In new defence policy, Liberals turn focus to Arctic sovereignty

The Government of Canada committed to enforcing its Arctic sovereignty in the Liberals’ new defence policy, promising more vehicles, surveillance and presence in the region.

Policy will stretch Canada's ability to monitor its airspace across all of its Arctic region

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan unveiled the Liberal government's long-awaited vision for expanding the Canadian Armed Forces in Ottawa on June 7. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada committed to enforcing its Arctic sovereignty in the Liberals' new defence policy, with promises of more vehicles, surveillance and presence in the region.

The policy acknowledges NATO is paying increased attention to Russia's ability to "project force" from the Arctic and says Canada will be ready to "deter and defend," should a situation arise.

In "Strong Secure and Engaged," announced on June 7, the government promised a long term funding boost that brings Canada more in line with its partners in NATO in terms of defence spending as a percentage of the GDP.

Increased Arctic surveillance

A noteworthy change will see Canada's ability to monitor air traffic stretched to cover all of the 36,000 islands in Canada's archipelago.

Right now, air surveillance for potential threats is limited by the capability of the distant early warning (DEW) line, put in place during the Cold War and decommissioned in the late 1980s.

While technology has moved on, the area Canada monitors has not changed.
A noteworthy change will see Canada’s ability to monitor air traffic stretched to cover all of the 36,000 islands in Canada’s archipelago. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The DEW line was replaced by the North Warning System, which updated NORAD's surveillance capability, but the policy says that it, too, is reaching the end of its usefulness.

The warning system is a chain of unmanned radar stations that surveys air and space approaches to the United States and Canada.

Improved missile technology calls for an update that the two countries have already agreed on and are currently figuring out.

But in the interim, Canada is also looking to land and sea.

The army will purchase ATVs, snowmobiles and other vehicles meant for an Arctic environment, as part of an $8.8 billion commitment over 20 years for new equipment.

The navy will also receive five to six armed and "ice-capable" ships, meant to keep the government abreast of activity in Arctic waters. 

An accessible Arctic

"Climate change, combined with advancements in technology, is leading to an increasingly accessible Arctic," the policy says.

And as waters open up, the traffic will require Canada to be able to respond with search and rescue missions.

The policy says the new navy patrol ships will work with the Canadian Coast Guard and allied partners to help ensure research, tourism and commercial vessels are supported in the remote landscape.
Two soldiers speak at the base camp for Op Nunalivut 2016 on Little Cornwallis Island, Nunavut. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

Coordinating data sources

Though the Arctic constitutes a significant portion of potential air and maritime approaches to North America, the policy notes many challenges in adequately monitoring it. 

"In addition to being a vast, sparsely populated area, satellite coverage at extreme northern latitudes and the nature of the polar ionosphere create unique issues for sensor and communications capabilities," the policy reads.

In order to address these issues, the policy stresses coordinating information from drones and submarines to people and satellites, in order to get the fullest possible picture of the area. To this end, the policy plans to expand training for the Canadian Rangers to improve their ability to support the Canadian Armed Forces.

The initiative will also include engaging Northern communities in routine exercises and running operations with Northern allies.