A study of Arctic countries around the world has found a significant buildup of military muscle in the North — from go-anywhere icebreakers to fast ice-capable warships.
As officials from those countries prepare to meet next week in Ottawa, the study's author wonders if that arms race could eventually lead to conflict — even one that has nothing to do with the North.
"It's not about a conflict in the Arctic so much as a conflict somewhere else spilling into the Arctic," said Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.
"It's not that they're fighting over the Arctic, it's that they have their capabilities based in the Arctic. The Arctic becomes an innocent bystander."
Huebert has reviewed Arctic-capable military spending for the United States, Canada, Norway, Russia and Sweden — the five nations that are to meet in Chelsea, Que., on Monday.
Since 1989, those countries have either built or announced plans for a total of at least 66 combat-capable vessels that are specifically intended for northern waters or are capable of operating there.
They include Norway's fast ice-strengthened frigates, Denmark's 12 new offshore patrol vessels and 12 projected nuclear submarines from the U.S.
Canada has promised at least six patrol vessels of its own and a state-of-the-art coast guard icebreaker. The federal government has also said it will build a winter warfare school and a military port, create a dedicated Arctic military unit and improve northern surveillance capability.
Canada and countries such as Norway have already increased the size and number of their Arctic military manoeuvres.
But Russia has made the biggest noise with 15 proposed new subs and a nuclear-powered icebreaker. It has resumed bomber patrols up to the edge of North American airspace, sent warships and submarines into Arctic waters and promised to increase its military resources based there.
Diplomats have their work cut out for them next week, Huebert said. "It's a matter of being able to ensure that Russia is contained within the co-operative format, that it's made to be within the Russian interest to stay co-operative."
But Russia and all the other Arctic states are already co-operating, said Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia.
Russia and Canada are working out joint search-and-rescue protocols, he said. Danish soldiers are to accompany Canadians on a sovereignty patrol later this spring. U.S. and Canadian geologists are working together to map the Arctic sea floor.
"The direction is in a pretty positive orientation right now," Byers said.
Countries are putting more resources into overseeing a once-inaccessible region that is quickly opening up due to global warming, he added.
"I don't see a military buildup that's directed at state threats in the Arctic. What I see is a perfectly logical response to the constabulary responsibilities that come with a newly opened coastline.
"I'm concerned when people start to build up the risk of conflict. If you talk enough about conflict, it can become self-fulfilling."