There appears to be much concern these days about Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic.

Federal politicians and generals are wading in with strongly worded injunctions about ensuring Canada's territorial integrity, even it seems against marauding Russian bombers.

But, rhetoric aside, one solid indication that the Arctic is still not a serious priority for the Canadian Forces is the fact that the leadership role to staff and train the military to protect Canada's North has been given to our part-time soldiers. 

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Canadian Rangers and soldiers from Eastern Ontario's 33 Canadian Brigade Group take part in a military parade, August 25, 2008, in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, to mark the close of Operation NANOOK. The rangers helped soldiers establish an observation post nearby on Baffin Island and imparted their knowledge of how to survive on the barren tundra. (DND)

 

To be more precise, the regular army's current concept of Arctic operations is a part-time task assigned to Canada's reserves.  

Having served in the reserves for many years, I naturally took a special interest when it emerged that the reserves were being asked to provide expertise in specific domestic operations, one of which was Arctic sovereignty.  

It turns out that these newly formed Arctic Response Company Groups are composite formations of troops from different reserve units here in the south.

The plan is to have them congregate at least twice a year in the North to conduct cold weather training before returning to their regular, part-time military tasks and civilian employment, according to Lt. Col. Bernie Ciarroni.  

Laudable in many respects, it is nonetheless still a baby-step involving a planned 480 reservists in four companies and it shouldn't be confused with anything that remotely puts us at par with other countries with interests in the Arctic.

Regular forces

I have no intention here of denigrating the ability and professionalism of my former colleagues in the reserves.

But, in my military career, I have never seen an operational task assigned exclusively to Canada's reserve force that would have anything like the political or strategic clout of something assigned to the regular forces.  

This gap, however, has not slowed the flow of public affairs ink at National Defence, which seems determined to portray our Canadian Rangers, in particular, as a bulwark in Canada's determination to assert its sovereignty in the Far North. 

In existence since the end of the Second World War, the Rangers are a component of Canada's reserve force and are made up primarily of members of local Inuit and other First Nations people.

Extremely useful in search and rescue missions in the North, and in training others in winter survival skills, the Rangers are, nonetheless, nowhere near being a serious military presence in the region.

Our team in the North

So what sort of regular military do we actually have stationed in the Arctic?

At the moment, the recently formed Canada Command operates a joint task force  headquarters in Yellowknife, which is to serve as a centre for any domestic operation or rescue in the Far North. It is also meant to be a command centre for the Rangers.

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Canadian Forces soldiers carry out small-arms safety drills at a three-week winter warfare advanced course near Resolute Bay, Nunavut in March 2009. (Master Corporal Kevin Paul/DND) ((Master Corporal Kevin Paul/DND))

This core facility is supported by an air force transport squadron with a staff of 35 aircrew and technicians and four propeller-driven Twin Otter utility aircraft.

Apart from the Rangers, Canada Command's joint task force in the North also handles the training of local cadets.

Much farther north, on the tip of Ellesmere Island, Canada maintains a small communication station (CFS Alert), with a staff of approximately 70, according to DND.

There is also, of course, NORAD, the U.S-based North American Aerospace Defence Command, which Canada assists with its fleet of 72 F-18 fighter jets. Our fleet, by the way, is smaller than the fighter jet fleet of other, more minor NATO countries such as the Netherlands, which has 87 F-16 fighters at its disposal.

Big brother

Does this mean our Canadian North is completely defenceless? Well, only if you discount the U.S. from the equation.

Our neighbours provide the only viable military force actually stationed in the North that is ready to defend Alaska and, hopefully, Canada.

In the state of Alaska alone, the U.S. Army maintains three regular army bases consisting of airborne and mechanized infantry combat teams as well as an anti-ballistic missile site, not to mention two regular air force bases housing fighter squadrons and support units.

The U.S Army  also operates a Northern Warfare Training Centre in Alaska to teach its soldiers how to survive and thrive in the Arctic.

So do other Nordic nations, including, presumably, Russia, which announced in March that it intends to strike a special military force to protect its growing interests in the Arctic.

By contrast, there is no separate military training centre in this country that concentrates exclusively on winter warfare. A full-time one is being considered for Resolute Bay, Nunavut, the site, along with the base at Trenton, Ont., of occasional, weeks-long winter-training courses. 

The Swedish way

Put aside the big powers for the moment and consider Sweden, a country with roughly one-quarter our population. It maintains an Arctic garrison  that, soldier for soldier and weapon for weapon, could easily outfight Canada's northern defences.

In the area straddling the Arctic Circle, the Swedish army maintains two full-sized regiments manned by regular soldiers as well as reserves and conscripts.

The Swedish Arctic garrison consists of artillery, mechanized infantry, tank, special forces and, of course, a winter warfare school. (So do the Norwegians, by the way.)

Based on 2008 figures, the Swedish Arctic army garrison, not including civilians, numbers approximately 3,500, which is more than Canada's entire contingent in Afghanistan.

Also, just shy of the Arctic Circle is a Swedish air force base at Lulea with a uniformed staff of about 650.

Dangerous optimism

When military matters arise, I often hear people say that this country is too big for Canadians to defend.

But like every other nation, we have a unique set of geographic, political and demographic challenges that need to be dealt with if we are truly to take control of our own defence and assert our sovereignty at the same time.

But that is not likely to happen since any concern over our territorial integrity invariably defaults to a dangerously naïve sense of optimism that no country will ever seriously follow through and violate our borders.

Is this belief valid? Or are we simply ill informed and irresponsible, trusting, in this case, in the powers of our own diplomacy backed by America's huge military presence, particularly in the Far North?

Many Canadians still seem to assume Washington will take on the burden of guaranteeing our territorial integrity at no real cost to us. But if that is the case, we shouldn't be trying to pretend we are going to take up the burden ourselves.