Robert Huebert is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Calgary.
While focus on the escalating tension between the West and Russia is currently centred around Ukraine, there is another emerging battleground that deserves our attention: Northern Europe and the Arctic. The Russian modernization and redeployment of strategic military forces in the region, including its development of nuclear-armed submarines and hypersonic missile systems, has been inducing a reaction from the U.S. and most of its northern allies.
Earlier this month, for example, Finland announced that it will buy 64 F-35 fighter jets from U.S. defence contractor Lockheed Martin. In the next few years, Norway, Denmark and the United Kingdom will have accumulated 52, 27 and 135 F-35s respectively. For such northern countries, the advanced stealth and interconnectivity of the F-35 provides a greater reaction speed to Russian weapon delivery systems, which are themselves becoming much faster.
In the case of Norway, it recently concluded an agreement with the U.S. to allow them to deploy American bombers, such as the B-1, from Norwegian bases. Norway will also be allowing American nuclear-powered submarines to operate from its northern bases. Meanwhile, Danish media reports that the U.S. is working with Greenland to expand the airport facilities at the American base at Thule Greenland to allow the Americans to operate a much larger air component of fighters and bombers. And let’s not forget that in 2016, the Americans rescinded the 2006 decision not to deploy fighters to Iceland.
Altogether, it is clear that our Northern European allies and partners see a real and rising threat in Russia, and are responding regardless of how expensive such decisions may be, economically and politically.
So where is Canada amid this dangerous Arctic security environment? To honour its relationship with the U.S. and defend the North American homeland out of its own self-interest, Canada should also be taking as much – if not more – action as Northern European countries. But Canada is a laggard on the issue.
In 2017, the federal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a defence policy, titled Strong, Secure, Engaged, that articulated a “fully funded plan” and recognized the new geopolitical importance of the Arctic. The policy suggests that some actions might take the government longer than a term to fulfill.
But it is now Mr. Trudeau’s third term and Canada is still lacking on the development of our Arctic security capabilities relative to our Northern European allies. While they have embraced the F-35, we have still not decided on the replacement for the CF-18 fighter jet, which is 40 years old. We have also delayed on the modernization of NORAD, which is needed to develop the surveillance systems that can detect Russian nuclear and non-nuclear weapon delivery systems.
The government, to its credit, has continued the construction of the Arctic Offshore Patrol vessels and even announced that two more will be built for the Canadian Coast Guard. It has also worked to improve Canada’s search-and-rescue capabilities in the Arctic and on other domestically focused security issues. But on the critically important issue of protecting our Northern region in this context of growing militarization, which requires the purchase of F-35s and NORAD modernization, Canada has done nothing but make promises.
Our ongoing refusal to make the tough but necessary decisions to join our allied efforts in the North will send the wrong message to both the Russians and the Americans. If we are the only country not to have taken serious steps to modernize our defensive capabilities, we will be showing ourselves to be the weak link in the alliance, and we can expect adversaries to take advantage. The U.S., meanwhile, may come to lose trust in its defence partnership with a country that leaves it vulnerable – an outcome which Canada has committed to avoid since the end of the Second World War.
To prevent that possibility, Canada must now act to join its allies and play its role in defending the North.
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