Collaboration is the bedrock of any joint exercise; projecting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic hinges on it. But as the Canadian Forces have learned over the years, north of 60 everything changes – weather, sensors, communications, even the best laid plans.

To improve its capability in the region and understand the capability of its partners, the CF through Joint Task Force North, one of six established under Canada Command as part of transformation in 2006, has conducted joint exercises in the past two years with two of the more knowledgeable northern operating agencies – the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Coast Guard.

There is an obvious imperative to building common practices and procedures. The RCMP and the Coast Guard, along with Indian & Northern Affairs, have staked a federal civilian presence in the North while the Forces, through the Rangers, the Air Force and various electronic sensors, have projected a military one. But with the arrival of cruise ships, transpolar Russian trade, and the potential massive growth of energy extraction and exports, the Arctic Archipelago has become more crowded and more of a security concern.

“As the North opens up, we now have a number of other players such as the maritime command and Border Services, Customs & Immigration becoming increasingly active in the North,” says Michael Gardiner, assistant commissioner responsible for the Canadian Coast Guard, Central and Arctic Region. “We’re beginning to share our experience and expertise, and working out protocols is an expanding field.”

In August, the Coast Guard participated in the largest joint exercise to date in the North, Operation Nanook, held off the coast of Baffin Island in the Hudson Strait. The operation may have been about sovereignty projection, but one of the key objectives was to enhance inter-agency coordination and communication.

“We have been operating in the area for over 50 years and our communications protocols, procedures and equipment have evolved to meet our needs, as has the RCMP’s,” Gardiner said. “The Canadian Forces has evolved in different ways to meet different needs. We needed an opportunity to work together to see how all this meshed. It’s a challenge in the south when we’re integrating that many different government agencies into one operation. But in the Arctic it is that much more complex. For example, we have never developed protocols for a Coast Guard helicopter to land on a DND vessel. This has given all the agencies material to consider as we move ahead.”

The exercise, hampered throughout by the ever-changing weather, played out over 10 days and involved two scenarios: CF response to a request from the RCMP for assistance with a drug interdiction; and, CF response to a request from the Coast Guard for assistance with an environmental protection incident.

For the Coast Guard, the lead response agency for oil spills and other maritime environmental disasters, the exercise was an opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities of both its equipment and crews. In the first scenario, CCGS Martha L. Black, a light icebreaker, delivered the CF and RCMP boarding parties to the vessel playing the role of the smuggler. In the second, however, Coast Guard took the lead to test the logistical support that could be provided by JTFN and other government resources in responding to a spill, including placing and recovering buoys and booms.

It was also an opportunity to highlight the importance of flexibility. “We have learned over the years that you have to have very flexible plans and very robust back-up plans and work-arounds in place because it is almost certain that in the Arctic, life will not unfold as you have scripted it,” Gardiner said.

Despite the weather-related challenges, the exercises proved invaluable at testing the communication systems and procedures of all participants.

“For me, it was an eye-opener on their planning and the functions of all their personnel in the headquarters of a major operation,“ said Brian LeBlanc, director of operational services, who, along with another Coast Guard officer, was embedded with the CF for the duration of the operation. “We saw their planning, internal communications, and how their operation unfolds. We tested the communication links between DND and CCG, as well as the links with our forward-deployed field operations in Iqaluit and our regional operations centre in Sarnia.”

The exercise provided an opportunity to work through how information and tasking authority flows. But plugging into the CF’s robust communications system proved to be a challenge, LeBlanc admits. “If you’re not part of the security milieu it is very difficult to link into it,” he said. ”Something the Coast Guard will have to look into is increasing our ability to communicate beyond our sensors and with other government departments, especially DND, in a secure fashion.” Gardiner added that initial clearance to access the RCMP’s security apparatus also presented a problem that needs to be resolved.

Joint history
Exercising for the CF is de rigueur but for the Coast Guard, an agency that spends most of its time on operations, exercises are a novelty. “We’re in operations 96% of the time; we don’t have the people dedicated to scenario writing, to putting the logistics together for operational exercises,” Gardiner says. “The CF has the training expertise and that is invaluable to us. We are learning a huge amount from the CF in terms of how to conduct training and the challenges that entails.”

While Nanook (2007) and Lancaster (2006) were the first joint operations in the Arctic, the two agencies have a long history of interoperability. Within the federal Search and Rescue (SAR) System, DND has the lead for overall search and rescue (SAR) but the Coast Guard is the lead agency for marine SAR, with CCG officers co-located with DND officers at the Joint Rescue Coordination Centres at navel operations centres in Esquimalt and Halifax, and with the air force in Trenton. “That’s been going on for a long time and is considered to be highly successful but it largely flies under the radar,“ Gardiner notes.

Both are already building on the success of the exercises. Gardiner and Brigadier-General Chris Whitecross, commander of JTFN, have begun planning an exercise for later this year that should see the Coast Guard take a greater role in scripting its scenarios.

“The planning for Nanook was exceptional,” Gardiner said. “But rather than having it all scripted as a master DND exercise, we need to be able to test what happens when the Coast Guard or the RCMP put in place components of the exercise that are known only to them and the exercise commanders rather than being known to the DND command structure.”

However the next exercise plays out, it will undoubtedly add to the familiarity all agencies are gradually acquiring with each other and the Arctic.