Canada uncertain about joining NATO's Arctic war games

The administrative wing of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office worried about the optics of hundreds of Canadian troops taking part in a major NATO-sponsored Arctic war game in northern Norway earlier this year.

Is the Harper government's rhetoric on Arctic sovereignty overblown?

An inflatable boat from the HMCS St. John's inspects a 140-metre high iceberg in the Davis Strait, east of Baffin Island, on August 16 as part of the Canadian military's annual Operation Nanook Arctic sovereignty exercises. (Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

The administrative wing of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office worried about the optics of hundreds of Canadian troops taking part in a major NATO-sponsored Arctic war game in northern Norway earlier this year.

Conservatives have made rebuilding the military, more international involvement and a more muscular presence in the North key policy touchstones.

But senior federal officials told the army last fall they weren't sure the country should participate Exercise Cold Response.

The Privy Council Office "indicated concern regarding participation to a war fighting (exercise) above the Arctic Circle as it could be misconstrued to contradict (Government of Canada) policy for the Arctic," said the Sept. 13, 2011, briefing note for the commander of the army.

The document was obtained by The Canadian Press under the access-to-information law.

It took the intervention of the assistant deputy minister of policy at National Defence to smooth the way for the army's participation, reassuring senior government officials that were "no policy obstacles."

Rob Huebert, an expert on Arctic defence and sovereignty, said the internal debate underscores clear divisions within the federal government about how to proceed in the North.

There are "very contradictory messages being conveyed here," said Huebert, who teaches at the University of Calgary.

"Why do we have these political sensitivities?"

He said he wondered whether there was concern in Ottawa about offending Moscow, which has made noises about the Arctic, but is not deemed a military threat.

Annual military photo ops don't match reality

Harper arrived in Churchill, Man., on Thursday to attend the military's annual sovereignty exercise, Operation Nanook.

In past years, it has included thundering photo ops with fly-pasts involving CF-18 fighter jets and other displays military prowess, including submarines, frigates and Canadian Ranger patrols.

But Huebert said the gap between the carefully choreographed photos and reality is increasing each year.

Indeed, much of the "use-it-or-lose-it" rhetoric from the early days of the Conservative administration has been slowly chipped away and replaced with a more cold-eyed economic focus.

"You see it amongst the bureaucrats. You see it amongst, I'd dare say, the politicians themselves," Huebert said. "There are some senior bureaucrats who do not want to address the changing strategic environment."

For decades successive Canadian governments have talked big on the Arctic, but accomplished very little, he said.

Although the Conservative rhetoric was overblown, Huebert said, a bigger Canadian military presence, especially in search and rescue, is essential.

A number of military initiatives in the North, including the construction of Arctic patrol ships and the establishment of a deep water port in Nanisivik, Nunavut are years behind schedule.

Less Afghanistan, more Arctic

The Canadian army has placed a lot of stock in the government's Arctic posture, setting aside substantial amounts of training time and dollars toward cold-weather operations.

The transition from the dusty, Taliban-invested laneways of Kandahar to the frigid, wide-open tundra has been difficult, underscored last spring in an internal report that stated there were not enough parkas for winter exercises.

The military has also had to juggle the training budget.

At the height of the Afghan war in 2009-10, the army spent $123 million on training, including a special $79 million cash injection specifically for Kandahar.

That figure fell to $57 million last year and is down to an estimated $46 million this year.

Roughly 800 soldiers from the 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment, in Petawawa, Ont., eventually did take part in Exercise Cold Response last March. They formed one contingent in the overall exercise involving 16,000 troops from the U.S., Britain, France, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden.

The exercise, which has been held regularly since 2006, coincided this year with the election — or re-election — of Vladimir Putin as Russian president.

Reaction from Moscow clearly indicated that the Kremlin saw the NATO-Swedish training as provocative, especially since it came on the heels of a Canadian sovereignty exercise in February known as 'Arctic Ram.'