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 Canada'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



Military Footprints in the Arctic

By Ernie Regehr, O.C.,  Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence, The Simons Foundation Canada
with Kelsey Gallagher, Researcher, Project Ploughshares
March 2024


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.
Domain awareness is the ability to know with some detail and assurance what is happening within a state’s territory and areas of responsibility. In the Canadian Arctic that capability becomes progressively more important as activity in the region expands, and its importance is linked much more directly to public safety than to sovereignty or national security concerns. The point, of course, is not simply to enhance awareness, but to thereby facilitate more effective emergency response capacity, support for law enforcement, and measures to ensure compliance with environmental, shipping, and other standards and regulations in the region. The focus in what follows, however, is on the former – on maritime domain “awareness” rather than domain “control.” While surveillance and monitoring capabilities are by most accounts far from adequate, the capability gaps are not entirely dire and the responsibility for closing them does not rest exclusively or even primarily with the defence department.