Plans to build up to eight new Arctic patrol ships could help assert Canadian sovereignty when it comes to negotiating the Beaufort Sea maritime boundary dispute.
A military strike from Canada against foreign vessels in the Arctic is unlikely, but an increased military presence will increase Canada’s control over the North, said Rob Huebert, a political science professor and associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Study at the University of Calgary.
“It will help us to make the case we are serious about owning the Arctic,” said Huebert of the planned deployment of six to eight new mini-icebreakers announced on Monday by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“The dispute is escalating by itself. This gives us a better capability to ensure we are enforcing whatever the diplomats negotiate.”
The Canadian and American governments have clashed over a small wedge of international territory in the Beaufort Sea because of the potentially large underwater oil and gas reserves.
The dispute rests on the interpretation of how the land border extends into the sea.
The Polar Class 5 Arctic Offshore Patrol ships, costing about $3.1 billion to build and another $4.3 billion to maintain over 25 years, will bolster Canada’s negotiating position, said Liberal MP and opposition critic for northern issues Larry Bagnell.
“The (Beaufort Sea) border dispute with the United States is the most important sovereignty issue right now,” said Bagnell.
“This issue really gets downplayed nationally. But it has far more wealth at risk than other areas. The oil and gas in the disputed area is far more at risk.”
But the new vessels are capable of only breaking through ice one metre thick, which will render them incapable of patrolling the interior Arctic seaways in the coldest winter months.
During winter, only large icebreakers, like those owned by Russia and the US, can navigate the waters, said Bagnell.
If the government improves the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker fleet and constructs a deepwater port in the Arctic, it will be making large strides towards Arctic sovereignty, said Huebert.
“If this is only a replacement instead of building new icebreakers, then this is problematic and we’ve reduced our capability,” he said.
“If this is additional capability that is being added to a modern ice-breaking fleet, then this is good news.”
The coast guard operates bigger, more capable icebreakers, but they are less desired as open-water patrol vessels and the aging fleet needs to be replaced to complement the new vessels, said Huebert.
Past governments have made big announcements about Arctic sovereignty only to scrap plans later on, so Huebert is wary of plans for the new vessels.
“If these guys can move fast, like they’re promising to do with the design phase, before the next election, it’s a good move,” said Huebert.
“As someone who’s watched this issue for a long time, I’m naturally skeptical of big promises. But I’m also of a hopeful nature because it’s the type of thing we have to do.”
When — and if — the new vessels start patrolling the east and west Arctic coasts, the government needs to make it mandatory for foreign ships to register when entering in Canadian waters, said Bagnell.
“If we have control over the Northwest Passage, as far as regulation goes, we can monitor what exactly ships are doing; we know where they are and that they’re not making illegal excursions onto Canadian land,” said Bagnell.
Canada has been neglecting the Arctic as other countries quietly, and not so quietly, have been asserting their claims to the land and sea in northern Canada, said Huebert.
The Arctic sovereignty issues had been easy to ignore as long as the land was covered in ice, but as global warming is changing the terrain and opening up the Northwest Passage it becomes more difficult to overlook.
“We could afford to ignore the Arctic before because no one would enter it and their claims meant nothing,” said Huebert.
“Paradoxically, a melting and warming Arctic means more difficult ice in certain sections of the North.
As the ice cap itself breaks up, you get ice flowing into the Canadian Archipelago and certain areas become thick with ice congestion. Ergo, you’ll need big icebreakers in the springtime as the ice breaks up.”
The government has also been studying four locations in the North for a deepwater port where ships can refuel and resupply, but no official announcement has been made.
The deepwater port will help an economically depressed town, said Bagnell, and should be designated for military, civilian and commercial use, opening it up to tourism and shipping and receiving goods for northern residents saddled with high commodity prices.
The lack of dedicated search and rescue airplanes stationed north of 60 also needs more attention, said Bagnell.
“Northerners are more at risk than anyone else when they’re lost because of the harsh climate conditions and there are less civilians around to find them,” he said.
Already, the American government is responding to Harper’s new plans for the Arctic.
Shortly after the government’s announcement, the US Navy pledged to increase the number of ships and other craft cruising the Arctic.
A spokesperson for US Ambassador David Wilkins said he would not comment on Canada’s announcement.
The US Navy has been thinking about moving into the Arctic since at least 2000, when it started hosting symposia on operating in an increasingly ice-free Arctic, said Huebert
“The navy knows that as the ice diminishes they’ll have greater opportunities in the North. They’re starting to prepare. Their icebreakers are in worse shape than ours,” he said.
“When you have (president) George W. Bush, of all people promoting an international treaty, because he knows what it means for Arctic relations, you know how important this issue has become.”
Minister of National Defense Gordon O’Connor could not be reached for comment.