If the two oceans that lie to the east and west of us have shaped Canada’s history, then our third ocean to the north will profoundly shape our future. The Arctic already plays a major role in Canadians’ national psyche and sense of identity. And yet, few Canadians have directly witnessed the High North’s abiding beauty, or experienced its harsh tyrannies and extremes of climate, remoteness and austerity.
Fundamentally, the Arctic is a maritime theatre. I do not say this in a parochial naval sense but rather as an inescapable conclusion of physical and social geography. There is not now, nor is there likely to be, an explosion of road and rail connections to drive forward and sustain development of the High North, as was the case in the 19th and 20th centuries with the great western movement of settlers into the west of North America. Northern communities, as they develop, will be connected to the south largely by air and sea. They will be supplied and sustained by ship and, only briefly each year, by 18-wheelers when ice roads permit hazard-filled travel across the tundra in the western region.
Canada’s High North is an ocean space, a vast archipelago enveloped in an oceanic icefield that both defines and dominates the environment, virtually inaccessible but for a short season in the late summer and early fall. Even then, the sea ice becomes at best partially navigable by vessels that are specially designed to operate within it. For much of the remainder of the year, winter retains the High North in an icy grip. Nowhere else on earth, with the exception of Antarctica, is it more austere to operate or less forgiving to the unprepared.
For the Canadian Forces to operate there persistently, effectively and safely in support of the national interest, our requirements, competencies and practices will be shaped profoundly by three tyrannies: the tyranny of distance; the tyranny of climate; and the tyranny of austerity.
A parable of change
There is a second and perhaps more profound reason that the Arctic is a maritime theatre. That is because the central issues of the region hinge upon matters of international maritime law.
Just as all lines of longitude meet at the North Pole, many of the trends and drivers reshaping the global defence and security environment are converging in the Arctic, compelling us northwards. Indeed, strategic consideration of the region is being propelled into the foreground, bringing the five coastal states that encircle the Arctic Ocean and the eight nations stretching beyond the Arctic Circle toward the center of world affairs.
Predictions may vary, but all of the analyses of which I am aware suggest that climate change will open the Arctic Ocean as a commercially viable sea route between Europe and Asia for the first time in recorded history – recent trends suggest that could happen sooner than many thought possible. In all likelihood, the northern sea route will emerge across the Arctic Basin well before the fabled Northwest Passage. And such are the advantages for “transit” shipping of this long-sought passage that shipping patterns worldwide are likely to be altered significantly.
In conjunction with climate change, improvements in extraction technologies will make Arctic seabed resources commercially exploitable, again potentially much sooner than many had envisaged, with prospects of greatly increased “destination” shipping. And the economic stakes are enormous – vast energy and mineral reserves already discovered, or believed to lie, in the Arctic Basin and its periphery.
As a recent boundary delineation agreement between Russia and Norway attests, we have every confidence that competition for resources in the Arctic will be moderated by cooperation and disputes reconciled by law. Indeed, many defence analysts do not envisage a conventional military threat in the Arctic for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the prospects of greatly increased economic activity will bring with them increased risks of marine incident and environmental accident from both transit and destination shipping, while affording to others the opportunity to mask their criminal or terrorist undertakings at sea or ashore.
Accordingly, there are ample reasons already for the Canadian Forces to hasten the delivery of sea, land and air capabilities that will permit us to meet our responsibilities and obligations as a coastal state; reinforce our capacity to regulate our offshore estate as required and permitted by international law; support the work of other government departments that have a nation-building or law-enforcement mandate; and provide a capacity to respond to events.
In short, we must be able to do in High Arctic latitudes what we are required to do in southern latitudes – nothing more, nothing less.
Intensification of ocean politics
The economic and legal pressures which the members of the Arctic Council are addressing successfully through consultation and cooperation are being met elsewhere by significant increases in inter-state tension and confrontation.
In the last year alone we witnessed the world’s second and third largest national economies become embroiled in a bitter dispute over a small group of islands in the East China Sea – a dispute that began in relatively minor circumstances with the arrest by Japan of a Chinese fishing trawler but soon escalated into a major diplomatic standoff until Japan eventually yielded to Chinese demands. Analysts have suggested that China in effect leveraged its dominant position in the global production of rare earth metals and oxides to place entire sectors of the Japanese economy at risk. That is neither here nor there. But both countries behaved in a manner which underscored that issues of international maritime law are core national interests to each of them.
This dispute, as well as dozens of others, points to the fact that ocean politics are intensifying around the world, the result of a global coupling of the same trends and drivers that have propelled the Arctic into the headlines:
· steadily increasing global demands for strategic resources including energy;
· the existential need for advanced economies to secure assured access to those resources; and
· the role of climate change, which is serving as a catalyst for a host of other social dislocations brought upon by globalization, population growth and other factors.
Such trends will make for a future maritime domain of great strategic complexity and competition, but they also threaten to alter the legal and political foundations upon which the current global maritime order is built.
This has happened at least twice before and precisely when two conditions we observe in today’s global system aligned themselves in the past: a fundamental reordering of international society itself, coupled with an extensive reconstruction of global power.
The first such instance occurred in the 17th century, when the Dutch and the English went to war on three occasions to determine how the world’s oceans would be regulated. Ironically, although the English eventually emerged from that nearly century-long struggle as the dominant maritime power, it was the Dutch legal tradition of mare liberum, or freedom of the seas, that gained ascendancy. The second occurred in the latter half of the 20th century, when the retreat of European colonialism created a host of new coastal states whose maritime interests could readily have come into conflict with those of the traditional maritime powers, but for one remarkable fact: the international community chose to reconcile the two sets of interests through consultation and cooperation. The result was arguably the most successful international treaty ever conceived: the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.
It remains to be seen whether the international consensus that lies behind UNCLOS will continue to hold in the coming decades, in the face of what may become existential pressures upon many states. But there are few questions of greater importance in these opening decades of the 21st century, and especially for Canada, which has benefitted more than most from UNCLOS, both as a coastal state and a trading nation.
Accordingly, how Canada and her Arctic Council partners approach the resolution of Arctic issues has strategic consequences that will echo far beyond the Arctic itself. We must find ways to cooperate there that reinforce the legal foundations of the international system. Our future security and prosperity depend upon it.
While much attention is drawn to disagreements, such as the status of the Northwest Passage, Canada’s relations with our Northern neighbours are actually very positive. From an institutional perspective, northern issues are systematically being addressed through the Arctic Council, as attested by the Search and Rescue Treaty recent concluded by the member states. Canada is cooperating on the scientific work required to delineate the extent of our continental shelf with the U.S. and Denmark, and it contributes to similar multi-national efforts with Russia and Norway as well.
The Canadian Coast Guard transports supplies to the U.S. base at Thule, Greenland, and the joint Canada-U.S. NORAD is responsible for continental aerospace control and maritime warning.
Direct military cooperation is also evident in how our operations are evolving.
The military role
At the most fundamental level, the role of Canada’s maritime forces – and here I am acknowledging the significant contributions made by Canada’s Air Force towards maritime security – is to assist other elements of the federal family to regulate our ocean approaches.
The Arctic will be no different – our role will not change in northern latitudes – but what works very well in the Atlantic and Pacific must be adapted to a far more challenging theatre, including a recognition that effective stewardship of the Arctic must be achieved through the cultivation of productive partnerships at all levels of government and with the peoples of the North. This, in effect, is what the annual exercise of Op NANOOK is all about.
The Canadian Forces already maintains a number of assets in the North, but the Canada First Defence Strategy identified five initiatives that will begin to enhance our need for greater maritime domain awareness and presence in the region: the acquisition for the navy of six to eight Arctic offshore patrol ships; establishment at Nanisivik of a berthing and refuelling facility; establishment of a Arctic training centre in Resolute Bay; integration of RADARSAT II satellite information into our wide-area national surveillance picture; and, expansion of the Canadian Rangers – “eyes and ears” on the land – to improve their ability to provide presence and surveillance in northern coastal regions.
I mentioned that the Arctic operating environment will exert a major influence on requirements. The Arctic offshore patrol vessel, or AOPS, is a case in point.
AOPS will not be a complex combatant. It will be armed and equipped for a constabulary role in support of other government departments – a role, however, that will require it to operate effectively, safely and reliably within the Arctic Archipelago during the navigable season, and not merely in the low Arctic, as well as in Canada’s other two oceans at other times of the year.
As a result, the ship will exhibit a number of the key characteristics of an icebreaker in terms of hull form, displacement, robustness of propulsion and so on, while preserving the ocean-going stability required in northern Atlantic and Pacific waters.
Second, it will most often operate alone, likely the only government vessel within days or more of being able to respond to events. It cannot become a liability through equipment casualty. That translates into a great deal of redundancy for mission-critical systems, as well as to avoid becoming trapped in the icefield by equipment failure.
Third, it must have the endurance to travel several thousand kilometres to deploy to the theatre of operations and operate at great distances from its forward staging base at Nanisivik for extended durations.
The Arctic long ago captured the hearts of Canadians. It must now occupy our minds as we grapple with addressing the consequences of dramatic change that are begin to unfold in our High North. The Canadian Forces will be an integral and significant part of Canada’s move to safeguard our precious national inheritance and fulfill our responsibilities as both a coastal state and an Arctic nation.
Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison is commander of Canada’s Navy and Chief of the Maritime Staff. This article is adapted from a presentation to the Kingston Conference on International Security, made on his behalf when he was Assistant Chief of the Maritime Staff.