Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Gunboat Diplomacy

The Canadian Navy is sortieing into the great white north to fend off marauding Danes.

Canada sends navy to Arctic north
By Lee Carter BBC News, Toronto

Canada is sending its navy back to the far northern Arctic port of Churchill after a 30-year absence. The visit by two warships to the area is the latest move to challenge rival claims in the Arctic triggered by the threat of melting ice.

The move follows a spat between Canada and Denmark, over an uninhabited rock called Hans Island in the eastern Arctic region.

A visit there by Canada's defence minister last month angered the Danes.

Now two Canadian warships, the Shawinigan and the Glace Bay, are on a mission to display what Canada calls its territorial sovereignty over parts of the Arctic it believes are within its borders.

The dispute seems rather odd, when scientists say the region around the island is unlikely to be rich in oil or other natural resources.

But Canada is deeply worried that it has taken what it considers as its Arctic territory for granted.

The islands were not included in border discussions between Denmark and Canada more than 30 years ago.

Canadian armed forces have actually been gearing up and exercising recently to exert the nation's sovereignty over its far-flung Arctic territories. Intriguingly, the melting Arctic ice is opening up the storied Northwest Passage to year-round shipping. This would enable vessels traveling between Europe and Asia to cut as much as 4,000 nautical miles off a journey that would typically take them through the Panama Canal. Most nations, including the United States, Russia, and other maritime powers, consider the passage to be international waters, a status that Canada disputes. The situation was considered largely academic so long as pack ice made the area impassable to surface vessels. But now Canada is faced with the prospect of the world's shipping cutting through its back yard without permission.

Last fall, eDefense Online Senior Editor Ted McKenna wrote an article on the subject entitled Warmer Waters. Here is an extended excerpt:

The Canadian arctic may be a vast, cold place, populated more by polar bears and seals than by people. But underneath all that ice lies money - in one form or another. Money in the form of oil and natural gas, some think, or diamonds, or
commercial fishing, or as a shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. And all this money that for so long has been locked up underneath the ice may finally be reachable, because the ice in the Canadian arctic - as elsewhere - is melting.

Global warming is causing Canada to once again pay greater attention to its north. But can it maintain sovereignty, given that the US and other countries claim that this region is actually "international"? To date, not much in the way of conflict has happened in the Canadian arctic, given the difficulties there of navigation, of overland access, or of operating machines like aircraft and communications in such extreme cold. But periodically the country has gone through "sovereignty crises," when some event caused concern among the political classes and the media that the country might lose control of the region. The last crisis was in the mid-1980s, when a US Coast Guard icebreaker went through the Northwest Passage - not because the US was trying to make a statement, US diplomats claimed, but only because the ship needed to get to the Pacific.

Today, no specific international incident has triggered renewed concern, but increased activity up north makes it evident that many people are aware of the changing conditions there. Canadian Forces this summer conducted a large exercise that was meant in part to signal to the world that Canada still has a grasp on the region. Many Canadian defense experts say that the Canadian Forces' limited size - about 60,000 personnel in all - and limited assets restrict its ability to react to events in the north. But new technology should be able to help. Because of Canada's limited resources, including military personnel and assets like aircraft and ships, technology such as satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and radar should in no small part allow Canada to keep a better eye on this territory.

What resources, technological and otherwise, does Canada presently employ to monitor this region? Not a lot. The total number of armed forces in the country has dropped significantly since the Cold War. Dr. Martin Shadwick, a professor of Political Science at York University's Centre for International and Security Studies, said that from a high of 90,000 the number of active duty forces has dipped to around 60,000 or less. With the increased deployment overseas to countries like Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Haiti, where peacekeeping operations are ongoing, the amount of personnel that can be devoted to the northern part of the Canada is severely constrained.

Today, about 140 military personnel are permanently stationed in the northern area of the country, with the task of watching over about 4 million square kilometers, including the Northwest Territories (NWT), the Yukon, and Nunavit. As for technology on hand in the north, the North Warning System, a network of radar systems designed to detect passing aircraft, was set up during the Cold War as a kind of tripwire system to alert North America of Soviet attack, but these radar systems weren't designed for monitoring maritime traffic and are, for the most part, unmanned and automated.

By working with local inhabitants who serve as Canadian Rangers, who are lightly armed and are trained to watch for suspicious activity and report it to authorities, the Canadian Forces greatly increase the number of eyes and ears in the region. Today about 1,400 Rangers cover the arctic, conducting patrols in the Yukon, NWT, Nunavut, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and northern British Columbia. Sometimes these patrols may be part of their everyday activities - while they are out fishing or hunting, perhaps. Given that their standard equipment consists of a No. 4 Lee Enfield rifle, high-frequency radio, ground-to-air radio, and so on, the Canadian Rangers are basically the modern equivalent of the North Warning System, able to keep an eye out for various threats, but not expected to deal with international incidents on their own.

Along with the regular patrols by Rangers, Canadian Forces organize patrols using ships and aircraft. But the country's CP-140 Aurora patrol planes, used for maritime surveillance, are aging and too few in number to cover the arctic very thoroughly. Delivery of 18 of the patrol aircraft began back in 1980 for the main purpose of anti-submarine warfare (ASW), with a further three acquired in the early 1990s for purposes other than ASW, though there is a program underway to upgrade their sensors, mission computers, and more.

As for Canada's naval fleet, all of its ships are all single-hulled, meaning they cannot penetrate very far into the arctic for fear of coming in contact with ice. Last spring the government announced plans to spend $2.1 billion to replace current Auxiliary Oil Replenishment vessels, which are now 35 years old, with new support ships to be used for transporting troops and equipment, among other purposes. These ships, delivery of which is expected to start in 2011, will be able to operate in ice up to 0.7 meters thick.

But as for true icebreakers owned by Canada, all belong to the country's Coast Guard, which deals only with search and rescue, ship safety, and other non-military functions, in contrast to, say, the US Coast Guard. Even these, experts noted, are several decades old, though all have been modernized over the years. Because the Coast Guard is not a military organization, the country lacks an icebreaker that could serve as an arctic patrol boat, compared with other countries like the US, Britain, and even Japan. "We don't have a navy that can operate in the arctic right now, outside the summer months," Shadwick said. "Canadian warships have limited ice capability, for operating in slush ice up north, but they should not be considered ice-capable ships in the conventional ship or icebreakers. They're not meant to go into ice-covered waters in any significant way."

It is interesting to recall that in the late 1980s, then Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proposed the addition of a fleet of 10-12 nuclear-powered submarines to provide Canada with the capacity to its assert sovereignty in the Arctic. However, critics deemed the the costs of acquiring a fleet of advanced submarines to be too great. Besides, the Arctic region was already patrolled by submarines, courtesy of the US Navy. Ironically, the US is now one of the trespassers that the Canadians want to see off their property.

The dispute between Canada and Denmark over the status of remote islands is becoming typical as resources dwindle and technology opens up new regions of the ocean floor for exploitation. Of course, it's not so much the rock itself that's valuable as the fact that a nation can claim sovereignty over the waters around that rock. Some recent "conflicts short of war" involving flags on rocks are listed below:

Spain v Morocco

Japan v China

Japan v Korea

Australia v Poachers

The Spanish-Moroccan dispute over the Perejil/Leila rock and the Japanese-Chinese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands actually involved bouts of flag planting. The 14-day sea chase of poachers by an Australian cutter was a particularly riveting drama. Of course, the conflicts cease to be so amusing when shots are fired, and there is reason to be wary of the competing claims of China and Japan, two regional powers that seem willing to cross swords. Recall that last year a Chinese submarine entered Japanese waters in an incident apparently related to the Senkaku/Diaoyutai dispute (see Mystery Sub Off Japanese Coast).

It's also worth mentioning the so-called Cod Wars between Icleand and the UK over fishing rights in the North Atlantic. No rocks to speak of, but the fallout from competing claims over maritime soverignty serve as a useful historical footnote.


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