Historically, Canada has never made more than a token effort to defend its vast and sparsely populated northern frontier. Since the late 1970s air crews from the Canadian Armed Forces have flown only about 16 long-range missions each year over the High Arctic, using unarmed patrol aircraft equipped with sophisticated electronic submarine sensors. Still, even those missions are of limited military value, because none of Canada’s 23 destroyers and three submarines is capable of operating in ice-infested arctic waters. But now Maclean's has learned that the federal cabinet has been presented with a package of sweeping proposals that would greatly
expand Canada’s military presence in the Far North—both as a demonstration of sovereignty aimed at impressing the United States and because of concern over Soviet submarine activity in the Canadian Arctic.
The proposals, outlined in a secret external affairs memorandum to cabinet, suggested a $4-billion program over the next decade to improve Canada’s capacity to detect and attack foreign ships that infiltrate the nation’s arctic waters. Among the proposals: between $2 billion and $3 billion for the construction of four nuclearpowered submarines that could operate for unlimited periods under the ice.
The memorandum also recommended a range of initiatives to upgrade Canada’s surveillance of the Far North. These included the launching of a $350-million satellite designed to
provide year-round radar images of the Northwest Passage, as well as the installation of underwater listening devices to monitor key bodies of water in the arctic archipelago and provide “trip wire” warnings of submarines passing through Canadian waters.
At the same time, the memorandum refers to growing concern over the role of the joint Canadian-U.S. North American Aerospace Defence Command. That concern revolves around NORAD’S potential involvement in Washington’s Strategic Defense Initiative—the space-based defence system known as Star Wars. Last May, Defence Minister Erik Nielsen rejected opposition charges that Canada was
being drawn into the controversial Star Wars plan because Washington intends to integrate offensive nuclear forces with the space-based antimissile shield. U.S. officials plan to co-ordinate the potential use of ballistic and cruise missiles with both NORAD and the new unified U.S. Space Command, the body that will eventually control the Star Wars defence system.
The proposed changes in U.S. nuclear war strategy, the memorandum says, raise important questions for Canadian defence planners. It adds: “The need to develop effective co-operation between NORAD and the new U.S. Space Commmand, as well as negotiations for the renewal of the NORAD Agreement next year, suggest the need for early definition of Canada’s military requirements in space.” Otherwise, the report says, the United States would
assume total responsibility for some areas of continental defence, a prospect that “could be perceived as a failure to exercise Canadian sovereignty.” In Ottawa last January the Senate committee on defence reached a similar conclusion. In a report the committee said that Canada would either have to become a junior partner in the Star Wars program or else develop its own military space program.
The cabinet document emphasizes that Canadian sovereignty is not at risk but it also says that there is a need for Ottawa to reassert its claim over the arctic waters—a claim that the United States and other nations have never fully accepted. Indeed, the
memorandum says that a “classic example” of lingering uneasiness over the fragility of Canadian sovereignty was the reaction to the voyage of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea through the Northwest Passage in August. Responding to public criticism of that expedition, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark announced plans to build the world’s most powerful icebreaker, the 100,000-horsepower Polar 8. Designed to be capable of smashing its way through 40-foot-thick ice, the vessel will be able to operate in the Northwest Passage all year. Plans for the Polar 8 were first drawn up more than a decade ago. But Ottawa delayed the project because of concerns about its estimated $450-million cost.
According to the memorandum, the Polar 8 was originally intended to escort oil tankers and other commercial
vessels through northern waters. More recently, federal officials have revised their plans to include several other tasks, including scientific research and the enforcement of Canadian environmental laws. Said the memo: “The commitment of funds, construction and deployment of the Polar 8 will be a dramatic signal to Canadians and to the rest of the world that the government is serious about Canadian sovereignty in arctic waters.”
But the document points out that the Polar 8 could perform a number of military and strategic functions as well. It said that defence officials are considering arming the ship to project “a year-round military presence in northern waters.” That could include such duties as surface and underwater surveillance, monitoring Soviet communications, transporting troops and military equipment to northern bases and laying mines in northern waterways “in the event of hostilities.”
The possibility of Soviet submarine activity in the Arctic is causing the greatest concern among some Canadian planners. Although the cabinet report does not specifically mention any such intrusions, intelligence reports indicate that Soviet submarines have already crossed the North Pole and entered the North Atlantic through the unpatrolled Baffin Bay route.
To counter those threats, the department of national defence has proposed i the construction of at least four nucleI ar-powered attack submarines able to operate for unlimited periods throughout the Arctic. Alternatively, the memorandum says that a new class of diesel-powered submarines would enable crews to remain submerged under the ice in the eastern Arctic—but not throughout the archipelago—for as long as 21 days. The report also recommends that Ottawa increase its efforts to survey such important—and inadequately charted —waters as Parry Channel, Dolphin and Union Strait and James Ross Strait. That action should be taken “with a view to developing a navigation corridor through the main Northwest Passage route and perhaps the establishment of a southern route.” And it proposes a $2.45million annual program to train Inuit to conduct oceanographic research and monitor changes in sea ice conditions.
To reinforce those efforts Ottawa is also seeking the technical means to detect military violations in the North. The first, known as RADARSAT, involves the development of a Canadian remote-sensing satellite capable of operating around the clock, in all weather conditions, to locate and track all vessels to an accuracy of 500 m. Currently in the planning stages with a budget of $21 million, the satellite would cost an
estimated $350 million to build and could be ready for launch by 1991. A second plan outlined in the memo calls for the installation of a network of unmanned listening posts on the ocean floor to detect submarine traffic. A similar system has been operated by NATO on the eastern and western perimeters of the North Atlantic since the late 1950s. The report says an operational system could be ready in five years at a cost of about $35 million. A more extensive system to monitor the Arctic Basin beyond the archipelago would probably take 10 years to develop and cost as much as $45 million.
Still, despite the sharp cost of such measures, the report adds that no new funding will generally be available for projects aimed at strengthening Canada’s arctic sovereignty. Instead, money will have to be diverted from existing budgets. The memorandum also recommends several inexpensive and symbolic ways of demonstrating Canadian territorial rights in the region, including a voyage through the arctic waters by Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé and a special cabinet meeting to be held in the High Arctic “within the next 12 months.” Canada, the cabinet paper asserts, must “reaffirm vigorously its claim over arctic waters.”
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