Arctic Security Briefing Papers

Polar bears approach USS Honolulu, a Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine (credit: Arctic Submarine Laboratory, 2003)

Occasional briefing papers focussing on military policies and practices in the Arctic region by Ernie Regehr, O.C., The Simons Foundation's Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence. 

About the Arctic Security Briefing Papers:

Arctic “security” is ultimately about the safety and well-being of the people of the Arctic – a human security agenda that necessarily engages a broad range of social and economic conditions and policies. Military policies and practices in the Arctic are but one element of this broad human security agenda, but they will be the primary focus of these briefing papers. What are and should be the roles, and limits, of military forces in supporting human security, in strengthening the rule of law nationally and internationally, and in promoting efforts towards a cooperative security regime within the Arctic region?

The challenge is to advance the kinds of national policies and international rules and initiatives that honor, in the context of the Arctic, the UN Charter’s Article 26 pledge to “promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources."

Ernie Regehr, O.C.
Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence
The Simons Foundation Canada



Circumpolar Military Facilities of the Arctic Five

Prepared by Ernie Regehr, O.C., Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence, The Simons Foundation Canada
and Amy Zavitz, M.A.
Updated: September 2019


A single provocative sentence about China deploying nuclear-armed submarines in the Arctic led much of the commentary on the Pentagon’s May 2019 report on developments in the Chinese military. The reference was obviously meant to stoke alarm, and as long as competitive nuclear weapons “modernization” proceeds apace – especially in the United States, Russia, and China – there is little doubt that China could one day be capable of conducting submarine patrols in the Arctic, but that doesn’t answer the question of why they would want to.
Deliveries of the used F-18 fighter aircraft that Canada is acquiring from Australia have begun.  The point of the new purchase of old F-18s is to provide a temporary fix for the ostensible capability gap that was created by a redefinition of Canadian requirements. It was broadly understood as an unusually sudden insistence on an immediate need for up to 25 more fighter aircraft (18 for operational roles, possibly seven more for testing and spare parts), but it was also part of a pattern of arbitrarily changing requirements for air defence missions that remain essentially unchanged. 
The Arctic is the primary home of Russia’s nuclear ballistic missile submarine force. That fleet, like its American counterpart, is being “modernized,” the subs are patrolling more often, and, inevitably, American attack submarines are paying increasing attention. Four decades ago, in a climate of intense Cold War confrontation and nuclear dangers, when American and Soviet ballistic missile submarines and the attack subs that trailed them roamed the oceans, strategists, peace researchers, and some military planners grew intensely worried about the strategic instability wrought by such dangerous cat and mouse maneuvers. That in turn led to innovative proposals for anti-submarine-warfare-free zones as one way of easing tensions and, especially, as a means of reducing the risks that mishaps, miscalculations, or miscommunications would escalate out of control. The Arctic figured prominently in those proposals – the essential elements of which continue to have merit and, unfortunately, relevance.
Questions about sovereignty are a constant in Canadian discourse on the Arctic – a current iteration being a study of “Canada’s Sovereignty in the Arctic” by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (FAAE). As of Oct 22, the Committee had held four sessions, heard 15 witnesses, and received four written briefs, and the overwhelming thrust of testimony so far is that Canada does not have an Arctic sovereignty problem. Furthermore, there is an irony in the application of northern sovereignty that the Committee has yet to address – namely, the inescapable reality that, in a challenging region made manageable through international cooperation, part of the responsible exercise of national sovereignty in the Arctic is the willingness to curb purely national prerogatives in favor of regional collaboration and collective well-being.
The run-up to this month’s NATO summit featured an array of pundits, experts and, notably, Canadian Parliamentarians, encouraging the Alliance to step up its presence and collective operations in the Arctic. As it turned out, NATO leaders wisely resisted the entreaties. The Brussels Summit Declaration is silent on the Arctic, and NATO officials, when asked about it, were just as inclined to talk about Arctic cooperation as they were about military expansion and Russian or Chinese threats in the high north.
Ten years ago this month, the five Arctic Ocean states issued the Ilulissat Declaration. In it they pledged to rely on existing international law, notably the Law of the Sea, as the framework through which they would seek the “orderly settlement” of disputes in this rapidly changing region. In a welcome counterpoint to the persistent and sometimes overwrought warnings of a new Cold War set to engulf the Arctic along with the rest of the planet, the Denmark/Greenland governments have promised to host an anniversary meeting (Ilulissat II) commemorating the decade of “peaceful and responsible cooperation in the Arctic” that followed Ilulissat I.
Cruise missiles recently made the front pages when President Vladimir Putin marshalled impressive audiovisuals to hype Russian strides in developing new and sinister military technologies. Cruise missiles were included but concerns regarding them didn’t just arrive with his speech. They have figured prominently, for just one example, in the current Canadian and American intention to replace the Arctic-based North Warning System. Cruise missiles pose a two-fold challenge: the unavoidable reality that there is no credible defence against long-range nuclear-armed cruise missiles; and, the related and equally inescapable reality that the only way to manage them in the long term is through internationally negotiated control agreements. The latter challenge is obviously made all the more daunting by a current political climate that is less than conducive to anything quite that rational.
Canada and the United States have begun planning a replacement for the North Warning System, the network of air defence radars across the top of the continent. Jointly funded and operated through NORAD, though located primarily in Canada, the system’s renewal comes in the context of a persistent Cold War revivalism that presages a preoccupation with national defence and geostrategic competition. But another feature of the current context is broad recognition that the changing physical environment and increasing access to and activity in the Arctic drive a priority need for enhanced domain awareness within the region to support public safety, law enforcement, and sovereignty protection, while also serving national defence and strategic stability.
If the Cold War is truly back, the news has yet to reach the Arctic. In the high north, putative rivals are having a hard time getting over their habit of cooperating. They’ve been at it again, this time agreeing on a set of measures to prevent over-fishing in the soon to be accessible high seas of the Arctic Ocean. The agreement is rightly lauded as another advance in collective Governance in the Arctic. Furthermore, it bolsters hopes that the logic of cooperati0n in support of public safety, environmental protection, and responsible resource extraction will increasingly spill over into security cooperation in the global commons of the Arctic high seas.
NATO Defence Ministers have signalled their intention to create a new north Atlantic Command, one with Artic operations also in mind. Along with current deployments in the Baltic states and Poland, intensified air patrols on its eastern and northern flanks, European ballistic missile defence, and a new logistics command for Europe, this new command reflects NATO’s shift from out-of-area missions and back to the Cold War priority of defending the territories of NATO member states. Whatever that shift means for Eurasian security writ large, alliance-dominated territorial defence preoccupations in the Arctic would bode ill for its evolving cooperative security framework.
The first ever “live exercise” involving all eight countries of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) rightly has some observers hailing this new forum’s potential for reinvigorating pan-Arctic security cooperation. Significant challenges remain – not the least being ongoing wariness of Russian military developments and growing Chinese interest in the region, pushing some states towards the more familiar models of military competition – but the region-wide ACGF clearly affirms security cooperation as essential to survival in the Arctic. To the extent that all states of the region “benefit from a rules-based international order that enhances economic well-being, respects human rights and human dignity, and supports mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of disputes while providing for territorial integrity,” the pursuit of more formalized, and thus more sustainable, forms of mutual security promises to remain a feature of Arctic geopolitics. The slow emergence of cooperative pan-Arctic Coast Guard operations in the Arctic is a case in point.
“Remotely piloted vehicles” get frequent mention in last spring’s Canadian defence policy statement. They are characterized as integral to a range of new capabilities to be acquired by the army, air force, and navy, as bringing new operational sophistication to the armed forces, as enhancing joint intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in the Arctic, and as enabling precision strikes. But don’t expect to see prominent military drone operations in Canada’s high north any time soon – it’s a foreboding environment, adapting models to the north’s unique geography and climatic conditions will take time and money, the advantages are not self-evident, and, what should be top of mind, the international community has yet to agree on credible international standards for the responsible transfer and use of drones.
The Government’s long-awaited defence policy statement, which arrived last Spring, sensibly portrays Arctic security challenges as rooted largely in significant public safety challenges rather than in traditional, or primarily military, challenges to the defence of Canada. The Arctic operations of the Canadian Armed Forces thus focus on aiding civilian authorities, rather than on deterring or responding to state-based security threats. One essential dimension of sustainable Arctic security that does not receive adequate attention is the imperative, and the opportunity, to consciously shape the northern circumpolar arena into a durable regional security community by building on and reinforcing the current and fortunate absence of any state actors bent on militarily harming other Arctic states.
Headlines tell of a burgeoning Russian/American naval nuclear arms race and already tens of billions of dollars are being promised and spent in both countries on “modernizing” seaborne strategic nuclear weapons systems. While tactical nuclear weapons have been kept off their attack and general purpose submarines for at least a generation, there are indications they may be finding their way back. In the meantime, there is not yet any international regime or treaty or political will in place or contemplated for the exercise of seaborne nuclear restraint.
The fifth annual Arctic Yearbook, with a primary focus on the Arctic Council, is now available. This 2016 edition includes a broad range of scholarly articles offering critical analysis of the Council’s 20-year record, and the editors clearly like what they see. In their Introduction, they acknowledge its imperfections, but also declare that “the Arctic Council is in many ways a marvel,” and is “perhaps the first true post-modern regional organization.” A section on Arctic Geopolitics and Security moves beyond the Arctic Council focus, and its four papers are briefly highlighted below.
The Yukon’s late August earthquake, its epicentre near Haines Junction, never made the news, but the emergency response effort was impressive. Municipal and territorial first responders attended the scene, and they were soon joined by volunteers and representatives from affected First Nations communities and additional civilian emergency response teams from as far away as Vancouver. A contingent from the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group arrived, along with several hundred Canadian Armed Forces personnel with equipment that included CH146 Griffon and CH147 Chinook helicopters and CC130 transport aircraft. The Minister of National Defence visited the operation, as did the Commissioner of the Yukon (parallel to a provincial lieutenant governor). At least one other Member of Parliament and one Senator attended, and there were observers from the armed forces of the United States, United Kingdom, and France, as well as a small civilian observer group (including Disarming Arctic Security).
Russia’s Bear Bombers continue to conduct patrols and training flights in international airspace near North America’s Arctic coastlines. Canadian and American military interceptor aircraft as part of their own training regimen, continue to track and rendezvous with the Russian Bears. Some observers try to muster alarm in the face of Vladimir Putin’s strategic patrols, others are more sanguine, but it is for Governments to devise the appropriate response. NORAD is maddeningly coy about the frequency of such encounters, but as more information emerges, most recently in the 2016 Arctic Yearbook, it becomes increasingly clear that the prudent posture is to be attentive but not alarmed.
The Preface sets the tone on discussions of relations between Russia and its Arctic neighbors in light of changing international dynamics: “Despite stressful changes tied to global geopolitical pressures and dramatic climate change, cooperation continues to be the theme in dialog, actions, and outcomes in the Arctic. The world’s ability to set aside sharp policy differences experienced at lower latitudes, in order to work together at the higher ones is, perhaps, a testament to the special value the world places on the Arctic."
The F-35 continues to be vigorously promoted by influential security analysts and former military officers, some pundits, and many in the Department of National Defence (DND) itself, but the new Government will probably have little difficulty making good on its campaign promise not to buy it, largely because DND has never been able to convincingly portray it and its “fifth generation” attributes as integral to, never mind an urgent requirement for, meeting Canada’s defence needs in North America. Indeed, it’s hard to characterize any fighter aircraft as absolutely essential – in the way, for example that coastal radars are absolutely necessary if Canada is to effectively monitor the approaches to Canadian air space, or in the way that helicopters, patrol ships, and ice-breakers are essential for meeting the basic search and rescue, public safety, and frontier monitoring responsibilities of a northern sovereign state. Not since the Soviet manned bomber threat gave way to the missile threat in the post-Sputnik late 1950s have fighter aircraft occupied a place of fundamental or critical importance in Canadian security strategy.
Canadians might soon be asking just where George W. Bush is when we really need him. He used to be a key antidote to Canadian temptations to embrace North American ballistic missile defence (BMD). Canada’s 2005 rejection of BMD was driven largely by anticipated public reaction to Canada signing on to a system championed by a Bush Administration that was, to understate it, little loved in Canada and that had especially offended disarmament advocates with its trashing of the ABM Treaty and its hostility toward arms control generally. Now, however, with the Bush effect waning, the allure of a Canadian BMD role seems to be waxing. So, well into the final quarter of the still appreciated Administration of Barack Obama, and with a new and less polarizing but Washington friendly Government in Ottawa, BMD supporters in Canada see a new opportunity to pursue BMD involvement without generating a major backlash. What hasn’t changed, though, is the basic reality that, even if its technology improves, BMD won’t solve the rogue state missile problem. That’s because the North Korean missile threat is finally a non-proliferation, not a defence, challenge.