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Comparing the U.S. and Canadian military Arctic strategies

Rhetoric is not policy until it is reflected in government documents and actions. Comparing the United States and Canadian Arctic military strategies reveals that there is much more in common than different, disproving the rhetoric that paints Canada and the United States as adversaries. Despite dissentious comments by U.S. Secretary of the Navy Spencer threatening freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS)[1] through the Canadian Northwest Passage or U.S. National Security Advisor Bolton promising the U.S. Coast Guard will have “year round persistent presence in the polar regions” or former Canadian Prime Minister Harper’s “use it or lose it” remarks, those statements are not reflective of what the men and women of both militaries and Coast Guards actually do in the Arctic to make it safe and secure, nor what the policies of the respective countries actually outline

The U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Coast Guard (sub-executive agency of the Department of Homeland Security)[2] have both released new Arctic strategies in 2019, and the Canadian military outlined its Arctic plan in the 2017 defence policy, Strong, Secure and Engaged (SSE). While the bellicose rhetoric of the U.S. administration versus the near silence of the current Trudeau government suggests the two states would have very different policies, there is far more that is common than different in their Arctic strategies.

First, all three list “strengthen rules-based order” in the region as one of the top priorities. This not only includes ensuring that national sovereignty is protected but, importantly, that the shared Arctic “depends on Arctic nations constructively addressing shared challenges. Regional cooperation – built on a bedrock of internationally recognized principles like national sovereignty – is in the U.S. [and Canadian] interest and contributes to a secure and stable Arctic.”[3] All three policies recognize the importance of the eight Arctic states and the cooperation that currently exists in the region among allies and partners.

Related to the need to maintain rules, the U.S. and Canadian militaries both assume it is inevitable that traffic and interest in the Arctic will increase as the region becomes more ice-free.  SSE specifically notes that “state and commercial actors from around the world seek to share in the longer-term benefits of an accessible Arctic.”[4] All three downplay any language of a “race” to the Arctic; instead, the rise in activity will evolve naturally as a function of better technology and less ice. Therefore, ensuring “[a] stable and conflict-free Arctic benefits the United States [and Canada] by providing favorable conditions for resource development and economic activity, as well as contributing to upholding the international order and regional cooperation on challenges that affect all Arctic nations.”[5] While Canada specifically references “climate change,” the United States prefers terms such as “the warming of the Arctic” and “changing physical environment.” And yet, it is the USCG which is the most blunt and descriptive of the effects of climate change noting that:

 “[T]he warming of the Arctic has led to longer and larger windows of reduced ice conditions. In 2018, Arctic sea ice remained younger and thinner, and it covered less area than in the past. The twelve lowest summer minimums in Arctic ice extents in the satellite record have occurred in the last 12 years.”[6]

Clearly, a balance was made in the above statement. Political priorities must be respected, but so must the realities of the operational world. While the term “climate change” cannot be used for political reasons in American documents, the USCG is right to note the operational reality that is an Arctic with thinner and reduced ice conditions, especially near the coasts.

What is more, both Canada and the USCG recognize it is indigenous populations who are likely to bear the brunt of the changes. The USCG notes: “Arctic communities, including the Alaska Native and indigenous populations, will be on the front lines of adapting to changes in the Arctic.”[7] There is hope that perhaps the United States, which has a very strained relationship with its indigenous peoples (as does Canada), may start to see the wisdom of consulting community groups and working with them as it seeks to expand activity in the Arctic. While the United States federal government may not be consistently popular in Alaska, the U.S. military is looked upon very favorably throughout the state, especially in indigenous areas. Alaska has the highest national proportion of military service members and veterans, many of whom are indigenous, resulting in the military having a strong relationship throughout the state as a result. The United States, however, lacks a formal indigenous northern program that ensures local knowledge is part of any incident response and support by the military in Alaska. DND’s Canadian Ranger and Junior Ranger programs may be something for the U.S. military and Coast Guard to consider.

Second, there are references to the changing world order and the potential for competition with revisionist powers. Deterrence and great power politics, therefore, are returning to the lexicon of both militaries. While Canada mentions Russia’s “proven willingness to test the international security environment,”[8] China is referenced as “a rising economic power with an increasing ability to project influence globally.”[9] The United States references both but with many more Russian mentions than China (26 instances versus 18 in the DoD Arctic strategy, for example) principally because China does not yet have permanent Arctic military presence and is more limited than Russia operationally. Interestingly, the United States made clear that it “does not recognize any other claims to Arctic status by any other State than [the] eight [Arctic] nations,” indicating that the Chinese term “near-Arctic nation” lacks any official legitimacy.[10] In all three documents there is a sense that, while the capabilities of these near-peer competitors are most certainly on the rise, neither Canada nor the United States are fully agreed on the intentions of these powers vis-à-vis the Arctic. Strategically, the military legacy of the Arctic was driven by the shortest missile route between the primary Cold War belligerents. Now the likely scenario is that an incident in another part of the world could provoke a response in North America. Therefore, the Arctic is referenced as a “throughway” or potential “avenue of attack,” rather than a theatre of conflict. A threat, to be credible (i.e. elevated from an informational status to credible-threat status based on actionable intelligence), must have demonstrated capabilities as well as intent, and given the cooperation and contributions of both Russia and China to the Arctic Council, the mandatory Polar Code, not to mention the creation of a sixteen-year moratorium on commercial fishing in the Arctic, other-than-cooperative intentions for the North remain, to date, opaque at best.

Even established unilateral, binational, and multilateral defence-related interests/relationships can get “lost in translation” when publishing national strategies. While Canada is quick to reference the importance of especially NORAD and NATO to deter these potential adversaries, there is only one mention of NORAD in the DoD Arctic Strategy (as key to the defense of the northern approaches) versus 10 references to NATO. This also includes concerns about the reactivated Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap located in the North Atlantic. The USCG mentions NATO twice but does not mention NORAD even though the USCG is a vital contributor to NORAD’s Common Maritime Operating picture. 

Third, acquiring and maintaining capabilities to be able to operate in the Arctic, both for deterrence and aid to the civil powers, is a preoccupation of all three policies. In simple terms, a capability equals the resources plus skills to fulfill a mission requirement which is guided by risk analysis (the likeliness of a hazard to occur, multiplied by the potential for negative impacts). Increasingly, capabilities must address all domains: land, maritime, air, space, and cyber. With a rise in the amount of activity in the Arctic comes the need for increased safety and security requirements related to search and rescue as well as capabilities to detect, deter and defeat potential adversaries. For all three strategies, one notes that none of the fleets (USN, RCN or USCG) have the capability or capacity to assure sustained maritime surface presence in the high latitudes.[11] The CCG comes closest to having this capacity, but it is a civilian safety organization only.

Fourth and finally, the other commonality is that none of the strategies have adequate funds earmarked to achieve the goals found in the policies. DoD’s Arctic strategy has the most elegant way of suggesting cost will be an issue when it states that it will consider its capabilities, posture, operations, and activities necessary for deterrence in the Arctic “in a strategy-driven and resource-informed way.”[12] In other words, both states realize the extraordinary costs associated with building infrastructure and operating in the Arctic. Both SSE and DoD’s policies mention the importance of NORAD modernization, for example (which is a shorthand way of noting that the aged North Warning System needs replacing), yet nowhere along the fiscal processes of either nations have funds been dedicated or allocated toward this (likely) multi-million dollar, if not multi-billion, system-of-systems in support of a critical, bi-national defence requirement: domain awareness.

Despite the rhetoric and growing anti-U.S. and anti-Canada insults (which are really directed at both countries’ leaders and are expected in election years), the objectives, challenges and concerns regarding the Arctic are very similar. And there are many more aspects of bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the Arctic than are credited or mentioned in the strategies. For example, the United States and Canada are partners in the following:

Arctic Coastguard Forum;

Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation;

Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response Agreement;

Arctic SAR Agreement; and

US-Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Leadership[13]

 A careful review of the primary sources rather than of the sound bites and social media suggests that the United States and Canada have never been more cognate when it comes to their Arctic strategies.


[1] By definition, a FONOP is not an announced/scheduled event.  

[2] Note the USCG can fall under both Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Defense depending on the missions. The USCG has defined, resourced and operationalized statutory law-enforcement/security missions. In contrast, the Canadian Coast Guard is always a civilian safety organization and therefore is not analysed as part of the “military” Arctic strategies

[3] Department of Defense Arctic Strategy: 2019: 5.

[4] SSE, 2017: 51.

[5] Department of Defense Arctic Strategy: 2019: 7.

[6] USCG Arctic Strategy Book, 2019: 12.

[7] USCG Arctic Strategy Book, 2019:14.

[8] SSE, 2017: 50.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Department of Defense Arctic Strategy: 2019: 3.

[11] USCG, 2019: 6.

[12] DoD Arctic Strategy, 2019: 8.

[13] While negotiated under the Obama administration, it is still on the “books”.

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