Arctic Security should be a Top Priority

After years of talk but little action from its predecessors, it appears that the new Canadian Government is recognizing that if we want to preserve the sovereignty of our vast Arctic territory we need to do more than have politicians use the phrase ‘from sea to sea to sea’ when describing Canada. This revelation is not purely the result of self-generated insight, but includes the reality that climate change is increasing marine access, and that the Arctic is not only a likely cost-effective future shipping channel, but also a potential source of valuable resource assets.  

And it’s not just a domestic issue. The United States, which has a relatively small Arctic presence but is a critical entry point, takes the position that the Arctic waterways are not strictly territorial waters but rather ‘international waterways’ which means a different regulatory system that includes rights of passage. The other major Arctic presence is Russia, who is busily building up its military presence and capabilities, which is consistent with an increasingly aggressive global posture. Call me cynical, but I don’t think their purpose is polar bear preservation.

Nuclear-powered U.S. submarine breaks through almost 4-ft of Arctic ice during a 2001 naval exercise.

The Arctic is a multi-jurisdictional area, with eight countries having recognized territory within it. Commendably, 20 years ago, in a pre Al Gore act of foresight, these countries (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States) came together to form the Arctic Council.

The marine Arctic is also clearly of great interest to countries around the world who see potential benefit in expedited and cheaper shipping routes for products being imported and exported. Among those countries is China which gained official Observer status to the Arctic Council in 2013, joining 11 other countries in that role. China is, of course, currently displaying a less-than-diplomatic approach  to a similar multi-jurisdictional marine situation in the South China Sea – especially after recently losing an arbitration case brought by the Philippines under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. China has refused to accept or abide by the Tribunal’s ruling, and rumour has it they will seek a greater role in Arctic Ocean (or North China Sea as they like to call it) decision making.

According to Global Affairs Canada, the Arctic territory includes:  

  • Canadian territories of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Nunavik (northern Quebec); and all of Labrador;
  • the U.S. state of Alaska (except the area known as the Southeast);
  • all of Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland);
  • Iceland;
  • the northern regions of Norway, Sweden and Finland;
  • all of what Russia terms the Arctic and the Russian North; and
  • the marine systems of the Arctic Ocean and its adjacent seas, including the Beaufort, Labrador, Bering, Chukchi, Greenland, Norwegian, Barents, Kara, Laptev and East Siberian seas.

Domestically in Canada, responsibility for the Arctic is divided among multiple departments and agencies. The larger players include the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian Coast GuardTransport CanadaGlobal Affairs CanadaPublic Safety CanadaEnvironment CanadaFisheries and Oceans, and Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development. Internally, the Arctic Security Working Group (ASWG) is an inter-departmental coordination group that appears to include relevant players.

Canada is also an active participant in the international Arctic Coast Guard Forum which will likely be a key player to ensure international information sharing, domain awareness, and operational deployment coordination.

There are multiple goals for enhanced Arctic security, such as sovereignty protection, transportation safety, environmental protection, critical infrastructure protection, search and rescue and, in our evolving world, border security. More traffic in the Arctic means increased operational responsibilities.

CCGS Amundsen is a T1200 Class Medium Arctic icebreaker and Arctic research vessel ­operated by the Canadian Coast Guard.

Within this context, it is worthwhile to consider the issues Canada will need to prioritize as it moves forward with ensuring appropriate security in the unique Arctic environment. First and foremost is the reality of a vast and less-than-hospitable environment in which security operations must occur. This also includes all of the marine, land and aviation environments and, while all three should be interactively involved, each has their own unique requirements.

The first challenge will be to find ways to maximize domain awareness of the Arctic areas of specific priority – this will likely begin with the marine sector. We will need to work towards detecting and persistently tracking all marine traffic that enters and transits through the multi-jurisdiction Arctic. This will include using existing systems such as satellite and fixed wing aircraft surveillance, as well as ensuring full GIS compliance. That’s a start, but Canada and its Arctic partners will also need to ensure full persistence of coverage. This can be achieved by building on current Canada-U.S. border deployments of automated analytical radar surveillance with real time inter agency communications, data retention and GIS/AIS incorporation. These systems now feature multiple radar node options including fixed and mobile towers as well as aerostat and onboard deployment (Shiprider program).

Inter-agency (domestic and international) operations will also be essential to maximize the use of resources and reduce costs. Once again, this is an area of proven success, in particular with respect to border and Search and Rescue operations.

Data and communications security will be necessary, and this can be accomplished through proven and currently deployed digital identity verification technology. Full domain awareness with persistent coverage can also be supported by deployment on approved commercial vessels.

These are daunting challenges, but the good news is that the new Canadian government is already undertaking targeted consultations that are directly relevant to the issues involved. The first of these is the ongoing Defence Policy Review (public input component completed) which contains specific areas focused on Arctic operations. A second project is an initiative launched by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) to receive input with regards to developing an All Domain Situational Awareness (ADSA) with a specific focus on the Arctic scenario. As FrontLine readers are aware, DRDC has a long and distinguished track record of operationally focused research and analysis with effective project funding designed to produce operationally relevant and effective outcomes. They have secured $133M over five years for this project – which is an encouraging sign going forward.  

Canada has a leading role to play in this evolving domestic and international scenario and, while challenging, it also presents tremendous opportunities for progress, and tangible results on a variety of policy and action areas. As such, it needs to be a clear and articulated priority for the new government because the clocks are ticking and we need to get this right.

Scott Newark is a former Alberta Crown Prosecutor who has also served as Executive Officer to the Canadian Police Association, Director of Operations to the Washington D.C. based Investigative Project on Terrorism and as a Security Policy Advisor to the Governments of Ontario and Canada.