Should the navy return to the arctic?

Canada's navy is on the cusp of yet another transformational moment. The government's plan to build a modest fleet of arctic patrol vessels is clearly an invitation to the navy to adjust its thinking and embrace a new mission - in fact, it would be to re-embrace that mission because the navy was a prominent player in the arctic 50 years ago. That said, one has to wonder whether the navy will fumble the ball or rise to the occasion and make the necessary policy shift?

It would not be an easy change to make. Some will argue that the history of the last 15 years proves that the Canadian navy's primary role should be to support foreign policy and international security initiatives and that taking on a new arctic mission will detract from the expeditionary function. Others will argue that this is truly a new strategic era and that the navy needs to be even more flexible in embracing both 'home' and 'away' tasks. And there are even calls to focus entirely on domestic issues and abandon the expeditionary mission. But the new naval policy is not the only issue in play here; for instance, do we really understand the strategic requirement that is driving the need for change?

Sceptics will argue, not incorrectly, that the new arctic requirement is an over-reaction to the alignment of two constellations: the continuing groundswell after the 9/11 tsunami, and the "sky is falling" reaction to the possible effects of global warming. However, both situations do have implications on national security that cannot be ignored. Yet, the new challenges need to be kept in perspective. For instance, will terrorists use Canadian northern waters to launch attacks on the North American heartland? Probably not; the distances and the complexity of the logistics of doing so are too great. The same goes for the drug smugglers. It is much easier to find a soft landing place further south where ample unguarded inlets and shorelines exists.

Is the arctic really warming? Most certainly - as it has on numerous occasions before. Ask the vikings about farming in northern Newfoundland and Greenland one thousand years ago! Will the effects of the present period of warming be as calamitous as some predict? We just don't know. There isn't a valid framework against which to measure the present changes. What is certain though is that the Eastern Arctic will see an extended shipping season and that could well lead to greater use and thus a higher likelihood for abuse.

Greater access to the Eastern Arctic will lead to more probes into the Northwest Passage seeking the new route to the Pacific. This will not happen quickly though. One reason being the increase in ice blocking the western end of the Passage - a fact conveniently overlooked by many activists. What may happen though, is a new round of challenges to the Canadian claim that those waters are "internal" and thus owned by Canada. The difficultly with this is twofold: first, the Passage isn't fully open as a credible transit route and not likely to be for some time, and second, that without a pattern of regular usage there is no basis to claim the Passage as an established international strait. All that aside, the consensus seems to be that maintaining a strong government presence in those waters and in the north generally strengthens the claim of ownership against the inevitable challenges.

Greater access to the waters of the Eastern Arctic will almost certainly lead to greater use by fishing vessels in their quest for fresh resources as other areas are denuded of marketable fish. Adventure tourism will also increase as those with large disposable incomes seek out new experiences on the so-called "last frontier". Both activities will require policing and oversight especially from a safety point of view. The prospect of a major marine disaster in those waters is truly frightening.

In addition to the obvious "use them or lose them" situation, there is a clear need for greater government presence in the arctic and other northern waters. The question is whether this should this be done by the navy or by the coast guard. The navy already has responsibility for the coordination of intelligence at sea and for the coordination of constabulary and search and rescue operations, and it would make no sense to allocate those functions in the north to any other government agency. In those waters, time and distance will invariably determine the course of action taken. Operational synchronization in the north will be complex and situations will arise when an on-scene commander is necessary. While the temptation may exist to do this from shore, the best way of doing it is from a ship in the vicinity. That ship will need a full suit of communications and information management equipment available all the time. Monitoring what is happening in those waters will be a full-time job as will the management of available resources to take action should it be necessary. These requirements tend to make the case for naval rather than commercial vessels forced to operate under union constraints. Thus, it would make sense for the new Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessels to be naval rather than coast guard.

Can the navy rise to that challenge? One hopes so! The difficulty for the naval leadership lies in convincing their political masters and the army and air force generals that taking on the new arctic mission has to be done without sacrificing the expeditionary capability that has been such a valuable Canadian contribution to international security for the last 15 years. It is not an either or situation. The navy has to be capable of carrying out both missions. Giving up the expeditionary mission makes absolutely no strategic sense. Explaining that to all and sundry will take determined leadership on the part of the admirals.