Monday, February 2, 2009

The Battle for Arctic Sovereignty

A recent documentary on CBC’s The Doc Zone, highlighted the issues Canada is facing. Many of these points are from the documentary, and some are my responses to it. My comments are in italics.
The Arctic is under siege. Issues of security, resources of oil and gas reserves, shipping lanes, and global warming are turning the far north into a regional hotspot. We don’t know what’s going on in the Arctic because we don’t have the resources to man it. We are an Arctic country; if we can’t stand up and defend it, what does sovereignty ultimately mean?
“Without national security, all other individual rights become theoretical.” J.L. Granatstein
Canada’s entire military is smaller than the police force of some American cities. Add to that the enormous size of the Arctic and the inhospitable nature of it, and you can see how difficult it is to defend. Sadly, a big factor in the defense of Canada’s north is the apathy or gullibility of the Canadian people. They don’t want to spend money to protect our borders, because they feel we are internationally loved and respected (not true) and that the U.S. would always step up to defend us. Why pay for our own protection when our big brother to the south will rush in to help? This is also a fallacy. Recent anti-American sentiment and protectionist policies may make our “friends” to the south less likely to rush to our aid, when they have their own concerns.

The North West Passage (NWP) is the route from Europe to Asia. Many explorers died searching for it so they wouldn’t have to go around Cape Horn. It was finally discovered by Norwegian, Amundsen in 1906. Imagine, if those early explorers only had access to satellite images, they could have taken a shot in the summer and another in the winter, and they’d see the best way to transit through it, and even that such a thing really did exist. But, technology hadn’t come that far yet.
The Arctic is warming two times faster than the rest of the planet. There have now been two consecutive summers, with ice free waters, due to melting polar ice caps. The NWP could become a new superhighway for cargo and cruise ships. The trip through the NWP is 7,000 km shorter than the current shipping route through the Panama Canal, thus saving two weeks of travel between the Atlantic and the Pacific. For decades, this dispute didn’t mean much as long as it was locked in ice. That has changed.
Canada claims them as internal waters, long inhabited by the Inuit. Americans and Europeans insist the NWP is an international strait because it joins two oceans. One wonders what tune the U.S. would sing if there was, theoretically, a waterway that started in the east near New York or Washington, which then meandered through the country, close to major cities, and exited to the Pacific near Los Angeles. Yeah, that’s what I thought. There’s no way they would allow anyone and their brother with a ship or submarine to transit through “their country” unannounced; probably, not even if they were announced. The security issues are immense. Missiles could be fired from there, troops can land, and environmental disasters could occur and impact their country. Aah, now they see our point. Not that a theoretical scenario will change things. They’re bigger than us, and they do what they want to do.
Canada realizes it can do little to enforce who comes and goes. Canada launched a satellite, but it won’t be fully integrated into our military until 2011. All the intelligence in space won’t matter if you don’t have enough people on the ground to act on it. If they deem a ship “suspicious”, there is limited capacity to do anything about it.
Right now, it’s not even compulsory for ships passing through the NWP to register with Canada. We rely on ships to voluntarily check in at one of our two manned tracking stations the coast guard has in the entire Arctic. We’ve had a few incidents. One was a German cruise ship that appeared out of the fog one morning. Innocent enough, sure, but what about foreign submarines spying, or cargo ships carrying dangerous cargo that could run aground? An environmental disaster in the North would be there for decades, if not centuries.
The melting Arctic ice also now makes it easier to get at the resources previously trapped under the ice. It is estimated that the Arctic has 30% of all undiscovered Natural Gas in the world, and approximately 15-30% of all undiscovered oil in the world. That intensifies the race to explore and map the Far North and stake out new claims in Arctic riches.
The Arctic Ocean is bordered by five countries: Canada, U.S., Russia, Denmark and Norway. Russia has been the most passionate about conquering the far north. They planted a flag on the ocean floor of the North Pole in 2007. Russia badly needs the resources in the North Pole for economic reasons. In the Western Arctic, Canada is up against the U.S. In the Beaufort Sea, between Yukon and Alaska, drawing boundaries can have huge consequences, because oil and gas companies are already eager to come in.
If you stake a claim, you also have to be able to protect that territory. After years of neglect, does Canada’s military have the clout to do that? Saying, “The North belongs to Canada”, is not the same as being able to protect it. If a patrol spotted something suspicious, like a foreign sub, they would call out an Aurora, but none of our eighteen Auroras is stationed in the North. They would take 8-12 hours to get there from B.C. or Nova Scotia, by which time the sub would be long gone. The Auroras are more than 30 years old; most of the fleet stranded for repairs.
The sovereignty control is even worse on the water. Not a single warship (yes, Canada has warships), in Canada’s Navy is equipped to withstand the Arctic ice in winter.
Prime Minister Harper had planned to make Arctic Sovereignty a priority, promising three new ice-worthy vessels. That promise was broken. I had hoped that this Prime Minister would have been able to do something to bolster our military, but his Minority Government status has tied his hands.
Our submarine situation is not much better. We have four, 15 year old diesel subs, purchased second-hand from Britain. Diesel subs do not go under ice, because they have to surface to recharge their batteries. In the 1980’s, it was proposed that Canada purchase nuclear submarines, but the outcry against it was too great. This is unbelievable. Typical Canadian philosophy to leave our military ill-equipped and then complain when we can’t defend ourselves. Three of our four subs were docked for extensive and expensive repairs in 2008. By contrast, the Russians have more than thirty nuclear subs capable of months’ long journeys under the polar ice. They vow to build more. They also have seven nuclear powered ice breakers. We’re the only navy that doesn’t have the capability to monitor its’ own oceans. Our ability to know what’s going on in our own backyard is essentially zero.
We know less about the Arctic than we do about the dark side of the moon.
So in whose hands does the monitoring and security of Canada’s north depend? With approximately 4,000 volunteer reservists, mostly Inuit, called Canadian Rangers. They are the eyes and ears of the North, devoted to protecting the land. There are fewer than 500 people, north of 60 to patrol an area the size of Europe.
If these facts don’t scare the average Canadian, one would hope that our politicians would be responsible and pro-active in protecting our land and resources from countries that are all too eager to exploit them while we look the other way. One hopes our enemies aren’t aware of these facts, but again, that’s just Canadian wishful thinking.

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