Senate committee studying Arctic security in response to int’l interest in region

The North Warning System in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, earlier this fall. The standing committee on national security, defence and veterans affairs visited the community as part of its work on new recommendations for Arctic security. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

A northern defence analyst says Canada is lagging far behind its Nordic allies in Arctic defence

The chair of a special senate committee said the group travelled across the northern N.W.T. and Nunavut last week to research security and defence projects that could also create beneficial infrastructure to the local communities.

The standing committee on national security, defence and veterans affairs spent the week meeting Indigenous and local leaders as well as the Canadian Rangers and the Coast Guard across the two territories.

This comes after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the development of military facilities and infrastructure in the Arctic, said Sen. Tony Dean, chair of the committee.

“We know that Russia in particular is broadening its footprint in the Arctic,” he told CBC News on Oct. 4.

“We know that China too is showing some interest lately in minerals and the fishery and is indeed as part of that declaring itself to be a near-Arctic state, and so add to that a new generation of stealth missile capacity and that gives us a lot to be concerned about.”

The committee will release a study sometime in the spring of 2023 recommending defence projects the federal government should develop and invest in.

Beneficial infrastructure to local communities

Dean said the committee is looking at areas of investment in Arctic security that can benefit the local communities.

“Spending on defence and security crosses over in many respects to infrastructure,” he said, listing communications technology, the development of ports and added Coast Guard and shipping capacity.

This would have a positive impact in the largely Indigenous communities of the Arctic regions, he said.

The committee consists of 12 senators, including the N.W.T.’s Margaret Dawn Anderson.

The trip began in Iqaluit, where they met with the local RCMP detachment, an air search and rescue team and members of the Canadian Coast Guard.

The itinerary included a visit to Cambridge Bay to see the High Arctic Research Station and to meet the Canadian Rangers, a stop in Inuvik to meet NORAD officials, and a visit to the U.S. Department of Defense in Anchorage, Alaska.

The group wrapped up the trip in Yellowknife last weekend where they discussed Arctic security with N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane.

Arctic security largely ignored

Rob Huebert is a northern defence analyst at the University of Calgary.

Huebert said the subject of Arctic security should be front of mind for Canadians, especially after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons.

“Most of the delivery system for the nuclear weapons that he’s threatening to use are in fact found in the Arctic region,” Huebert said.

“I would hope that given its importance, that it becomes an election issue that can be debated and properly discussed.”

Huebert said the federal government has largely ignored Arctic security, which leaves Canada behind all its Nordic allies in terms of development.

“You’re starting to see signs that they’re starting to lose patience,” he said of Canada’s Nordic allies.

“Part of the problem is that we have become immune to many of the problems because the Americans will take care of it,” he said. “But I think under the Trump administration, we saw that the assumption that the special relationship will allow us to basically free-ride so much on the Americans and now with the Europeans, I think it’s becoming much more suspect as an ongoing policy.”

Huebert said it’s never too late for Canada to start bolstering its Arctic defence and he welcomes a study by the Senate. He said a few key pieces of infrastructure should be a priority.

Need to update infrastructure 

This includes capability of the current warning system in the Arctic, which was last modernized in 1985. This is a chain of radar stations that provides aerospace surveillance.

“In June of this year of course, the defence minister made several claims of being able to modernize it,” Huebert said, adding the question remains how much money will actually be invested.

Huebert also said existing air hangars should be able to operate on a 24/7 basis and the Senate committee should see if this is possible or if they need more preparation.

They should also be ready to accommodate the existing CF-18s in the airforce’s fleet, as well as the F-35s, the potential new jets to be added to the fleet, he said.

Huebert, said the committee should also check on the status at the Nanisivik naval refuelling facility on Baffin Island, first announced in 2007.

“This has been something that has taken an extraordinary amount of time to get up and running,” Huebert said, adding Russia has at least 22 similar facilities in the Arctic region.

“We haven’t been able to get this one site up and running and I think that there has to be questions asked in terms of how long that has taken.”

As for whether the study will lead to action on the subject?

“On that point, I would be much more negative,” Huebert said.

“It’s hard to see, given the fact that we have this ongoing crisis that is escalating regarding the Arctic and its connection to the Russian use of force in Ukraine, and yet we don’t seem to be doing all that much.”

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: NATO chief tours Arctic defences as Canada comes under pressure, CBC News

Finland: No return to pre-war reality when it comes to Arctic cooperation, says Finnish rep, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Norway limits access for Russian fishing trawlers in security push, Thomson Reuters

Russia: Newly deployed nuke-bombers at Kola is certainly a signalling, expert says, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Two Russians seek asylum after reaching remote Alaska island, The Associated Press

Luke Caroll, CBC News

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