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


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.
The eight states of the Arctic region have agreed to establish a new means of cooperating in support of public safety, search and rescue, and environmental protection in the Arctic, making the Arctic Coast Guard Forum another step toward solidifying the Arctic as cooperative security community. As US Admiral Zukunft said of the new Forum: “we have an opportunity to… make [the Arctic] a region that focuses on humanitarian concerns, on environmental concerns, on the way of life of indigenous tribes, and not as a war-fighting domain.”
The Pentagon is sending state-of-the-art F-22 fighter aircraft to Europe for the first time, further confirmation that NATO and Russia have locked themselves into increasingly provocative military behaviour from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea. Both sides obviously believe demonstrations of intimidating military capacity enhance security, but it’s an article of faith unsupported by evidence. In fact, vulnerability to military interference in states small or large owes much more to political weakness than to military weakness or the lack formidable friends. In other words, preserving national sovereignty and defending against foreign predators – in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, for example – depend much more on the quality of governance than on military preparedness and defence.
When in 1997 Canada first joined the US-led Joint Strike Fighter program, critics, including this one, feared that what was then a strictly industrial participation program would in time be promoted as a de facto decision to buy whatever aircraft emerged from that venture – namely, the F-35. Of course, all assurances at the time were to the contrary, but by 2010 a decade-old industrial strategy had indeed become defence policy.
Canadian defence policy is focused on three contexts: i) defending Canada, ii) defending North America, and iii) contributing to international peace and security. Fighter aircraft are not “essential” to Canadian action in any of these contexts.
The current deployment of Canadian fighter aircraft for bombing attacks in Iraq and Syria, along with the resurgence of “air power diplomacy” from the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean, should refocus attention on the Ottawa melodrama known as the CF-18 fighter replacement program. The dénouement was once again put off when Ottawa announced refurbishments intended to keep the CF-18s flying to 2025; it’s a useful delay that furnishes more time for debating the options, including those that some find unpalatable.
Ever since the late 2013 escalation of conflict in the Ukraine and the similarly escalated souring of relations with Russia, Arctic watchers have been asking about consequences for relations in the Arctic. A new EKOS Research survey (“Rethinking the Top of the World”), commissioned by the Gordon Foundation, is thus especially welcome for offering a window onto the views of Arctic populations on security and much more. It’s a mixed picture, but it’s clear that most people living in the Arctic do not want what is an essentially southern conflict to spill over into their region.
Few will dispute the observation that the Arctic state least focused on Arctic security is the United States. Alaskan-based forces and arctic submarine patrols obviously figure into US security operations, but their focus is on Asia and America’s strategic nuclear posture, not security conditions in the Arctic. The Arctic is not central to American national mythmaking or identity, to sovereignty concerns, or, since the end of the Cold War, to national security. And none of that is about to change.
The 2014 Arctic Yearbook is the third edition of what has become an important vehicle for publishing the results of current Arctic scholarship on a range of themes. Topics covered include regional governance, circumpolar relations, the geopolitics of the region, and security. In the latter section, one interesting offering explores possibilities for adapting confidence and security building measures developed in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for the Arctic.
Fighter aircraft probes of Arctic air defences, expanded surveillance and reconnaissance flights, and long-range nuclear bomber patrols seem once again to be the lingua franca of east-west diplomacy. And “East-West relations” is itself once more a term of art in global affairs as Moscow, Washington, and Brussels take up their quarrels and rely increasingly on military gestures do the talking for them. The ostensible point is to communicate strength and resolve, but there is an unavoidable subtext of impotence in posing threats you never want to carry out.
Recent reporting on Russia’s new military doctrine accorded banner coverage to the Kremlin’s designation of NATO as its “number one threat,” but very few news stories acknowledged the new doctrine’s statement of Russian openness to cooperation on missile defence. Arctic missile defence installations may not figure prominently in the current deep strains in NATO/Russian relations, but East/West relations are unlikely to reach any sustainable equilibrium without some resolution of the missile defence question generally, so any opening on that front deserves attention.
What does the recent burst of Russian military activity or brinkmanship, as some have characterized it, mean for the Arctic? While current Russia-NATO strategic posturing may accurately reflect the sorry depths to which relations between Russia and most of the Western world have sunk, a new SIPRI report on “Russia’s Evolving Arctic Strategy” is among some timely antidotes to the return-of-the-cold-war-in-the-Arctic narrative.
Changing climatic conditions in the Arctic have brought regional security concerns into renewed focus, and security relations in the north are in turn inevitably affected by confrontations in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, the region continues to develop as a “security community” in which there are reliable expectations that states will continue to settle disputes by peaceful means and in accordance with international law. In keeping with those expectations, the denuclearization of the Arctic has been an enduring aspiration of indigenous communities and of the people of Arctic states more broadly. But proposals for establishing the Arctic as a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) face major challenges, not the least of which is the effort to accommodate states that are still in possession of nuclear weapons, the US and Russia, as members of a zone whose primary principle is to ban the possession of nuclear weapons by any state within such a zone. The way forward is thus to promote the progressive denuclearization of the Arctic, reduce nuclear risks and the role of nuclear weapons in the security policies of the US and Russia, and to preserve the existing non-militarization of the surface of the Arctic Ocean through a treaty. To that end, the mandate of the Arctic Council should be broadened to include Arctic security concerns, and re-energized disarmament diplomacy should seek to improve global strategic relations that will be conducive to further reductions in nuclear arsenals, and to encourage non-nuclear weapon states in the Arctic to formalize and entrench their collective status as a zone free of nuclear weapons.
Just trying to understand, never mind defend, Vladimir Putin is once again a serious political offense. Some German commentators even have a name for the offender – a Putinversteher, a Putin “understander.” And they don’t mean that in a good way. But in Tromsø, Norway – some 350 kms above the Arctic Circle, a long way from Kiev and Donetsk but very near to Murmansk – participants in an Arctic marine security workshop assumed the effort to understand and, notably, get along with the Russians to be more a matter of self-interested necessity than the occasion for derision.
Speculation about Russia’s post-Crimean posture in the Arctic has become a prominent sidebar to the Ukraine story. With Russia again asserting a willingness to deploy force across borders to advance its agenda, some pundits and public officials in other Arctic countries have been advising Russia’s Arctic neighbors to take note and prepare accordingly. The Arctic, like any other arena in which Russia wields influence, will not be immune to the changing dynamics among Russia, Europe, and North America – a linkage reinforced by Ottawa’s ill-considered decision to boycott the April working-group meeting of the Arctic Council in Moscow. But predictions of renewed Arctic military rivalry owe a lot less to strategic realism than to an instinctive default to Cold War categories whenever it comes to Vladimir Putin and his troublesome behaviour.
Early in the life of his Conservative Government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper retreated from an election campaign pledge to build three armed heavy icebreakers for the Canadian Navy, to be based in the Arctic. Once elected, the Harper Government reconsidered and opted instead for a single icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) and six to eight patrol ships for the Navy to operate in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as in the Arctic during the summer navigable season. While the patrol ships project is certainly underway, construction has not begun. In other words, there is still time to question and rethink.