partners, to achieve its strategic objectives in the region. That said, it is fair to say that Canada’s current and emerging military capabilities, while limited, are sufficient to address current threats. In particular, the Canadian Army appears to have a clear vision of what it needs and what it wants to achieve.

The sources of threats to the Arctic Region are quite diverse. Russia, which posed a threat to the United States and Canada during the Cold War and led to the establishment of NORAD in 1957, has re-emerged as a global power center in recent years. This threat has re-emerged as Russia has significantly expanded its military capabilities and infrastructure in the region, including the construction or renovation of major ports and bases. Moreover, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has made the West nervous about possible Russian moves in the Arctic. Although Putin has withdrawn some of Russia’s military resources from northern Siberia, it is known to retain the capability to undertake major strategic initiatives that could put the North American Arctic at long-term risk. Russia has an inventory of some forty ships in the region, nuclear-powered or otherwise Arctic icebreakers.

Although Russia has stated that it has no plans to deploy hypersonic strategic weapon systems in the Arctic, it has recently sent Tupolev Tu-160 “Blackjack” bombers capable of carrying cruise missiles to the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone. Given the weight of Northern Russia in the future of Russia and the region, urgent and concerted action is crucially needed.

Another threat to the Arctic region comes from China, although it is not an Arctic country. It has come to the fore as a source of threat by declaring itself as a state close to the Arctic. In recent years, China has increased its scientific, economic and military activities in the region. It has started to work with Russia in many areas, including joint naval patrols off Alaska and the development of albeithe North Sea route to connect China to Europe. Moreover, China’s technological and military power, whether in partnership with Russia or alone, has the potential to be a game changer in the Arctic over time. In 2013, China announced the “One Belt, One Road” project and opened another overlooked chapter within the scope of the project. The strategy titled “Ice Silk Road” aims to strengthen relations between China and Arctic countries. In addition, in 2017, China sailed a research icebreaker, the MV Xue Long, through the Northwest Passage and since then other Chinese vessels have made regular visits to the Arctic region.

Apart from these two threat assessments, the United States, albeit seen as an ally, also sees the Arctic as an important theater of military operations and has begun to substantially develop its capabilities and forward-positioned equipment, personnel and infrastructure. US leadership in the extraction and processing of critical subsurface resources and the development of military capabilities in the Arctic has placed these challenges on the strategic agenda of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Norway and Denmark have led the review of the alliance’s strategic posture in the Arctic, and with new NATO members Finland and Sweden, the Arctic is now effectively divided between Russia and NATO spheres of influence. The Arctic region is also in a state of uncertainty, with the major impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, political instability in the United States, and further deterioration in great power relations from Europe to Asia.

In addition to the oft-expressed concerns about Russia’s regional aggression, it should be noted that those who argue that Canada’s most important diplomatic disputes are with its closest friends and allies are not entirely wrong. In particular, Canada has unresolved Arctic border disputes with Denmark over Hans Island, the maritime boundary with the United States in the Beaufort Sea, and the legally ambiguous claim that the NWP includes Canada’s internal waters.

In June 2017, Canada announced its defense policy entitled “Strong, Secure, Engaged”. In particular, it calls for increased investment in offshore patrol vessels to enhance the Canadian Armed Forces’ mobility in the Arctic, and additional technologies to reconnect Canada’s air, land, maritime and space surveillance capabilities in the Arctic.

On serious security challenges in the Arctic, Canada continues to work closely with NATO, which includes all Arctic countries except Russia. It has strengthened its ties with NATO by participating in the Norwegian Cold Response exercise and Trident Juncture, one of the most important NATO exercises in the Arctic region from 2014 to 2021. While Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework portrays the Arctic as a low-tension region, Canada’s recent engagement with NATO also points to the country’s willingness to take a hard-line security approach and use multilateral military interventions to counter foreign threats in the Canadian Arctic.

On June 28, 2023, the Canadian Senate passed a resolution entitled “Arctic Security Under Threat: Challenging Needs in a Changing Geopolitical and Environmental Environment” on June 28, 2023, highlighting Canada’s military vulnerability in the region. The report also emphasized that Russia’s military capabilities in the region remain very strong, arguing that over the past decade, many of Russia’s Cold War-era military bases in the Arctic have been reopened or rebuilt, with more than ten of them currently operational.

Policies of external actors towards the region

In 2013, with the expansion of the Arctic Council to include China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and the United States, the dynamics of the region became more internationalized. As a result of Asian states’ attention to the region, it has gained a global character.

While these developments have shifted the strategic center of the Arctic away from the region itself towards the Indo-Pacific, Asia’s new Arctic focus has resulted in new institutions, standards and partnerships to counterbalance its more traditional and established trans-Atlantic counterparts. Not all original Arctic states have responded to Asia’s growing interest in Arctic affairs in the same way, with states such as Russia embracing new actors such as China, Japan and South Korea as a convenient counterweight to North American and European states, many of which view Russia’s interests and activities in the High North as a strategic challenge to the region’s “liberal order”. Countries such as Canada and the United States, on the other hand, have been more cautious in their engagement, opting instead to strengthen their ties within the Arctic Council and the Arctic Five as the primary means of securing their strategic interests.

Canada’s current policies appear to encompass only the country’s engagement with traditional Arctic state allies and intergovernmental organizations. The benefits, opportunities and threats posed by Asian newcomers to the Arctic have been reduced to security and geopolitical risks posed by China, viewed through a narrow lens of Arctic sovereignty. However, just as partnerships at the local level are critical for Canada to ensure the safety and security of the Arctic, so too is working with other Arctic states and international partners in the wider region. In short, Canada and the circumpolar region must recognize that future security and prosperity are closely linked to its ability to effectively manage northern challenges, and its military actions must be interpreted accordingly.

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