Chilling Implications of Arctic Cold War
Last week (5 March) Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Canadian Minister of Defense Peter Mackay at the Pentagon for talks on US and Canadian Security issues. Among pressing matters concerning joint combat operations in Southwest Asia, the two leaders also reviewed the increasing prospect of conflict concerning maritime navigation and resource exploitation rights in the Arctic Ocean region.
As carbon emissions continue to increase the rate of ice field retreat, adjacent states with significant geopolitical and financial interests have increased the tempo of their respective activity to establish sea-transit routes to Asia via. the fabled Northwest Passage (NWP) while dreaming of new resource exploration opportunities.
Since the 1909 Perry Henson expedition to the North Pole and the subsequent establishment of the Law of the Sea within the international community, the sovereignty of the Arctic has been no stranger to challenge. However, present circumstances have escalated this challenge to an unprecedented level. For the first time in recorded history, the absence of summer sea ice has opened the shortest sea route from Europe to the Pacific. The presence of and new access to Natural Gas and Oil resources has also created an energy race in the region, with correspondingly vast territorial claims amongst the stakeholders. Experts suggest that the region is thought to contain 25% of the planet’s untapped petroleum reserves in addition to an abundance of precious minerals.
In our brief analysis, we will explore the geopolitical and security conditions that have resulted as the depletion of the ice has created easier and economically feasible access driving dramatically intensified competition for the regions resources.
Lead Photo Caption (above): Two aircraft from 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron, 3 Wing Bagotville, fly over l’arrondissement Chicoutimi of ville de Saguenay. The 2 CF-18 Hornets are armed with 2 radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow missiles and 2 heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. Photo taken by Private Pierre Thériault, Imaging Section, 3 Air Maintenance Squadron, 3 Wing Bagotville, from a CF-18B (dual) piloted by Major Daniel Dionne, deputy commandant, 425 Squadron.
Who Holds The Deed?
According to officials from the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the North Pole is situated in the Arctic Ocean beyond the territorial waters of the adjacent nation states of Russia, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Canada and the United States (Alaska), all having territory within the Arctic Circle and a 200-mile economic zone around the north of their coastlines. The closest land mass are the northern coast of Ellesmere Island [owned by Canada] and northern coast of Greenland [owned by Denmark]. Both are roughly 500 nautical miles south of the pole.
This has not stopped the flurry of territorial claims in what has escalated into nothing short of a modern land grab.
For example, Russia has claimed that due to similar features found on her continental shelf, the underwater Lomonosov Ridge that stretches from the New Siberian Islands to Ellesmere Island is sovereign Russian territory. In the face of unresolved claims from other nations and the absence of a definitive ruling by the UN commission, a Russian submarine was used to plant a titanium flag on the sea floor at the North Pole. Commenting on the achievement, Russian explorer Artur Chilingarov declared, “The Arctic is Russian, and the North Pole is an extension of the Russian coastal shelf.”
While the head of Russia’s Institute of Oceanic Studies called the event “heroic” he also conceded the claim would be settled “strictly within the framework of international law”
Reaction from the international community was swift. Canadian Foreign Minister Peter Mac-Kay said after the flag was planted that the Russians are “fooling” themselves if they believe they can simply lay claim to the Arctic. “You can’t go around the world these days dropping a flag somewhere,” he said. “This isn’t the 14th or 15th century.” In the United States, comparisons were drawn in the media to the Apollo Moon missions where the US Flag was planted on the lunar surface, yet no territorial claims were announced.
Countering the claim made by the Russian Republic, Canada asserted that the Lomonosov Ridge is connected to the Canadian and Greenland mass. At the same time, Denmark dispatched an expedition team to collect data to map the seabed under the ice and study the same underwater Lomonosov Ridge to determine if it is “connected” to Greenland. Following the expedition Helge Sander, Denmark’s Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation announced that “preliminary investigations are very promising” and the Lomonosov Ridge ”is a geological extension of the northern coast of Greenland”. The Danish Foreign Ministry said the Russian Federation flag-laying had no legal significance and that Denmark reserves the right to make its own continental shelf claim to the United Nations on behalf of Greenland. Meanwhile Norway has neither contested nor supported Russia’s claim, and is seeking an extension to its sub-sea territory in the Arctic, but not as far as the North Pole.
Canadian Club – On The Rocks
With Maritime activity in the region making a dramatic upswing and the potential for disputes leading to conflict, security and military preparations have gone into high-gear. Perhaps the greatest risk of conflict arises from a Canada declaration that the waters of the Arctic archipelago are within their territorial sovereignty and that transiting ships are subject to Canadian laws, a position rejected by the US and other nations who have declared the NWP is an international strait. For Canada to uphold her position, she will have to demonstrate she holds control of the vital sea route.
In fact, Canada has initiated a large-scale mobilization of resources to monitor and protect the sovereignty of her North. This includes space, air, sea and land assets drawn from the Department of National Defense and Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) as well as coordinated activities with government transportation agencies.
Increased surveillance and control missions have also initiated new acquisition programs including Polar Class offshore patrol ships and unmanned air vehicle surveillance systems. New force structure initiatives have also been implemented including the establishment at Resolute Bay of the Canadian Forces Arctic Training Center, an increase in Canadian Ranger forces, and a new ship fueling operation at Nanisivik. At the same time, Canada Command has beefed up operations among six regional commands including Joint Task Force North (JTFN) whose mission is to enforce control across all three northern territories.
Canadian Coast Guard vessels include two 14,500 ton Gulf class heavy ice breakers and four medium ice breakers. These 1980’s era vessels comprise an incredibly miniature fleet with respect to the sea area they are expected to maintain.
The HMCS Toronto and the Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Pierre Radisson sail past an iceberg in the Hudson Strait off the coast of Baffin Island. Both ships are part of Operation NANOOK. Operation NANOOK is a Canada Command sovereignty operation, taking place in Canada’s arctic waters. Ranging from Iqaluit on Baffin Island to the Hudson Straits area, the operation will include joint co-operation from Army, Navy, and Air Force units, training Canadian Forces personnel to support other government departments. In close cooperation with the Coast Guard and RCMP, operations such as NANOOK increase inter-department effectiveness, in addition to bolstering Canada’s presence in her northern territories. Photo: Sergent Kevin MacAulay.
Meanwhile the Canadian Navy is wrestling with major fleet acquisitions such as replacing 12 Halifax class frigates and three Iriquois class destroyers with a new surface vessel due to arrive by 2015. In addition, land based and underwater sensors are being deployed within the operational construct of the Northern Watch initiative, a Defense Research and Development Canada agency program designed to deliver persistent surveillance of critical transits and maritime choke points.
Situational awareness is also being delivered through employment of air and space assets including limited sorties by the ten CP-140 maritime surveillance aircraft and the RADARSAT 2 space-based wide area surveillance constellation.
At the same time, new joint military exercises centered around the Nanook operations are helping to define and sharpen Arctic mission force capability.
E3 Returning from a mission during the air defense exercise Amalgam Warrior, an E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) lands at Cold Lake, Canada. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Diane S. Robinson).
While the west has suddenly brought much-overdue focus to the Arctic region, the Russian Federation has been quietly rebuilding their military capabilities with petro-dollar funding derived from state owned oil and gas operations. This includes a significant increase in nuclear submarine and long-range surveillance sorties to the Arctic.
As the overall tempo of military activity continues to escalate in the region, so to does the likelihood of a “non-diplomatic” confrontation between the stakeholders. Reconciling the competing territorial claims, maritime right of way, environmental group concerns, and sovereignty preservation actions of the state actors involved will be an extremely complex challenge. Just as nature applies its laws to the harsh beauty of this wild frontier, the need for an internationally acceptable solution grows at an inverse proportion to the remarkable speed with which the ice field shrinks.
About the Author
I am an accomplished advanced and disruptive technology analyst. I help organizations manage their overall marketing strategy and efforts including market analysis, identification of business opportunities and risks, strategic alliances and partnering, systems engineering and customer requirements, business development programs and marketing, advertising and communications initiatives & plans.
For office hours and contact information, please use this sites contact form.