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The Great White North: Canadian Considerations for 21st Century Arctic Security

By Alexander Fremis and Alexander Landry, this article was originally published by the Royal Canadian Military Institute in June 2021.

As one of the world’s largest Arctic nations, Canada occupies an important geopolitical position in the Arctic. While stereotypically conceptualized as a frozen wasteland, climate change is catalyzing rapid evolutions in Arctic climate. Consequently, previously inaccessible waterways and natural resources are becoming increasingly accessible, and thus, more valuable to potential developers. Governments from around the world have taken steps to modernize and expand their presence in the Arctic. Tis includes many of Canada’s international partners, such as the United States, Denmark, and Norway as well as others, traditionally seen as adversaries, such as the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Together, these developments suggest the end of Arctic exceptionalism whereby Arctic regions were historically treated as apolitical zones of cooperation by the international community.

From its important geopolitical position, Canada stands at a crossroads in Arctic security policy. While the Government of Canada (GoC) has become more active in the Arctic in recent years, the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) Arctic operations have been limited in scope when compared to the government’s broad Arctic policy objectives and the activities of other Arctic states. Tat being said, there exists several initiatives which, if acted upon, could beneft the strategic position of Canada in the Arctic moving forward. Tese include a review of strategic policy and tactical doctrine, as well as greater emphasis on integration with Arctic partner nations through hosting multinational Arctic exercises. Trough implementation of these recommendations, Canada can emerge better positioned not only to manage emerging threats in the Arctic, but even infuence overall international policy for the region moving forward.

Canadian Defense Policy and the Arctic

Canadian defense policy is peculiar. Having only a single land border with its closest ally, followed by the Atlantic, Pacifc, and Arctic oceans forming vast moats around its fanks, Canada has been relatively insulated from traditional foreign threats for much of its existence. Te unique circumstances created by these geopolitical factors have shaped Canada’s defense policy for as long as it has had such a policy of its own. Tese factors, combined with Canada’s relatively peaceful history, have resulted in a general apathy from the Canadian public towards matters of national defense and security. Being cognizant of the desires of Canadian taxpayers and voters, Canadian government policymakers have rarely prioritized security and defense initiatives, nor have they been forced to do so considering the aforementioned geography. Today this can be seen refected in the relatively small size and limited capabilities of Canada’s military when weighed against other nations of comparable size and economy.

While not mentioned in ofcial government policy, Canada’s de-facto defense policy today follows many of the same unspoken assumptions which revolved around the 19th and 20th century “militia-myth.” While far too nuanced to fully discuss in this context, this myth generally stipulates that, should the need arise, a small cadre of professional and parttime (militia) soldiers would be able to quickly force generate personnel and equipment to meet threats just-in-time. Tis shadow defense policy was (and is) enabled by the strategic deterrence Canada historically possessed through being in the good graces of hegemonic world powers - frst the British Empire, and then the United States. While Canada’s experiences in the wars of the 20th century lend some support to the feasibility of this model, few believe that this can remain true in the 21st century. Tat is to say, the historic protections ofered by Canada’s secure geopolitical position can no longer be relied upon in the face of hybrid warfare, cyber and information operations, and recently unpredictable foreign policies of the US and UK. Te latter being most recently illustrated by internal political turmoil and the resurgence of certain isolationist ideologies in both nations.

Tat being said, ofcial Canadian defense policy is issued in semi-regular intervals through government white-papers and policy statements, generally (but not always) following the election of new governments. Tis includes Canada’s most recent defense policy, published in 2017 - Strong Secure Engaged (SSE). Citing the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and growing tensions with the PRC, SSE highlights the re-emergence of great power competition and the important role that active deterrence will play in Canadian security and defense. Tis includes reinforcing the CAF’s presence in the Arctic and working cooperatively with Canada’s Arctic partners. SSE goes on to propose a laundry list of new, tactical level capabilities and the modernization of certain existing capabilities to secure Canada’s Arctic.

While SSE ofers ambitious policy direction for CAF Arctic operations, the CAF has largely relied upon small scale Adaptive Dispersed Operations (ADO) doctrine in partnership with local and federal partners for force employment in the Arctic. ADO presents an operating concept based on the employment of relatively small teams across wide geographic areas in order to achieve a given efect. Having been developed at the height of the Afghanistan confict in 2007, the ADO model was developed with the assumption that conventional threats would not be of concern, and that warfare would instead be focused on asymmetric threats. On the contrary, conventional, nation-state threats now make up some of the most signifcant threats to Canada’s national security.

Foreign Competitors in the Arctic

While Canadian policymakers are keen to look for opportunities for cooperation and collaboration, the return of great power competition on the international stage necessitates consideration of foreign infuence and competitive power. While possibly true at the time, former Commander of the Canadian Army, Lieutenant General Peter Devlin’s 2007 assumption that there are no conventional threats to Canada’s Arctic is no longer relevant today.

Accordingly, as the world’s second largest Arctic nation and a historic competitor of the West, Arctic policy of the Russian Federation must be taken into consideration by Canadian Policymakers. Afer a long period of neglect following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia has prioritized the development of their civil and military Arctic infrastructure. Tis includes the establishment of initiatives to modernize ships of the Russian Northern Fleet, the reopening of former soviet Arctic military installations, and the establishment of a Northern Fleet Command. Recently established in 2017, Russia’s Northern Fleet Command operates as a joint, strategic level command equivalent to Russia’s traditional military districts. Based on a variety of available academic literature and Russian government reporting, Russian Arctic ambitions can be categorised into 3 broad objectives:

1. Early warning and defense of potential avenues of approach into Russia,
2. Exploiting and maintaining control over emerging resources and commercial routes,
3. Establishing infrastructure from which to project power to North America and the Atlantic Ocean

As such, Russian Arctic policy objectives are unsurprisingly similar to Canada’s own objectives in the Arctic. 

Russia has also recently fled a petition with the United Nations (UN) seeking to enlarge its current claims over the Arctic seabed. If acknowledged, this claim would grant Russia the rights to develop resources from the Arctic seabed and below, over a territory which would essentially extend to Canada’s economic exclusion zone. It goes without saying that such a claim would signifcantly impact Canadian economic interests in the Arctic and would signifcantly degrade Canada’s geopolitical position in the Arctic.

The Way Forward

With the withdrawal of NATO and US troops from Afghanistan slated to culminate September 11th, 2021, twenty years to the day of 9/11, the US now enters a period of re-evaluation of their Armed Forces, preparing for the “next war”. Tis will likely include a reassessment of foreign military commitments, as was evidenced with the previous administration. However, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, many countries are turning towards isolationist policies. Conversely, threats to the West continue marching forward. Tis is refected in Russia’s recent troop buildup on the Ukrainian border, testing the resolve of the new American presidency. Accordingly, as Russia continues with its claim to an estimated 700,000 square kilometres with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), Canada must revaluate its own position moving forward, both in terms of its strategic policy direction, and its tactical force structure and force employment.

It was at the June 2010 Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence Proceedings when then-CDS General Natynczyk declared “When we talk about sovereignty in the North, normally we are talking about exercising that sovereignty. I do not see a conventional military threat to the Canadian Arctic, which is the broadly held view. My comment is if a country invades the Canadian Arctic, my frst challenge is search and rescue to help them out”. However, as we continue to bear witness to Russian sabre rattling above the Arctic Circle, it is evident that this statement bears much less relevance today. Now, more than ever, Canada must redouble its eforts to secure its Arctic as outlined in SSE.

In pursuit of enhancing Canada’s Arctic security, various initiatives should be pursued across strategic and tactical levels of operation. Looking frst at the strategic level, Canada must, before all else, continue with its procurement and deployment of Arctic Ofshore Patrol Ships (AOPS). Tese, combined with the Canadian Rangers, acting as land reconnaissance elements, and persistent air surveillance capabilities including sorties over the Arctic region, would serve as a concrete reinforcement to Canadian Arctic sovereignty and initial deterrence model to foreign threats.

However, contrary to what is ofen suggested by critics of the current Arctic defence policy, the CAF does not necessarily require permanent platforms or infrastructure. Rather, the CAF must be capable of quickly responding to the area and of conducting efects-based operations on an expedient basis. Unfortunately, in both regards there is still development to be had. Although the CAF does conduct recurring sovereignty patrols and security exercises, such as Op NANOOK and Op NUNALIVUT, these are small in scale compared to many NATO-level Arctic exercises dealing with invasion threat scenarios such as Ex TRIDENT JUNCTURE or Ex RAPID TRIDENT. Consequently, perhaps the solution rests with hosting such an exercise, thus also attaining other goals of the SSE initiatives in a renewed commitment to NATO as an organization.

At the tactical level, further emphasis must be placed on two lines of efort in particular: force structure, and force employment. To this efect, the former logically delineates from the latter, requiring a force employment model to be derived, subsequently allowing for doctrine and tactics to be drafed for consequential use by units. From its current Arctic force structuring, Canada seeks to leverage use of Arctic Response Company Groups (ARCG), which allow for decentralized execution over such a vast terrain ceding to centralized command. Accordingly, this aligns with the SSE initiatives of Brigade Groups as the model for CAF conventional expeditionary forces. Tis is in line with the current Op LENTUS force employment model which sees units draw from a rotating Vanguard Company, followed by Follow-On Forces in response to natural disasters. As such, it would be ideal to appoint a similar rotational model for ARCGs considering that the activation of such a unit would stem from the same genre of request. Te responding ARCG could then deploy their reconnaissance elements to conduct a link up operation with on-location Canadian Ranger elements, thus fulflling their mandate as CAF presence in the region as well as support to sovereignty operations, then seamlessly integrating into the ARCGs to act as force multipliers and guides concerning the terrain.

From this point, with the ARCG employment model in development, the CAF must also seek to revise its Arctic operations doctrine and tactics. Te quote above from former CDS General Natynczyk illustrates the brutal nature of operating in this environment. Tis is echoed from recent exercises, both in the Arctic Circle and southern bases such as Petawawa and Valcartier, that current CAF Arctic conventional threat operating procedures are simply not up to the task. At this time, the Basic Winter Warfare course simply accounts for most units as a part of the Primary Combat Function courses provided on a cyclical yearly basis. Tis is ironic considering that the Canadian Arctic comprises 40% of Canada’s landmass, and that yearly commitments to operations are now tailored through the use of Incident Response Units (IRU) in each Brigade to Domestic Operations combating natural disasters. Accordingly, the establishment of the CAF Arctic Training Centre (CAFATC) in Resolute, Nunavut is a foundational beginning. Capitalizing on this asset, the CAF must now seek to expand their promulgation of Arctic Operations qualifed personnel throughout the diferent Army components, potentially also seeking to leverage this institution to revisit the Qualifcation Standard and Training Plan for the Basic Winter Warfare (CWW) course. Perhaps the CAFATC should be appointed the Function Centre of Excellence for BWW altogether? Considering we employ EOD operators as instructors for EOD courses, it would be professionally ftting that seasoned members from Arctic operations be those instructing basic winter operations as foundational training for future users in such an environment.


Overall, with Russia’s recent submission to the UN CLCS seeking to legitimize an expansion of their Arctic territories, light has been shed on an issue that has been present for several decades past and will become increasingly important in the years to come. Consequently, mired within the current state of scandal that the CAF is facing based on the need for cultural change, there exists an opportunity for small, relatively easy victories through exercises and future plans concerning the Arctic, which may very well lay the framework for the future of Canadian Defence Policy.

Canada’s role is changing on the international stage. Tis is especially true when it comes to the use of the CAF in the pursuit of Canada’s national interests. While there may be less of a need for expeditionary operations, such as the current theatres in Ukraine and Latvia at this time, it is certain that there is much more of a need for domestic planning and reinforcement on the northern home front.

Accordingly, Canada must expand its presence in the Great White North, either through modernization of pre-existing infrastructure, or through enhanced presence on at least a semi-permanent basis. Furthermore, expansion of exercises catering to Arctic Operations, explicitly focused on logistics and potential deployment to these remote areas, would solidify Canada’s claim to its own continental shelf. Tese initiatives can ultimately provide not only military value, but diplomatic gain on the international stage, something Canada should seek to capitalize moving forward from the COVID-19 pandemic.




Sunday, 6 June, 2021 - 09:30