Prime Minister Stephen Harper has just completed his annual trek to the Canadian North. Unlike previous years, when he emphasized international challenges, this trip focused on domestic Arctic issues. Several important new initiatives were announced, such as the creation of a new park. However, while the normal focus on the protection of Canadian Arctic sovereignty and security were not as evident, no one should be under the impression that the case for fulfilling previous promises has been reduced. International interest in the region only strengthens it.
With a record polar ice-cap melt this year, our neighbours’ use of military power will continue to increase – not to threaten war, but to protect their interests in the region. Canada must be able to respond. While diplomacy remains by far the preferred avenue for protecting our Arctic interests, it won’t always be enough.
Canada has already learned through its conflict with Spain in the 1990s that negotiations and international agreements do not always protect fish stocks. Military strength is often needed to back up our words. New fisheries may or may not be developing in an increasingly ice-free Arctic, but if they do, the international fishing interests will come. Simply asking others to play nice does not work. (Just ask the Somali fishermen who saw the international fleets move in after the collapse of their government. Local livelihoods were wiped out, driving many to piracy.) Agreements to regulate or even prohibit commercial fishing in the Arctic might make sense, but without enforcement capability, they will be meaningless.
The developing behaviour of some of our more powerful Arctic neighbours also requires that we deliver on the capabilities promised on previous trips. The Russians resumed long-range bomber patrols in the Arctic in 2007, flying missions up to the boundary of Canadian airspace. Canada has attempted to get the Russians to notify us when they do this, but they have consistently refused. Canadian officials have assured us that the Russians do not fly into Canadian airspace, but if they do, there will continue to be a need for fighter capability to meet them. Even if the Russians are only flying up to the edge of Canadian airspace, these bombers can carry long-range missiles. Canada must be able to respond.
The Russians have also been busy rebuilding their Arctic naval capabilities. Two of their newest submarines – the Severodvinsk and Yury Dolgoruky – will become operational later this year, and there are plans for continued modernization of the submarine fleet. These vessels are not exclusively for Arctic use, but given Russia’s geography, most will be based in the high north. We can expect the Americans and British to increase their presence in response. Canada will have to monitor this activity.
To suggest that Canada has no use for military forces in the region is wishful thinking. There is no question that Mr. Harper’s government needs to better meet the social and economic needs of all northerners. But it also needs to prepare for a new security environment where the Canadian military will play an important role. The real question is when the government is going to stop talking about what it will do and start building the icebreakers, offshore patrol vessels and other instruments that we need to protect Canada’s Arctic sovereignty and security.
Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.