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OPINION: The Arctic: the Reason to Bolster Canada’s Navy and Coast Guard

By: Luke Montalbano

The new Harry DeWolf Class offshore patrol vessel marks the first time the RCN has expanded its surface fleet outside of training equipment since the 1990s. Photo Credit: Irving Shipbuilding

With the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, Canada’s federal government has begun to analyse its priorities related to defence expenditures. Despite the Liberal government’s promise to boost military spending, the 2022 federal budget had only a 1% to 5% increase in defence spending from the previous $24 billion. This number will fall well below the NATO commitment Canada made to contribute 2% of its GDP toward defence spending.

In Canada, defence spending has become demonised, as pundits on the left have pushed the idea that Canada has no need to defend its borders due to its geographical and political positioning. However, I contend that Canada’s geographical position is precisely why defence spending must be increased. When discussing geographical positioning, I speak primarily of our Pacific and Arctic coastlines because of their proximity to trade routes and natural resources. In the case of the Arctic, the Northwest Passage has become of interest to a number of foreign states due to its shortened pathway around the Americas, relative to the Panama Canal. Moreover, the Arctic has 10 billion barrels of oil equivalent, making it a prime location for countries to establish sovereignty.

10 billion barrels of oil equivalent exist within Canada’s arctic borders, proving to be of interest to other states, including the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China. Photo Credit: Natural Resources Canada

The aforementioned factors have led a number of foreign actors, namely the USA, Russia, and China to explore the region, even if it potentially violates Canadian sovereignty. Despite the People’s Republic of China being a considerable distance from the Arctic, the state has begun developing and expanding a fleet of ice-breakers, which now includes two medium-sized ice-breakers, and sees plans to develop heavy ice-breakers to support its Belt and Road Initiative in the region. At the same time, the Russian Federation has continued its expressed interest in the Arctic, promoting its Northern Fleet as a deterrent against NATO and American operations in the region. In brief, this Northern Fleet includes an aircraft carrier, a battlecruiser, roughly 40 icebreakers, and roughly 35 submarines of varying types. What equipment does Canada have that could in theory be used in the Arctic? One constructed offshore patrol vessel (with three more currently under construction), four submarines, and 19 unarmed icebreakers. The United States, on the other hand, has two icebreakers -hardly an effective deterrent.

The small size of the Canadian fleet, that could feasibly operate in the Arctic, prevents it from acting as an effective deterrent to violations of sovereignty from other states. Moreover, much of the Royal Canadian Navy is ageing, with many ships coming close to 30 years in service. To effectively deter Russian, Chinese, and even American sovereignty violations of Canada, it has become increasingly necessary to overhaul the Royal Canadian Navy’s Arctic operations.

After an analysis of the effective proposals on expanding the fleet, it will be important for Canada to develop armed ice-breakers for the region. Moreover, the sole base of operations for the Royal Canadian Navy is located on Baffin Island which, although close to the epicentre of Canada’s Arctic region, seems stretched too thin to effectively cover all Arctic waters of Canada at once. Developing two new naval facilities, one near Churchill, Manitoba, and the other to the west of Nunavut would allow the RCN greater versatility when combating threats.

Generally, larger vessels, such as the Halifax-Class Frigate seen above, have difficulty operating in the Arctic region. Because of this, the Royal Canadian Navy has begun developing an offshore patrol vessel program. Photo Credit: CTV News

Although eight Harry DeWolf Class offshore patrol vessels are planned, they are not well armed enough to effectively deal with the threat of aircraft or submarine warfare. With 5 ships of this class yet to be laid down, there remains some time to modify the armaments on these vessels to better suit the requirements to defend the Arctic.

In other regions of Canada, namely the Pacific and Atlantic Commands, Canadian frigates have grown outdated relative to their NATO counterparts and are poised to be replaced within the next decade. However, replacement is not all that is needed. With the increasing threat of aerial combat due to greater range of aircraft and the expansion of Aircraft Carrier fleets, I find it necessary to explore the possibility of developing Destroyers for the Canadian navy, among a growing inventory of armament required to put forth a credible defence.

Because of weak political leadership, and an over-dependence on the U.S. to protect our borders, Canada has lagged behind its NATO commitments when it comes to defending its sovereignty. Surely, with the war in Ukraine and the development of northern fleets by Russia and China, Canada has received a wake up call to defend its borders from foreign violation. If governments do not respond now to the clear threat to western democracies and closer to home, our sovereignty of the Arctic, then leadership will have failed us once again. There are times when doves must make way for hawks. We can no longer afford to cater to the naive if we value an independent and free Canada.

Written by writer Luke Montalbano

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