Canada in the Arctic: Training Centre to Be Expanded

Northern Canada is an area of 3,921,739 km2 and makes up 39.3% of Canada, larger in size than India. In 2011, about 107,265 people lived in Northern Canada, making it a 0.03 inhabitants per square kilometer.

The Canadian Forces are deployed once a year on a sovereignty exercise and almost none of their soldiers are permanently stationed in this vast area. A relatively new training Centre called the Canadian Armed Forces Arctic Training Centre (CAF ATC) has been established in Resolute Bay. Accord to the National Defence, the “CAF ATC will provide a permanent footprint in a strategic location that will allow for staging and force projection across the high Arctic. The facility will enable training and routine operations by providing a location to pre-position equipment and vehicles, and can also serve as a command post for emergency operations and disaster response in support of civilian authorities.”

However, the Centre has accommodations for up to 140 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel, clearly not enough to defend more than 39% of the Canadian territory. That said, The National Post reported that the Canadian Forces is planning to expand the CAF ATC and turn into a “hub that can support operations, both defence- and science-oriented, year-round if needed.”

While the Department of National Defence heavily relies on the Canadian Rangers to patrol Northern Canada, their 5,000 members are only serving when placed on active service or when called out in an emergency. They do serve as the eyes and the ears of the Canadian military but aren’t organized nor properly equipped to face a threat such as the Russians.

Another considerable stake is that there is no deep-water port ready to welcome ships from the Royal Canadian Navy or the Canadian Coast Guard. As a matter of fact, the Polar-class icebreaker from the United States Coast Guard are the only ship capable of ice breaking in Northern Canada. The Canadian icebreakers aren’t able to operate in “multi-year” ice, or to break ice for other vessels. That said, Canada is now moving forward with the Nanisivik Naval Facility and should be completed by 2018.

The Royal Canadian Air Forces CF-18s are flying from both CFB Cold Lake in Alberta and CFB Bagotville in Quebec to intercept foreign aircrafts in the Canadian airspace, having no airstrip capable of landing fighter aircraft in Northern Canada.

Canada has one of the best military when it comes to winter warfare. The fact that Canada has a long and arduous winter give the opportunity for their soldiers to feel comfortable working in the cold and snow. However, arctic warfare is very different than winter warfare. The vast plains of frozen snow and the danger of blizzards are as dangerous as having someone firing at you. Arctic warfare is also about survival, making it hard for a soldier to do his job properly.

A great amount of logistical support is needed to sustain a large operation in the Arctic, hence why the need of a larger and more operational CAF ATC. Most supplies are transported using snowmobile and heavily relies on the ability of the Canadian Rangers to find their way around. Reliable GPS signal is not always working, especially during bad weather.

In 2008, I was in Northern Quebec doing an Arctic warfare training. We went through 5 days of heavy blizzard, up to a point where you couldn’t see your hand a feet in front of you. We were getting low on Naphtha, and no radio communications were possible. Our quartermaster decided to get back to base camp with a few Canadian Rangers to bring back precious supplies.

When he came back a few hours later—base camp was about 12 kilometers away—he praised the ability of the Canadian Rangers to navigate even in the worst conditions. Without their help, we would’ve run out of fuel for our stoves and water. Is it imperative that Canadian soldiers learn from the experience of the Canadian Rangers, making them more prepared and able to work in different Arctic conditions.

A rotation of troops in the Arctic could very well give the Canadian Forces the ability to gain valuable experience and then share it back to other soldiers. The establishment of an Arctic warfare unit would also be a great addition to the Canadian Forces.

The government could easily justify the need of such a unit, and could permanently base them in Resolute Bay. Joint training and operation with the Canadian Rangers would give the Canadian soldiers a better capability of responding quickly in case of an emergency or a threat in Northern Canada.

The Nanisivik Naval Facility

The Nanisivik naval facility, located near the Arctic Bay in Nunavut, will be completed by 2018. The naval facility will be a major addition to Arctic sovereignty by providing more logistical support to Operation NUNALIVUT.

Announced in 2007 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the facility has been designed to welcome Royal Canadian Navy ships for refueling and restocking goods.

The then National Defence spokeswoman Dominique Tessier said that, “The target date was adjusted to 2018 after they completed initial site investigations … to ensure all requirements of the facility could be met.”

HMCS Montreal near the Nanisivik Naval Facility site.
HMCS Montreal near the Nanisivik Naval Facility site.

Located about 3,100 km north of Ottawa, the Nanisivik naval facility is a step forward by the Conservative government to ensure Canadian Arctic sovereignty. The facility will keep the warships at sea for a longer period of time—increasing our military presence in the area.

Since no airstrip will be available for the Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft, they will land about 33 kilometers from the naval facility. Logistical supply runs could then be dispatched by ground vehicles.

The unheated warehouse and a smaller tank farm will receive minor upgrades. The upgraded housing will have a six person capacity which could be doubled in case of an emergency.

The Nanisivik Naval Facility location
The Nanisivik Naval Facility location.

The Arctic facility will not be functional during the winter, giving no logistical possibilities for Canadian ships during the one of the most critical season in the Arctic, but there is a possibility to upgrade the facility so it becomes operational year-round.

While delays for the Nanisivik naval facility are a set back, it will become a turning point in Canadian Arctic sovereignty, especially with the current Russian militarization of the Arctic.

The Canadian Rangers, a Very Valuable Resource

Imagine being in a blizzard in the middle of nowhere, your GPS doesn’t work as usual, your comms are not going through, you can’t see 10 feet in front of you… Well this is frequent when we go train up North. The Canadian Rangers, mostly aboriginal from the remote villages in the North, wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap, would find their way within seconds and head back to the patrol base.

When I was up there the last time in 2011, one of them started to show me how to navigate like they do. As much as it looks complicated, it’s fairly simple and all soldiers could learn from it pretty easily, thus making them better at navigating without the need of a GPS or any electronic devices that are most likely not going to work.

The vast areas of the North are their playground. They are raised on snowmobiles with a .303 rifle tracking their food. They navigate with the wind, the sun and the natural curves of the permafrost land.

It is important to learn from them as they will show the Canadian soldiers survival skills. Most of them are more than happy to teach us their skills. I remember how a team of 4 Canadian Rangers built an igloo in about 5 minutes. My section (8 guys) took more than 45 minutes as we weren’t as skilled as them. They monitored us and even gave us really good tricks to be able to cut blocks in the snow on the ground. The last one we did took us 20 minutes, which is pretty decent knowing we aren’t locals.

These Canadian Rangers have a lot to offer and I know the Canadian soldiers are going to benefit from their experience.

There permanent presence in the North gives the Rangers all eyes and ears for surveillance and can quickly intervene until a large force arrives.

The Future of Winter Warfare and the Canadian Armed Forces Presence in the Arctic

It came to my attention recently that there was a debate between the senior leadership of the CAF and the Government of Canada on whether it was the CAF’s role to provide security in the North as it is a domestic operation.

In that case, I firmly believe that it is the role of the CAF to provide a capable force for any situation, especially domestic operation as it is on our own territory. We can read on the Canadian Army website about domestic operations.

The main role of the Canadian Army is protecting Canadians at home. On any given day, the Canadian Army is ready to defend Canada and North America and to provide assistance to populations and regions affected by natural disasters, such as hurricanes and floods.

Under the Canadian First Defence Strategy, protecting our own territory is the main priority. When it comes to the CAF presence in the North, Canada answers with a least three major operations. Up to this day, the Canadian Forces had no plan to station troops in the Resolute Bay area, where Canada has recently established the Canadian Armed Forces Arctic Training Centre (CAFATC).

The Canadian Army could send an infantry company reinforced with other important elements such as engineers, logistics and administration soldiers. In other words, we don’t need a large amount of soldiers but a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) to intervene while reinforcements are sent from the operational bases.

Sending an infantry company would require an upgrade of our Arctic-capable equipment. A new fleet of snowmobiles, upgraded BV-206, for the time being, and better clothing would be essential for success in the North. CANSOFCOM tested stealth snowmobiles, who are worth approximately $620,000 each, but these wouldn’t be available for conventional troops.

Canadian Army BV-206
Canadian Army BV-206

But back on the BV-206. ST Kinetics developed the Bronco All Terrain Tracked Carrier, commonly named the Warthog by the UK Armed Forces. While the BV-206 is a good temporary solution, due to its age and upgrade problems, the CAF should be looking at the Warthog to replace them. The Warthog can carry a bigger payload and is capable of a better top speed. It does offer the same capabilities as the BV-206. The British Army used the Warthog in Afghanistan, thus making it a very versatile tracked personal carrier.

A source of mine has also confirmed that an R&D company in Canada is working on a track adapted to Arctic condition for the TLAVs. The track is larger and threaded for providing more grip on ice and snow. TLAVs have been used in Afghanistan very successfully.

Other ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) assets would also be vital to provide troops on the ground valuable information. Drones, such as Heron and the CP-140 Aurora aircraft would be a perfect match for the Arctic ISR.

The stakes are high for the Arctic and we should put our full attention towards the next few years, as they will shape our future. While some countries are getting a stronger presence in the North, it is important for Canada and its allies to provide capable forces to respond to any threat and to intervene in major cases.

Whether it’s an environmental issue, a Search-and-Rescue operation or a military intervention, I firmly believe in NATO cooperation in the Arctic. History has shown us that countries will fight for resources and not try to find a peaceful solution.

The upgraded CAF ATC will be very beneficial for future Canadian sovereignty operations in the Arctic. As a matter of fact, this new centre could be a turning point in Canadian military presence in the Arctic.

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Jonathan Wade, CD

Jonathan Wade is the director of the ‘The Sentinel Analytical Group’ and a decorated veteran of the Canadian Forces. Specialized in tactical, strategic, intelligence and geopolitics analysis, Jonathan has a fondness for technical details. His military experience brought him valuable insight on the realities of conflicts and war. A combat veteran of Afghanistan, Jonathan brings in in-theatre experience. Jonathan writes about Russia, Canada and Arctic.