Defending Canada’s north key to protecting sovereignty

Russia’s annexation of Crimea robbed Ukraine of nearly 80% of offshore oil and gas drilling rights. Observers fear Russia, at some point, may try the same in Canada’s north

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Canada needs to look north if it is to make serious efforts to defend its sovereignty, say analysts.

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Observers are praising comments made Thursday by Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, who made clear his plans to bolster Canada’s presence in the arctic.

“The far-north is a key area of concern,” Eyre said during Thursday’s keynote talk at the 90th Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence — explaining Canada’s northern flanks are also NATO’s northern flanks.

“When NATO talks about 360 (degree) defence, we’ve got to remind them as North Americans — north-North Americans — that, hey, that’s a front for us as well.”

It’s a position David Perry, president and senior analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI,) is pleased to see Canada’s top soldier taking.

“It’s absolutely bang on,” he said, echoing Eyre’s point that the Ukraine situation should concern any nation that shares land borders with Russia — a distinguished club that counts Canada as a member.

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“We’re effectively a border state with Russia,” Perry said.

“We have a little bit more distance, but given a lot of modernization they’ve put into their military, that distance is shrinking.”

While admitting Russian incursion into Canada’s territory isn’t on the horizon, Eyre said Russia’s increased militarization in their northern frontiers suggests it can’t be ruled out.

“(Russia) has reoccupied formerly-abandoned cold war bases,” Eyre said.

“They have instituted their own A2AD (anti-access/area denial) strategy that, in some cases, is based on what China has done in the South China Sea.”

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Back in 2015, intelligence suggested Russia began re-occupying the long-abandoned Nagurskoye Air Base in the country’s far north — a cold-war era military airstrip that, since its construction in the 1950s, served as a staging base for Soviet nuclear bombers.

Two years ago, satellite photos revealed crews in the process of laying down a new 2,500-metre runway at the base, a sign that Russia is proffering some uncomfortably close attention to the Arctic.

Russia’s 2007 stunt of planting a flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole was part of a larger campaign of declaring large swaths of the Arctic as sovereign territory, much of it rich in oil and other natural resources.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea robbed Ukraine of nearly 80 per cent of offshore oil and gas drilling rights within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ,) extending 200 nautical miles into the Black Sea.

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Observers fear Russia, at some point in the future, may try the same in Canada’s north.

A titanium capsule with the Russian flag is seen seconds after it was planted by the Mir-1 mini submarine on the Arctic Ocean seabed under the North Pole on August 2, 2007.
A titanium capsule with the Russian flag is seen seconds after it was planted by the Mir-1 mini submarine on the Arctic Ocean seabed under the North Pole on August 2, 2007. Photo by Association of Russian Polar Explorers via AP, File

The key to securing Canada’s north, Perry said, lies in increased surveillance — a familiar role for our nation.

“Being able to have an understanding of what’s happening everywhere in the airspace, anything that potentially goes up in the atmosphere in terms of missiles, what’s happening on the water and what’s happening below the water,” he said.

Believing a Soviet first-strike would come via bombers flying over the North Pole, NORAD established three radar “trip-wires” across Canada — the joint Canada-U.S. “pinetree line” along the 50th parallel, the short-lived “mMid-Canada line” across the county’s centre, and the better-known distant-early warning (DEW) line north of the Arctic Circle.

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As ballistic missile technology developed, these detection fences became obsolete.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are multi-stage rockets that ballistically throw their payloads into space, dropping multiple nuclear-armed re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) from altitudes reaching 2,000 km — around 1,500 km. higher than the International Space Station’s orbit.

Even though today’s early-warning rely heavily on space surveillance, Perry said a multi-layered approach is best, combining physical surveillance with over-the horizon radar and submarine surveillance, employing both undersea sensors and anti-submarine overflights by RCAF CP-140 Aurora aircraft.

Moving ahead with Canada’s politically-mired icebreaker replacement program is also important, Perry said.

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“The government made an announcement a couple of years ago about that, but it hasn’t really gone much anywhere in the intervening period.”

Canada’s military spending dropped from 4.2 per cent of GDP in 1960 to less than 1.5 per cent in modern times.

Unveiled in 2017, Canada’s Strong, Secure and Engaged (SSE) defence strategy earmarked $164-billion for capital acquisitions over a 20-year period.

A report released Friday by the Parliamentary Budget Officer said after four years of underspending annual allotments under SSE, updated spending profiles suggest a significant expenditure shift to future fiscal years.

“Compared to initial SSE projections, the new profile shows greater capital expenditures beginning in (fiscal year) 2025-26 through to the end of the 20-year horizon in 2036-37,” the report read.

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“Capital expenditure is expected to peak in 2027-28 with a total of $16.3 billion, which represents a 30 per cent increase over the initial projection of $12.6 billion for that fiscal year.”

FY 2017-18 and 2019-20 showed cumulative shortfalls of nearly $5-billion between what CAF planned to spend on capital expenditures compared to what was actually spent.

Spending today’s money tomorrow could result in lower spending power, the report read, owing to inflation — opening the possibility of greater funding to overcome this shortfall.

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