The Canadian military will have to look to commercial contractors and possibly even exchanges with the Americans in order to sustain itself when forces are built up in the country's far North, a series of internal Defence Department documents show.

All three branches – the navy, air force and army – have begun to grapple with the specifics of the enormous, logistical challenge presented by the Harper government's Arctic policies.

A series of reports, briefings and planning directives, obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information laws, show that the biggest concern isn't getting forces into the harsh region, but the ability to keep them supplied with fuel, ammunition, food and shelter.

Documents dating back to 2008 suggest the annual operating cost could run between $843 million and $1 billion. But more detailed records – all from 2010 – show it's going to be a complicated exercise.

A slide presentation, given to the head of the Royal Canadian Navy last year, says its patrols and operations to enforce the country's sovereignty will be a challenge and there will be a need to reduce the logistical footprint in the Arctic by seeking "collaboration" with other branches, the military, other government departments and "allies."

The navy's yet-to-be-constructed Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, due to distance and lack of local resources, "must be self sustained, either onboard (more storage, reduced waste, easy maintenance) and supported from the South," said the Nov. 22, 2010 briefing.

In order to be refuelled, the Corvette-sized warships will rely on a deep water port at Nanisivik, 750 kilometres north of the Arctic circle on Baffin Island. But getting the fuel up there is what preoccupies navy planners.

Options under consideration include hiring a tanker to haul fuel from Halifax to Nanisvik, relying on a contractor to deliver it directly – or asking the U.S. Navy to it under a long-standing exchange agreement.

Going the commercial route means the Defence Department would compete for space with the semi-annual sealifts meant to sustain northern communities – something that has the potential of driving up the cost of living for northerners.

Arctic expert Rob Huebert, of the University of Calgary, said the economic impact of the military buildup on northern communities is something the government needs to pay close attention to as the strategy unfolds.

"The north is always more expensive than you think it's ever going to be," said Huebert. "With the lack of infrastructure, flights; we always have a tendency to under-estimate what we're doing."

Potentially irritating residents by driving up their costs – or bumping supplies off civilian charters – is something military planners have recognized and an undated internal army planning document says they're hoping to find ways to "minimize adverse impact on the limited resources of local communities."

Delivering spare parts or changing crews on the patrol ships will require air force or commercial transport, but documents show the vessels will have to transit to Resolute Bay in order to do that. The gravel runway at the navy's principle northern base is unable to accommodate either C-130-J transports – or the mammoth C-17 lifters.

The air force, according to a March 26, 2010 planning directive, is concerned about the state of the runways and what kind of resupply schedule the army will need for its Arctic warfare centre in Resolute Bay.

The documents did not address potential search and rescue needs. 

Huebert said the fact the military was just getting into such details four years after the initial policy statements suggests to him that there was uncertainty on the resolve – or the ability – of the Harper government to deliver on its commitments.

He said he wonders whether elements of the strategy will get scaled back in light of the wobbling global economy and Ottawa's extended deficit battle.

The military's overall dilemma was underscored by the chief of defence staff in a recent appearance before the House of Commons defence committee.

"We are challenged more by operating in our own domain than in operating around the world," the country's top military commander, Gen. Walt Natynczyk said on Nov. 3. "It is harder to sustain operations in our High Arctic than it is to sustain operations in Kandahar or Kabul because in the Arctic, it's what you bring."