Remote Access: Crew members of a Canadian Forces CC-130 Hercules aircraft drop supplies from the plane's ramp during a search-and-rescue training scenario as part of Operation Nunalivut 2012, an annual exercise held in the Resolute Bay are of Nunavut, the country's largest and northernmost territory. (Canadian Forces)
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Logistics challenges are limiting Canada’s ambitious Arctic military plans for building installations and resupplying forces in its vast, harsh northern region.
Since 2006, the Canadian government has emphasized that it intends to greatly boost its military presence in the Arctic because the oil, gas and mineral resources there are critical to economic growth.
“Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic — we either use it or lose it,” Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in July 2007.
Since then, his government has announced the creation of an Army response force that could travel to the region at short notice, proposed establishment of a naval installation in the north and an Arctic training center, and developed plans to purchase new aircraft to transport troops and equipment. But Canadian military officers have discovered that the logistics of operating in the Arctic rival or surpass the challenges of operations in austere war zones such as Afghanistan.
Army commander Lt. Gen. Peter Devlin warned in January that the high cost of logistics in the Arctic was forcing him to scale back on training in the region.
“Recent northern exercises and operations highlight the fact that conduct of these activities can cost from five to seven times more than if they were conducted in Southern Canada,” Devlin wrote in a document titled, “Programme Assessment 2013-14 Canadian Army.” That 14-page report, signed by Devlin on Jan. 31, was obtained by Defense News.
“The Army will have to limit/reduce the scope of its activities in the North, thus directly impacting on Canada’s ability to exercise Arctic sovereignty,” Devlin, who retires July 18, wrote in the assessment.
Defense analyst Martin Shadwick said the logistics issue is hindering the military’s Arctic strategy.
“The distances to travel up there are enormous, and the Canadian Forces has to transport in everything they need,” said Shadwick, a strategic studies professor at York University in Toronto.
Canada’s northern region consists of more than 1.5 million square miles — larger than India — but there are fewer than 120,000 people.
Logistics and the high cost of moving building material into the north are also driving the Canadian government’s decision to scale back on a proposed naval facility at Nanisivik, Nunavut. The government proposed a CAN $100 million (US $98 million) upgrade to an existing deep-water port at a former mining site. That has been greatly scaled back, and plans now involve only a refueling station open for just the summer months. The station is expected to be operational by 2016.
The Royal Canadian Air Force had also looked to expand Resolute Bay in Nunavut, potentially transforming it into a key base for Arctic operations. That would have involved the construction of a 3,000-meter paved runway, hangars, fuel installations and other infrastructure. But the Air Force confirmed last year that proposal would not proceed.
“In the Arctic, you are dealing with a lot of competition for the small number of workers there as well as high building costs because all material has to be shipped in,” Shadwick said. “You also have a very short building season because of the weather.”
Last year, Canada’s then-defense chief, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, accompanied US Army Gen. Charles Jacoby, commander of Northern Command, to the Arctic as part of a tour to highlight the challenges of operating in Canada’s northern climate. Shortly before he retired in December, Natynczyk acknowledged that supporting missions in the Arctic was tougher than in war zones.
“We are challenged more by operating in our own domain than in operating around the world,” the country’s top military commander told the House of Commons defense committee on Nov. 3.
“It is harder to sustain operations in our High Arctic than it is to sustain operations in Kandahar or Kabul because in the Arctic, it’s what you bring.”
Shadwick said it is difficult to see a solution to Canada’s logistics problem in the north. Costs of transporting equipment over the vast expanse show no sign of decreasing, and it is difficult to use technology to replicate Arctic training conditions.
“You can’t wire simulators for snow,” he said.
Shadwick said one tactic the Canadian Army tried this year is to train in snow and cold conditions in the midnorthern areas of the country, closer to Canada’s urban centers.
But Shadwick said such training does not deal with Canada’s desire to have more of an actual presence in the Arctic with installations and personnel.