Skip to main content

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper rides a snowmobile with members of the Canadian Rangers on Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit, Nunavut February 23, 2012.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

National Defence has quietly struggled to equip army reserve units that are meant to operate in the Arctic with snowmobiles and it says a recent tranche of new machines will be the last for nearly a decade.

In addition, the Arctic response companies will be asked to make do with older, heavy 1980s all-terrain vehicles, which until a few years ago were headed to the scrap heap.

The transport concerns are on top of reports last year that showed, despite the Arctic being a long-standing priority for the Conservative government, the army did not — until recently — have enough cold weather gear, most notably parkas.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper leaves Sunday for his annual pilgrimage to the North, which will include a visit with Canadian Rangers, aboriginal reservists who patrol the region on behalf of the military.

A series of documents, obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information legislation, show the army has been preoccupied with equipping soldiers in the Arctic and fulfilling the Harper government's mandate to show the flag.

There is a program to purchase over snow-transport — known as the Domestic and Arctic Mobility Enhancement project. But it is not slated to look at new acquisitions until the 2021/22 timeframe, a defence spokeswoman confirmed.

The spending freeze is in effect despite the government's long-trumpeted military build-up and plans to exercise troops more often in the region, notably at the newly inaugurated Arctic warfare training centre in Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

Internal army documents warned in late 2011 that there were "insufficient numbers of (snowmobiles) in the Army to meet the needs of (Arctic Response Company Groups) and the training requirements." Officials discussed the possibility of renting equipment.

The response units, a key pillar of the army's plan to enforce Canadian sovereignty in the North, could not be formed until they had over snow transport and even then, "there were insufficient numbers in the field force to enable cold weather training," said the Nov. 3, 2011 memo to former army commander, the now-retired lieutenant-general Peter Devlin.

Since then, the defence department has replaced 310 snow machines, out of a total fleet of 963, including 69 allocated to the Rangers. It has also purchased 310 small all-terrain vehicles.

Both are in the process of arriving this year.

A spokeswoman for the army, Colleen McGrann, says those recent deliveries mean "there are no plans at this time to purchase (additional) Arctic vehicles" until the mobility project kicks in eight years from now.

It also comes at the same time as word that the research branch of National Defence has spent $620,000 on a prototype "stealth" snowmobile.

Defence analyst and Arctric expert Michael Byers said there's no reason defence should hold off spending on ordinary snow machines.

"This is not big ticket military procurement. You can buy a high-performance snowmobile for $10,000, which is presumably less than a seat cushion on an F-35," said Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia. "The numbers are simply not on the same scale as most defence procurement. I am concerned about the delays because this should be ridiculously easy."

In addition, the army's inventory of 47 heavy, tracked all-terrain BV-206 vehicles will remain in service, despite an order from the vice chief of defence staff in 2009 that the old, box-like transports were not to "used, nor upgraded" with the exception of those overhauled for use guarding the Vancouver Olympics site.

With looming budget cuts, expected to chop as much as $2.5 billion out of defence spending, the prohibition surrounding the BV-206s was reversed and commanders ordered the fleet be "invigorated as much as possible."

The army spent $1.8 million last year and plans another $3.8 million this year to maintain and operate the Swedish-built transports, originally purchased by Canada in the 1980s.

The North is "a priority" of the Conservative government, a spokesman for Harper said in a statement announcing the prime minister's annual Arctic sojourn.

Whereas previous photo-op friendly trips have seen thundering defence displays, including submarines, frigates, CF-18 flypasts and special forces soldiers, references to the military were muted in Friday's statement.

Economic development, which is "progressing like never before," took centre stage.

Harper will hop-scotch across the North, beginning in the Yukon and ending in northern Quebec.