CDA Institute guest contributor Adam Lajeunesse, a post-doctoral fellow at St. Jerome University, offers suggestions on how the government can approach the Arctic in the context of the Defence Policy Review. 

As the Liberal government undertakes its comprehensive defence review, eyes are inevitably turning to the Arctic, a region that held such a personal interest for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and one which he so often used to burnish his nationalistic credentials. At first glance, Arctic defence policy would seem ripe for radical revision. The ‘use it or lose it’ mentality that Harper introduced early in his term often manifested in grandiose (by Canadian standards) displays of military power and rhetoric, sometimes presupposing foreign threats to Canadian sovereignty and Russian military threats to its security. For a Liberal government seeking a new détente with Russia as part of a broader push towards cooperation and dialogue over confrontation, there would seem to be room to swing away from the old Conservative defence philosophy that has defined the past ten years of Arctic military operations.

The reality of Canada’s Arctic security philosophy is, however, far more complicated than the broad brush depictions often used in the media. Despite the sometimes hawkish feelings generated by Harper’s statements on the North, and the frequent photoshoots of the prime minister and other VIPs in the Northwest Passage surrounded by warships, Canada’s Arctic security policy has been level-headed, thoughtful, and restrained. Behind the headlines, CAF strategy and doctrine has repeatedly emphasised the absence of any military threat to the region, preparing instead for a wide range of unconventional scenarios – such as pollution prevention and support to civilian departments and agencies. What the Liberals will likely discover as they move forward is that they have little choice but to continue the Conservative approach to Arctic defence.

That assessment is based on the assumption that the geopolitical situation in the region will not deteriorate over the next decade. Such predictions are impossible to make with absolute confidence but the evidence suggests that it’s a safe bet. Russia, so often held up as a potential aggressor, has certainly been building its Arctic military capability, however that build-up has mostly taken the form of ground force expansion, SAR, and local area defence – not power projection. Moscow is also the principal beneficiary of circumpolar stability as it seeks to attract hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese and Indian (and perhaps if sanctions are lifted, Western) investment to the region. Russian military posturing is necessary for domestic consumption and for maintaining the siege mentality that keeps Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings high, but there is little that Russia can achieve through aggressive expansion into the Arctic Basin or anywhere beyond its own Arctic territory.

China is likewise unlikely to present any real military threat to the region. It has long sought a cooperative relationship with Arctic powers and, only recently, released a shipping guide instructing its vessel operators to respect Canadian law and regulation when in Canadian waters. China also lacks the technology and military platforms to operate safely in ice-covered waters and appears to be in no hurry to spend the small fortune required to achieve that inessential capability.

Regardless of Russian or Chinese intentions or capabilities, conventional security is well in hand. NORAD provides adequate monitoring and fighter coverage of the North American Arctic and the US Navy maintains a subsurface capability and presence which began neatly sixty years ago. If Arctic defence policy is productively changed, it must be at the operational and tactical level, and here there is much that still needs to be adjusted. The Harper government’s great success was in defining the Forces’ direction and requirements – moving it away from its traditional warfighting role and into a support position. Implementation has, however, been slow, painful, and incomplete.

To begin with, the CAF’s Arctic forces require a more coherent training program, better communication, faster procurement, and a clearer sense of mission. The Arctic Response Company Groups (ARCG) were stood up in 2007 to provide the Army with a force that it could confidently deploy in response to a variety of Arctic scenarios. In the years since, the ARCG have suffered from inconsistent training standards, poor harmonization of operating requirements, and a lack of higher-level direction – with training and equipping having been delegated to the ARCG host divisions.

Equipping these forces has proven more challenging than should have been the case. Certain Arctic clothing and basic equipment still needs to be developed or purchased, while the Forces’ lack of light and heavy over-snow vehicles (and its inability to maintain what it currently owns) can be attributed to bureaucratic inertia and a poor understanding within the Army of what its Arctic purpose and requirements really are. The distribution of the Army snowmobiles provide a perfect case in point. Rather than being concentrated in the hands of the ARCGs, the machines were parcelled out to the divisions in small groups, making large scale training impossible.

The Army has also shown an inability to learn many of the lessons observed during its annual Arctic exercises, something that can in part be chalked up to a lack of communication. Arctic deployed forces rarely communicate after the fact and there has been a general failure to compare notes between these units on what has worked and what has not. Siloed within different divisions, ARCG training is often undertaken in isolation where lessons are learned and relearned repeatedly.

The operational role of the Army’s Arctic forces , likewise, needs to be clarified. The ARCG, for instance, were described in their Master Implementation Directive as a rapid response force that could be assembled and deployed in the event of an emergency. The reality is that these reserve units could never be deployed quickly enough or sustained as a formed unit without extensive planning. Rather, these groups represent a reserve of basic Arctic capability that can be tapped when needed to provide perhaps half a dozen soldiers with the skills needed to provide mass to an Immediate Reaction Unit or another government agency. Their call out procedure should be refined and false planning assumptions purged from expectations of how the Army might use its forces outside of a planned exercise.

These are only a few examples of the CAF’s Arctic growing pains – indeed, there are many more issues of supply, training, and operational doctrine that still need to be addressed. None of these problems are really surprising however. Similar problems became apparent in the 1950s and again in the 1970s-80s when the CAF undertook a similar expansion of its Arctic presence. It is understandable how an organization as large and complex as the Canadian military might move slowly to embrace a new and unfamiliar set of responsibilities.

Yet, in spite of these shortfalls, the government should recognize that the CAF’s overarching concept for Arctic operations is good and should be maintained. What is required is not a fundamental rethink but a renewed focus on turning the Forces’ existing high-level strategic direction into something that is achievable, practical, and exercised on a regular basis.

Dr. Adam Lajeunesse is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at St. Jerome’s University. He is currently working on a research program examining the history of Canadian military operations in the Arctic and the history of northern development, with a focus on hydrocarbon exploration from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. (Image courtesy of the Canadian Army.)

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