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Polar Challenge: Extreme Conditions Put High Cost on Arctic Operations

Jun. 10, 2014 - 12:22PM   |  
By DAVID PUGLIESE   |   Comments
Replenishment: A CC-130J Hercules sets down at Canadian Forces Station Alert. The Royal Canadian Air Force runs day and night flying fuel and supplies to the station for two to three weeks every spring and fall. The station is the most northern, permanently inhabited location in the world.
Replenishment: A CC-130J Hercules sets down at Canadian Forces Station Alert. The Royal Canadian Air Force runs day and night flying fuel and supplies to the station for two to three weeks every spring and fall. The station is the most northern, permanently inhabited location in the world. (Master Cpl. Shilo Adamson/Canadian Forces)
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VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — The Canadian government has vowed to significantly boost military capability in the Arctic, but after years of such promises, a major roadblock still stands in the way — money.

Military officers and government officials are discovering that purchasing equipment for northern operations, as well as conducting missions in the Arctic, is a costly venture.

The Canadian Forces had more than CAN $6 billion (US $5.5 billion) in proposed equipment purchases for the Arctic, including satellites, transport aircraft, ships and all-terrain vehicles.

Some of those have disappeared while other acquisitions have been scaled back because of the cost.

“Establishing a presence in the Arctic doesn’t come cheap,” explained defense analyst Martin Shadwick, who teaches strategic studies at York University in Toronto. “It’s one thing to announce such purchases but much more difficult to make them happen.”

Since 2006, the Canadian government has emphasized its intention to significantly boost the military presence because oil, gas and minerals in the Arctic are critical to the country’s 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.

During the 2005-2006 federal election, Harper promised a series of initiatives, including the construction of a fleet of three Polar-class icebreakers. But because of the high cost of building those ships, the procurement was scaled back to one icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard and a fleet of Arctic/offshore patrol ships for the Royal Canadian Navy.

Construction of those ships, however, has still not begun. In addition, the Arctic/offshore patrol ships will be capable of operating only in the northern region during the summer.

Arctic utility transport planes, promised by the government in 2006-2007, have not been talked about since.

The government proposed a $100 million upgrade to an existing deep-water port at a former mining site in the north. That has since been sharply scaled back, and plans now involve only a refueling station open for just the summer months. The station is expected to be operational by 2016-2017.

The Royal Canadian Air Force has also looked at expanding Resolute Bay in Nunavut as it considered 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 in 2012 that the proposal would not proceed. The high cost of construction in the Arctic was identified as the main problem.

The Air Force also examined purchasing a fleet of Northrop Grumman Global Hawk UAVs, to conduct surveillance of the northern region but put aside those plans because of the $1 billion cost.

The Canadian government also wants to acquire two polar communication and weather satellites and in January asked industry to provide details on what types of spacecraft they could build.

Work is expected to start on the satellites in late 2016.

But the cost of the two spacecraft, which will provide the backbone of military communications in the Arctic, is estimated at $800 million.

Guennadi Kroupnik, the Canadian Space Agency’s director of satellite communications and space environment, has noted that Canada hopes to interest other nations in sharing the expense of the program.

Military commanders have raised concerns about the excessive cost of Arctic operations. Before he retired, Army commander Lt. Gen. Peter Devlin warned in January 2013 that the high cost of operating in the north because of logistics 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 the document, “Programme Assessment 2013-14 Canadian Army.”

Canada’s northern region consists of more than 1.5 million square miles and is larger than India, but it holds fewer than 120,000 people.

Canada’s former defense chief, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, acknowledged that supporting missions in the Arctic was tougher than in war zones such as Afghanistan.

“We are challenged more by operating in our own domain than in operating around the world,” Natynczyk, who has since retired from the military, told the House of Commons defense committee on Nov. 3, 2012. “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.”

The Canadian Army has proceeded with the creation of Arctic response companies, small units that have traveled to the north for training. But it has also seen budget reductions limit its acquisitions of equipment for northern operations.

In February, the Conservative government announced it was removing $3.1 billion from the Department of National Defence’s procurement budget over the next four years. That, in turn, has prompted a delay in the Army’s purchase of a fleet of all-terrain vehicles capable of operating in the snow.

The Army was looking to buy up to 100 of those vehicles and had started working on the project in 2011. That procurement, however, is being delayed until after 2023, industry officials were told in April.

The Canadian Forces use a small fleet of BV-206s, but those all-terrain vehicles were purchased in the 1980s.

Canada’s special operations forces, however, will proceed with the purchase of a similar vehicle for Arctic and desert operations. That procurement is for 17 all-terrain vehicles, with the option later on of acquiring five more, Maj. Steve Hawken, spokesman for the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, wrote in an email.

That project is expected to cost about $60 million, according to industry sources. ■

Email: dpugliese@defensenews.com.

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