Arctic Security: A Canadian Perspective

Nuanced approach required for defense, safety, security

Dr. Adam Lajeunesse and Dr. P. Whitney Lackenbauer

Canada’s 2017 defense policy — Strong, Secure, Engaged — depicts the Arctic region as “an important international crossroads where issues of climate change, international trade, and global security meet.” Changing physical and human geographies, new economic opportunities and the heightened interest of foreign state and nonstate actors are generating new security dynamics in the North American Arctic. While popular media typically depict contested boundary lines or the status of water disputes, Russian bombers entering airspace identification zones and a Russian military buildup in the Eurasian Arctic, most threats to Canada’s North do not originate from Arctic conflicts. 

Security threats are increasingly “all domain,” and the circumpolar region features great power competition in economic and military spheres, but military threats are not equally acute across all Arctic regions. For example, significant operational constraints remain in Canada’s Arctic. Particularly in the maritime and land domains, environmental change is not opening the circumpolar North evenly, and not all threats are immune from physical geography. Canada’s challenge lies in parsing which parts of the Arctic security environment and which regional dynamics or vulnerabilities require special or distinct analysis from more general national, continental and international defense preparedness and postures.

HMCS Moncton passes an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean during Operation Qimmiq, which is a year-round surveillance patrol. CPL. FELICIA OGUNNIYA/ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE

Canadian defense policy has evolved over the past 20 years to articulate a nuanced approach to Arctic security that spans the defense-security-safety mission spectrum. A careful assessment reveals that the most probable, short-term threats fall in the safety and security categories. Canada’s then-Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk famously quipped in August 2009 that “if someone was foolish enough to attack us in the High North, my first duty would be search and rescue.” While such a pithy statement is excessively dismissive of Arctic threats that require a robust deterrence posture, it highlights how conventional military threats to the Canadian Arctic remain unlikely. Instead, Canada’s Arctic strategies and operational planning documents over the past decade have appropriately emphasized comprehensive security, with the military playing a supporting role to civilian departments and agencies on most security and safety issues, such as pollution prevention, illegal immigration, poaching, environmental or humanitarian disaster and law enforcement.

Defense threats in the Scandinavian Arctic are naturally dominated by concerns over Russian militarization and aggression, while the Russian Arctic has seen a massive effort by Moscow to reestablish control and limit foreign access through a sophisticated effort known as anti-access/area denial. By contrast, the Canadian Arctic largely lacks military targets or critical infrastructure of strategic importance that, if destroyed or neutralized, would inhibit the ability of Canada or its allies to retaliate proportionately. Destroying or taking over North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) forward operating locations or North Warning System stations would be a strong indicator that an adversary was planning a major offensive elsewhere and would surely invite Canada and its allies to respond. The cost-to-benefit ratio makes this highly unlikely except as a precursor to a major war. 

Increasingly, experts are downplaying the idea of state-based threats emanating from Arctic disputes, as political scientist Rob Huebert articulated in his “sovereignty on thinning ice” thesis in the 2000s. Instead, most current discussions emphasize the spillover of great power competition into the Arctic and the threat posed by strategic delivery systems that would transit the region to strike targets in the North American heartland. In this context, ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines and glide weapons are Arctic challenges because they pass through the region, but they have nothing to do with climate change opening access, competition over continental shelves or Arctic resources. Instead, these threats are best conceptualized through a wider international lens and the Canadian Arctic considered as a region in which to deploy sensors, ships and aircraft as part of a layered defensive ecosystem that will deter potential adversaries and defend the North American homeland as a whole.

Short- to medium-term foreign challenges to the Canadian Arctic are more likely to take the form of below-the-threshold operations, seeking to destabilize Canadian society by creating or exacerbating gaps and seams in social cohesion or long-standing alliances. To defend against these threats, intelligence analysts must be able to distinguish between legitimate forms of domestic democratic dissent and forms of meddling by nefarious actors. Furthermore, Canada must be highly attentive to trade-offs between the benefits of foreign investment that stimulates development and the security risks associated with a deeper foreign footprint in strategically significant locations. Ongoing debates about the People’s Republic of China’s expanding scientific interest and investment in Canada’s Arctic and adjacent areas, particularly Greenland, are the clearest case in point. 

While Chinese state-owned enterprises have funded strategic resource projects in the oil sands, the Arctic represents a different strategic landscape in several respects. If Chinese-backed resource projects represent the lion’s share of jobs and tax revenue in particular regions, will this give these projects — and by extension Beijing — disproportionate local influence and political leverage? Blocking such investment, on the other hand, risks setting the federal government against local communities seeking employment opportunities and new revenue streams through impact benefit agreements. Weighing risks and benefits, and countering disinformation and misinformation about these deals, will take on heightened saliency in the years ahead.

The emergence of new defense and security threats to the North American homeland is reigniting important discussions about where the Canadian Arctic fits. Moving beyond outdated “sovereignty on thinning ice” frames is essential for political support to deploy the right components of an integrated, layered defense ecosystem that is essential to defend our shared continent. Interoperability and information sharing between Canada and the United States, as well as other trusted allies and partners, is integral to future security. An essential precondition is that Canada is clear on what it is defending and against which type of threat.  

Dr. Adam Lajeunesse is the Irving Shipbuilding chair in Canadian Arctic marine security at the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government, St. Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia. Dr. P. Whitney Lackenbauer is a professor and Canada research chair in the study of the Canadian North at the School for the Study of Canada, Trent University, Ontario.