Is A ‘Role Reversal’ Looming for the RCN in the Arctic?*

[*This article appeared originally in the February 2013 issue of Marine Matters.  It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.]

It is an odd thing about Canada that, although the number of people who have lived, worked or travelled in the arctic region is probably below ten percent of the total population, the ‘Far North’ resonates strongly with the general public. Coca-Cola’s recent cooperative venture with the World Wildlife Fund, entitled “Help protect the Arctic home of the polar bear,” a program under Coke’s ‘Live Positively’ initiative, appeals strongly to people who have never seen a polar bear, much less one in its native environment.

In my own 32-year naval career, I only ventured above the Arctic Circle once and that was over the North Cape of Norway (and there was no ice anywhere in sight). Today, it is common in both the regular and reserve elements of the navy to find sailors that have sailed in Canadian arctic waters. The three sovereignty operations conducted by the Canadian Forces in the ‘high arctic’ (Nunalivut, Nunakput, and Nanook) are ensuring that the Canadian navy is becoming very familiar with the Arctic Ocean. I know of one reservist that has been there five times, which is quite an achievement as Operation Nanook was only launched in 2007. Amongst his peers, he is known as a ‘five-time repeat offender’.

Despite being directed by the Harper government’s Canada First Defence Strategy and the prime minister’s own “Use It or Lose It” attitude, the RCN has actually been slow to embrace this new northern initiative. The federal government’s commitment to build six to eight Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships was less than welcome news within the navy. At first, naval briefing slides for public use showed that the regular navy intended the AOPSs as replacements for the Kingston-class patrol craft. This handing-off of the responsibility to the reserves was a clear indication that the naval leadership viewed the arctic mission as a second-order responsibility. The ‘plan’ now is to man them with mixed crews of regulars and reservists, but there are still no details available on how this will be accomplished.

The reason behind this reluctance to ‘go north’ rests on the history of the RCN. Born in the run-up to the First World War and shaped by combat operations until the end of the Second Gulf War, the military role of the navy has been the foundation upon which the professional ethos of the navy was built. Indeed, all of the major warships of the RCN were planned and built before the end of this period of major global and regional conflicts. The effect of this consistent developmental process on naval thinking has been to ‘freeze’ the navy’s attitudes. The combat role is judged to be pre-eminent, while both the diplomatic and constabulary roles are secondary. All portrayals of doctrinal structure, using Ken Booth’s famous triangular depiction, and all descriptions of the purpose of the navy in Leadmark and Securing Canada’s Ocean Frontiers, maintain that the military role must always remain the base of the institution.

The problem with the navy’s thinking is that a recognized threat is required to justify spending on high-end military capabilities. Official Canadian government and military intelligence assessments state that, while the future is uncertain, there is no direct military threat to Canada. Therefore, what role remains for the RCN if a ‘strategic pivot to the north’ is being executed by the Government of Canada?

The size and capabilities of the second conceptual version of the AOPS have been reduced from the first iteration, mainly as a cost-cutting measure. The naval leadership wishes to minimize the ‘drain’ of what they view as a constabulary role of coast guarding functions will cause to naval resources. Based on the almost complete lack of logistical facilities in the high arctic, this seems an odd deduction and one that will reduce the value of the AOPS for other purely military operations.

In October 2009, a symposium entitled “Arctic Sovereignty and Security” was held at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto in conjunction with the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies. Canada Command commander, Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, commissioned the event to provide academic insight into the future role of the CF in the arctic. I reported to the then-deputy commander of Canada Command on behalf of a working group assigned to examine the impact of communications and logistics on northern operations.

Our group strongly endorsed a supporting capacity for the military in the north behind the lead of other government departments. Among other things, we concluded the CF needs to increase its logistical capacity to ensure its own viability in the north as well as to provide support services to enable the operations of others. This did not mean that military capabilities would be absent, only that it was unlikely they would be put to their primary purpose in the arctic. However, we did admit that a new emphasis on volumetrics and interoperability could lessen the overall relative importance of weaponry.

The response to our recommendation was entirely predictable. The officer receiving the presentation thanked us for our ‘suggestions’ but stated that ‘secret information’ he could not divulge meant that military combat capabilities would have to remain the main emphasis of military planning. Any notion of increasing logistical capacity at the expense of combat capabilities was unacceptable.

The obvious conclusion for us was that the military views their role in the arctic as a side show that threatens to drain away traditional capabilities while it evolves into a paramilitary force, one fit more for constabulary policing and diplomatic peacekeeping than combat. Our view was that all naval platforms should have both the characteristics to operate in cold weather combined with good internal reserve space and proper data processing capabilities. These characteristics would be useful in a wide number of missions and tasks beyond support operations in the arctic. Their potential to accommodate joint forces, defence and civil scientists plus non-government agencies of all types could be critically important to success in a wide array of military, constabulary and diplomatic missions. I remain convinced of the enduring validity of these ideas.

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