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The Under-Ice Environment as a Strategic Space
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The Under-Ice Environment as a Strategic Space 

In recent years the Arctic has re-emerged as a region of great power competition. While the remilitarization of the Russian Arctic has long been a matter of concern in the West, Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has injected a new urgency to these considerations.  NATO’s threat assessments have clearly changed and, over the past three months, the Canadian and American governments have renewed their attention to continental security and our shared maritime border with Russia. Apart from this clear Russian threat, the Arctic has also seen growing non-state interest, and non-Arctic state interest – particularly from China. Taken as a whole, the Arctic security environment is changing, and new capabilities and new cooperative frameworks will be required to meet those evolving threats. For Canada, a submarine capability will be part of that equation.

While much of the Russian naval threat to NATO remains centred on the European High North, Russian submarines have steadily increased their operations in the Arctic Ocean adjacent Canada’s northern coast. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy (former Commander NORAD) and Peter M. Fesler (NORAD’s Deputy Director of Operations) issued a clear warning in a 2020 paper, highlighting the fact that Russian “submarines now frequently conduct mission rehearsals for strikes on the United States and Canada.”[1] The Arctic, a region that was formerly a moat, has become a “means of approach.”[2] As the government of Canada reconsiders its continental defence plans this summer, the maritime component of NORAD, and the defence of the Arctic will certainly play a central role. As has been the case since the early Cold War, that maritime environment will be dominated by submarines.

The Canadian and American militaries have been here before. In the mid-1980s the Arctic Ocean emerged as a region of particular concern for the US Navy. The Soviet Union’s development of the long-range SS-NX-24 cruise missile seemed to give their submarines the option of launching a stealthy first strike against North American targets from within Canadian Arctic waters. From the 1970s onwards, there was also evidence that the Soviet Navy was beginning to use the Arctic as a regular transit route, allowing nuclear attack submarines (SSN) and ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) to bypass the heavily monitored and defended Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap en route to patrol stations in the Atlantic.[3] As part of its response to these capabilities, American naval strategy underwent a significant and aggressive shift north. Articulated for the first time in 1984 by Admiral James D. Watkins, the “Maritime Strategy” was a broad concept for the global conduct of war with a focus on defeating Soviet submarines in circumpolar waters.[4]

While the Russian submarine force has shrunk considerably since the 1980s, its strategic interest in the Arctic remains the same. Today, Russia is again deploying new cruise missiles (such as the KH-101/102) with ranges of up to 5,500 km, enabling them to strike critical infrastructure across North American from firing positions in the Arctic.[5] Carrying these weapons are new or refurbished Russian nuclear attack submarines (SSNs), which continue to be built and upgraded despite that country’s failing economy and rapidly depleting (or seized) foreign currency reserves. At the same time, Russia continues to employ sea ice as cover for its SSBNs close to its shores. These are likely to be protected by SSN escorts, which would necessarily have to operate throughout the entirety of the Arctic ice cap. Thus, even though Russia would not need to send its SSBNs close to the Canadian side of the Arctic, its screening SSNs would need to do so in order to interdict potential American or British SSNs approaching from the North American side of the Arctic.

That strategic picture may also become more complicated than it was during the Cold War as China’s growing interest in the region represents a potential long-term peril. A non-Arctic state with newfound polar aspirations, China has been investing heavily in its naval power projection. Whether its Arctic interests, which centres on resource development, science, and shipping, lead to militarization remains to be seen. In the short-term, the motivation for China’s first Arctic submarine voyage may well be the same as America’s in 1958. It was at that point, in the face of the Soviets’ success with Sputnik, that USS Nautilus was sent across the pole as a demonstration of American technological prowess.[6] A polar voyage would send a powerful political message, dramatically demonstrating to the world (and the domestic audience) that China is a first-rate technological power capable of the most ambitious and difficult global deployments. This would fall into the PLAN’s pattern of growing overseas operations and the publicising of those deployments as symbols of state power. While a Chinese presence remains speculative, it is a serious enough consideration to warrant mention in the US Navy’s new Arctic strategy: “Blue Arctic.”[7]

Historically, the field of Arctic maritime defence has been dominated by the United States Navy (USN), given that it was the US that deployed the nuclear attack submarines needed to operate under the polar ice. Canada was largely absent since its diesel-electric Oberon- and Victoria-class boats lacked the extended range and genuine under-ice capability provide by nuclear power. Twice before, this limitation led Canada to seriously consider acquiring SSNs – once in the early 1960s and again in the late 1980s. On both occasions the technical difficulties and costs of building or acquiring these vessels led to the cancellation of the programs.[8] The current acquisition program is unlikely to retread these same grounds. As the RCN looks to move the Canadian Surface Combatant program forward, the risk and costs involved in nuclear submarines will be prohibitive. As a useful comparison, the recent Australian decision to procure SSNs in partnership with the US and the UK, has been costed at roughly $70 billion AUD (at a minimum).[9] Canada is unlikely to take on this risk and is rightly focused on a diesel-electric option.

Given its conventional focus, Canada must address the growing strategic threat from the Arctic by accepting that fundamental limitation and reengaging with the USN to rebuild its Cold War Arctic cooperation. While this partnership with the US has often been considered a limitation, or even an affront to Canadian sovereignty itself, the reality is that it has worked well for nearly seventy years and can continue to yield positive results.[10] Yet, cooperation with the US should not mean dependency and Canada must still be able to meaningfully contribute.

Contributing to the defence of the Arctic requires a modern submarine capability. While Canada is highly unlikely to acquire the nuclear-powered vessels that will enable a true under-ice presence, conventional submarines offer essential capabilities along the ice-edge. While year-round access to the Arctic Archipelago is beyond the reach of a diesel-electric boat, the effects of climate change are opening much of the region for longer stretches of the year. While that opening is unpredictable and subject to wild fluctuations in sea-ice coverage, the general trend is clearly an Arctic area that is increasingly accessible to non-nuclear submarines for longer stretches of the years.[11]

At the same time, that reduction in sea ice extent reduces the under-ice area in which SSNs and SSBNs can hide, making it potentially easier for SSKs to monitor under-ice access. As mentioned above, Russia maintains the practice of stationing its SSBNs under ice. With Arctic sea ice retreating most rapidly on the Russian side of the Arctic Ocean Russian SSBNs and their escorting SSNs will move ever closer to the North American side of the Arctic. While a Canadian SSK may not have the endurance margins to safely transit the ice-covered Canadian archipelagic waterways, it may be able to monitor such Russian assets from the more open waters on the east side of Greenland. Additionally, developments in autonomous Extra Large Uncrewed Underwater Vehicles (XLUUVs) may provide a safer and more realistic solution to monitoring the Arctic underwater domain from the Canadian side. While UUVs to date have focused on only collecting information and monitoring potential targets, some defence companies have been developing miniaturized torpedoes that can be potentially fitted onto large UUVs that provide them with a prosecution capability.[12] 

Engine technology has also advanced to the point where Canadian diesel-electric submarines can operate more effectively along the ice-edge. Developments in Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) technology now provide a submarine with extended submerged range up to several weeks (depending on speed). This is accomplished by virtue of having a second, but still finite, fuel source running through a reaction that does not require fresh air. The most prevalent example by far is the Sterling engine, which uses heat generated by pressurized combustion of liquid oxygen and diesel. This was first adopted for submarine use by Sweden in the late 1980s, and the technology has since been installed on all of their submarines, as well as in most of Japan’s Soryu-class boats.[13] More recently, fuel cell technologies are providing an alternative to the Sterling engine, with benefits including greater acoustic quieting and less maintenance at the cost of greater complexity. Regardless of the exact method by which AIP is achieved, its growing prevalence in non-nuclear submarines (SSKs) makes them increasingly suitable for long endurance underwater missions. The possibility of adapting AIP to Arctic use has been debated for decades but is becoming more pronounced as the technologies mature. In 2017, a Canadian Senate Committee even recommended serious consideration of AIP-equipped attack submarines for Arctic operations.[14] These engines provide a partial solution to Arctic operations, allowing submarines to operate comfortably at the ice-edge while venturing into the icepack for a limited time.

While conventional submarines now have greater access to the Arctic in summer, submarines can still deny or monitor access outside of the open seasons by securing choke points. On the West Coast, access to the Arctic Ocean is through the narrow Bering Strait, in the East it is through Davis Strait. Submarines looking to transit the Canadian Arctic must travel through these narrow choke points and that requirement means surveillance of Canadian waters can be undertaken by watching the gateways – in partnership with the USN and other allied navies.  While only a partial solution at the operational level, this capability would provide strategic effect. Even seasonal access to the area, and regular operations around the ice-edge, would enable Canada to deny its enemies the use of the archipelago as a transit route while providing reliable surveillance of who was entering the region. As Phil Webster wrote in the Canadian Naval Review, “the mere presence of a Canadian submarine operating in … the chokepoints in the Northwest Passage, can have a significant impact in assessing underwater activity and the operations of non-Canadian submarines transiting or operating in these areas.[15]

The third point of access top the Canadian Arctic is more open – across the Arctic Ocean from Eurasia. While Chinese access would realistically be limited to the Bering Strait, the Russian Navy is able to deploy freely into the Arctic Ocean from its Northern Fleet bases. Surveillance and defence of the Arctic Ocean and the Canadian High Arctic from this vector would be outside the capabilities of a diesel electric fleet. It would be a mistake however to view operations in the choke points (where Canada can contribute) and operations in the Polar Basin (where it could not) in separate silos. The defence of the continent is an increasingly integrated product of all domain-awareness. This comprehensive picture integrates radars, civilian systems, and maritime detection into a system of systems to ensure detection, tracking, target discrimination, the cueing of interception capabilities.[16] While NORAD is responsible for maritime warning only, Andrea Charron and James Fergusson make the persuasive case that it is only logical that the integration which exists at the aerospace level should be pursued in all other domains – including the maritime – to create a single North American defence command.[17]

The integration of Canadian Arctic capabilities into a broader Arctic defence partnership has a long history. During the Cold War, Canadian defence agencies worked with their American counterparts to develop, deploy, and maintain a series of under-ice detection systems across the Arctic Archipelago.[18] By the late 1980s, Canadian-American teams were testing listening systems north of Ellesmere Island, which would monitor Soviet activity deep into the Arctic Ocean.[19] American submarine operations into the Arctic Archipelago were normally undertaken as joint missions, with Canadian participation in one shape or another.[20]

Figure 1: US submarine operations in the Arctic Archipelago, 1958-1982, Source: Waldo K Lyon Papers

In a revitalized renewal of this partnership, Canadian submarines monitoring the gateways to the Arctic Archipelago and along the ice-edge would be invaluable additions to NORAD’s operating picture for the Arctic as a whole. In conjunction with a renewal of the Defence Research Board’s under-ice detection work,[21] this contribution would ensure that the defence of the region was a joint responsibility rather than a purely American task.

Beyond greater integration into maritime continental defence, operating submarines provides Canada with a clearer picture of allied operations in the Arctic through participation in NATO’s Water Space Management regime. Water space management is best described by Phil Webster as somewhat analogous to a limited air traffic control system that monitors and ‘de-conflicts’ the movements of allied submarines throughout the world. Through this system, submarines are routed to their operating areas using a SUBNOTE, which provides a “moving haven” – essentially a box in which the submarine operates.[22] By operating submarines in the Atlantic or Pacific along the ice-edge – or in the Arctic during the open seasons – Canada gains access to this system, securing access to information about which allied submarines are moving into and out of the Arctic – at least through the commonly used routes.

Understanding what is happening in the Arctic (and under the ice) is vital to Canada. From a political perspective, knowledge and participation safeguards Canadian sovereignty over the waters, the status of which remains contested.[23] Canada’s active participation in Arctic maritime defence ensures that American activity in the region takes place within the overall framework of a joint defence effort. Within that framework, agreements dating back to 1952[24] ensure that US operations in Canadian internal waters can be authorized through service-to-service channels, removing the kinds potential legal and political thorns that led to sovereignty crises in 1969 and 1985.[25] Possessing the ability to interdict hostile actors in the Arctic is also an essential element in national defence. NDP defence critic Derek Blackburn put it well in 1987 when he said that surveillance without response is akin to buying an alarm system but not hiring a policeman.[26] As great-power competition increases and activity in the Arctic expands, Canada will need not only that improved surveillance but also the ability to respond to threats within its waters.

The Arctic will be an important consideration when developing Canada’s new submarine fleet. While the country will likely not seek to develop the full under-ice capabilities offered by nuclear propulsion, conventional submarines will still provide Canada with the ability to meaningfully contribute to the maritime element of northern continental defence, while offering the government vital insights into what is transpiring above and below the waves in Canada’s third Ocean.


Reprinted with permission, Starshell, Summer 2022, Issue 95, Naval Association of Canada

Adam Lajeunesse, PhD, is the Irving Shipbuilding Chair in Canadian Arctic Marine Security Policy and an Assistant Professor at the Mulroney Institute of Government, St. Francis Xavier University.

Timothy Choi is completing his Ph.D. at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies, and is also a Research Fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development. He serves on the editorial board of and is the photo editor at the Canadian Naval Review


[1] Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy and Peter M. Fesler, “Hardening the Shield: A Credible Deterrent & Capable Defense for North America,” Wilson Center (September 2020), 5.

[2] O’Shaughnessy and Fesler, 2.

[3] John Honderich, Arctic Imperative: Is Canada Losing the North? (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 92.

[4] See in: John B. Hattendorf and Peter M. Swartz eds. “The Maritime Strategy, 1984,” US Naval Strategy in the 1980s: Selected Documents, Naval War College Newport Papers 33 (Newport: Naval War College Press, 2008).

[5] This concern over key nodes is a key theme in O’Shaughnessy and Fesler, 15. On KH-101 range see: Mark Vermylen, “KH-101/102,” MDAA (May 2017).

[6] William M. Leary, Under Ice: Waldo Lyon and the Development of the Arctic Submarine (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999), 109.

[7] US Navy, “A Blue Arctic” (January 2021), 8.

[8] For the best history of both projects see: Julie H. Ferguson, Through a Canadian Periscope, 2nd Edition (Toronto: Dundurn, 2014).

[9] Tory Shepherd, “Australia’s AUKUS Nuclear Submarines could Cost as much as $171bn, Report Finds,” The Guardian (December 13, 2022).

[10] On such criticisms see for instance: Michael Byers, Who Owns the Arctic? Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010), 77 or Ken Coates et. al., Arctic Front: Defending Canadian Interests in the Far North (Toronto: Thomas Allen & Son Ltd., 2008), 153.

[11] For an in-depth analysis of this trend see: Luke Copland et. al., “Changes in Shipping Navigability in the Canadian Arctic between 1972 and 2016,” Facets 7(June 30, 2021).

[12] Luca Peruzzi, “Leonardo’s Black Scorpion Mini-Torpedo is on Track to Complete Qualification for Delivery to Customers,” European Defence Review (July 22, 2020).

[13] Herbert Nilsson, “Air Independent Propulsion Systems for Autonomous Submarines,” OCEANS ’85: Ocean Engineering and the Environment, San Diego, November 14-15, 1985 (Piscataway, NJ: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, 1985), 42-55; Saab, “Submarines,” Saab AB, https://saab.com/naval/submarines-and-surface-ships/submarines/submarines/; Kockums, “Kockums Stirling AIP System,” Kockums AB (November 19, 2009).

[14] Canada, Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, “Reinvesting in the Canadian Armed Forces: A Plan for the Future” (May 2017), 37, 39.

[15] Phil Webster, “Arctic Sovereignty, Submarine Operations and Water Space Management,” Canadian Naval Review 3:3 (Fall 2007), 14.

[16] Andrea Charron and James Fergusson, “Defending the Continent: NORAD Modernization and Beyond,” CGAI (May 2022).

[17] Charron and Fergusson.

[18] Adam Lajeunesse, “A Very Practical Requirement: Under-Ice Operations in the Canadian Arctic, 1960-1986,” Cold War History 13:4 (November, 2013).

[19] For the best history of this project see: Bruce Butler, Into the Labyrinth: The Making of a Modern-Day Theseus (Bigfoot Press, 2018).

[20] Adam Lajeunesse, Lock, Stock, and Icebergs: The Evolution of Canada’s Arctic Maritime Sovereignty (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2016), chapter 10.

[21] On this work see: William Carruthers, “An Array of Blunders the Northern Watch Technology Demonstration Project,” NIOBE Papers 1, Naval Association of Canada (January 2019).

[22] Webster, 15.

[23] Canada considered the Northwest Passage to be historic internal waters while the US believes that an international strait bisects the Arctic Islands, and that Canadian sovereignty extents only 12nm from each island.

[24] This agreement is Permanent Joint Board of Defence Recommendation 52/1. For more see Lajeunesse, Lock, Stock, and Icebergs, 240-241.

[25] These being the voyages of SS Manhattan in 1969 and USCGS Polar Sea in 1985.

[26] House of Commons, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence of the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs (1987), 25:33.

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