VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canadian defense leaders have highlighted climate change and Chinese expansion into the Arctic as future issues the country will have to grapple with in the far north.
The warnings came as the Royal Canadian Navy recently completed ice testing and trials for the first of its new fleet of Arctic offshore patrol ships.
Acting Chief of the Defence Staff Lt. Gen. Wayne Eyre sent all Canadian forces personnel a message on March 24, highlighting some of defense issues the military will face in the future. He noted that the military is currently supporting northern communities to help with the coronavirus pandemic while also working with the United States to improve surveillance of North America’s aerospace and Arctic territories.
“Various trends such as climate change, increased interest in the Arctic, and challenges to our national resilience, made clear during the pandemic, are driving change in how we conceptualize national defence,” Eyre wrote.
He added that Canada is already procuring improved capabilities, such as the naval vessels.
In February, HMCS Harry DeWolf, the first Arctic offshore patrol ship, sailed into Arctic waters to test its capabilities. “Cold weather and ice trials were also conducted as part of its post-acceptance trials program off the coast of Baffin Island,” noted Department of National Defence spokesman Dan Le Bouthillier.
He said the ship, which is the first of six such vessels, is scheduled to conduct its first operation in the Arctic in August.
The department’s deputy minister, Jody Thomas, warned analysts and retired military officers during a March 10 conference that China’s expansion into the Arctic also poses a risk to Canada.
“We should not underestimate at all that threat of resource exploitation in the Arctic by China in particular,” Thomas said during a virtual meeting of the Conference of Defence Associations. “China has a voracious appetite and will stop at nothing to feed itself, and the Arctic is one of the last domains and regions left, and we have to understand it and exploit it — and more quickly than they can exploit it.”
Canada is already making moves to limit Chinese presence in the region. In December, the Canadian government, citing national security concerns, refused to allow a Chinese state-controlled firm to purchase a gold mine in Canada’s Arctic territory. The mine was located in Hope Bay, Nunavut, and would have given China a foothold near the Northwest Passage. That passage is seen as a key shipping route as ice melts due to climate change.
Thomas also raised concerns about Russian activities in the Arctic, including that country’s construction of military bases and new polar icebreakers.
“Nobody would invest the kind of money in building up the military capacity in the Arctic without reason, intent or purpose,” she said. “We should not be naive about that. It doesn’t mean it is immediate, but it is there.”
Canada’s interest in improving its military presence in the Arctic started more than a decade ago under the Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper started the program for Arctic offshore patrol ships, announced the construction of a new naval port in the north, launched a plan to build a new polar-class icebreaker and pushed for a greater military presence in the region.
He cited as a reason for the expansion the presence of oil, gas and minerals in the country’s Arctic territory — resources he labeled as critical to Canada’s economic growth.
But the country’s ambitious military plans for the Arctic remain limited by the difficult logistics of building installations and resupplying forces in the vast and harsh northern region. Canada’s northern region consists of more than 1.5 million square miles (that’s larger than India). But there are less than 120,000 people in the entire region.
Canadian military officers acknowledge that the logistics of operating in the Arctic rival — or even surpass in difficulty — operations in austere war zones such as Afghanistan.
Defense analyst Martin Shadwick has pointed to the logistics issue as a major problem hindering the military’s Arctic strategy.
“The distances to travel up there are enormous, and the Canadian forces [have] to transport in everything they need,” said Shadwick, a strategic studies professor at York University in Toronto.
The Canadian government has had to scale back plans for a new naval port at Nanisivik, Nunavut. Instead, the project involves creating a smaller refueling station.
The Royal Canadian Air Force had also looked at a major expansion in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. The service considered transforming the area 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 project was abandoned.
The construction of a polar icebreaker, while expected to continue, has fallen almost a decade behind schedule.