Posted by: Jack | July 2, 2008

More on the Arctic military buildup

A Russian General has made clear that his country is preparing its forces to defend their claims over the Arctic seabed and the oil it is thought to contain.

“After the reaction of a certain number of heads of state to Russia’s territorial claims to the continental plateau of the Arctic, the training division has immediately set out (training) plans for troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat missions,” Lt-Gen Vladimir Shamanov was reported as saying last week.

Lt-Gen Shamanov

In comments in Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), Russia’s official army newspaper, Shamanov argued that it was vital for Russia to increase its military capacity in the far North, saying “wars these days are won and lost well before they are launched.”

Shamanov announced plans to increase the “operational radius” of Russia’s northern submarine fleet and reinforce the Russian army’s combat readiness along the Arctic coast.

Canada is also trying to beef up its Arctic military, in preparation for a rush to exploit the opportunities for oil, natural gas and shipping lanes that are set to open up as the Arctic ice melts due to climate change. But according to reports in the Canadian press*, they still have some way to go to match up with Russia’s superpower Arctic capability.

Last March the Canadian military conducted major exercises in preparation for building a permanent winter warfare training facility in the autonomous Inuit region of Nunavut. They revealed serious short comings in the equipment provided to troops.

Resolute, Nunavut

“A lot of things popped up,” said Lt.-Col. Marco Rancourt, commander of the Canadian Forces Land Advance Warfare Centre in Trenton, Ontario. “Conducting operations in the Arctic is difficult.”

Snowmobiles were drained of their fuel on the flight up to save weight, but that then allowed condensation to form on their fuel lines. When they reached the Arctic this water then froze, causing the snowmobiles to stall and break. The soldiers were forced to pour boiling water into the fuel lines to melt the ice and try and start the vehicles before the new water could freeze.

The standard issue boil-in-a-bag rations provided for troops also froze, requiring time and fuel to thaw out. The shovels and machetes provided for building snow shelters weren’t designed properly for breaking up the hard compacted Arctic snow. Troops only had one set of mukluks and balaclavas, meaning if these got wet there were no replacements while they dried out. They also had no gloves inside their mitts, meaning if they took them off to work with their fingers their hands froze.

“Extremities suffered the most in the Arctic,” says one of the documents summarizing the problems.

The course was designed to first give participants a couple days to acclimatize to cold weather, but that was done at Canadian Forces Base Borden near Toronto – nowhere near the type of terrain or climate the soldiers were about to enter.

“Due to the warm weather conditions, proper winter training and preparation for Arctic winter training was not achieved,” says a document.

Canada is spending billion on upgrading its Arctic military with a view to defending the claims it has made over the natural resources of the Arctic seabed and the new shipping lanes opening up as the Northwest Passage becomes ice free. However, it’s clear they still have some way to go, especially if they wish to match the superpower capabilities of Russia and the US in the region. The documents recommend the Canadian military should draft in civilian Arctic explorers and adventurers to help them properly understand the needs of their troops in the Far North.

“These (persons) should be brought into our planning process to provide mentorship, as well as recommendations for new equipment.”

The Canadian military is keen to spin the efforts as a success however. Rancourt said that despite the problems the course revealed the Canadian Forces compare well with other countries that train in Arctic conditions, including the United States and Britain.

“I’m not sure other nations are conducting a lot of training above the 75th parallel,” he said. “It’s one thing to fly above; it’s another thing to be on the ground.”

“We are getting there. I’d say compared to those other forces that actually have an active part in the North, we’re probably equal to them – if not better.”

Meanwhile, Canada has also been seeking to assert its sovereignty over the potential shipping lanes through civilian means as well. A report released by the Canadian Senate recommends that all ships entering the waters claimed by Canada should be obliged to register with NORDREG, a register of all ships operating in the Arctic sea. Currently registration is voluntary.

Although the move to make NORDREG mandatory is ostensibly to allow the Canadian coastguard and environmental regulators to operate better, the key reasons were made clear by Liberal Senator for New Brunswick Fernand Robichaud:

“To show that we control the water and that these are Canadian waters, to assert our sovereignty, every ship should report and NORDREG is the tool to do it.”

Canada should also implement regulations on the construction, manning and equipping of all vessels in the Arctic, the report said. The standing committee on fisheries and oceans also said Canada needs go-anywhere, any time icebreakers. Although that echoes a $720-million promise made in the Conservative government’s last budget, Canada needs more than one, said Robichaud.

“We expect a lot more traffic is going to happen up there,” said Robichaud. “Right now, I don’t think we have the capacity.”

“The government should have a long-term program of shipbuilding icebreakers.”

The government has purchased and implemented new radar technology so it can more efficiently track ships entering the Arctic. There are also moves to build more harbours. As Rob Huebert, of the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, puts it:

“Harbours are gates, and those who control the gates get to make the rules. You’ve got to build the right gates. But if you build it, you control it.”

The Inuit indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic look set to be drawn into Canada’s power games more and more. The report calls for building a series of small craft harbours in the autonomous Inuit region of Nunavut, as well as recruiting more Inuit to the coastguard to provide local knowledge. The Canadian army already has a programme of recruiting local Inuit to act as Rangers, providing reconnaissance and intelligence in the Arctic.

And the Canadian Polar Commission, a government advisory body, has issued a major report calling for a network of Canadian research stations across the North. Climate change, the environment, health and social stability, economic development, sovereignty and security – these are all major issues that will continue to demand our attention over the next few decades,” commission chairman Dr. Tom Hutchinson said in a statement. “The North is changing rapidly, and we need first-class research to help northerners adapt to changes, today and tomorrow. Such an investment would also support the sovereignty agenda by demonstrating Canada’s commitment to its North.”

The 50-page report, to be officially released on Thursday, says a key motivation for bolstering Canada’s scientific capacity in the Arctic is the planned reinforcement of its sovereignty claims in the North, including control over the disputed Northwest Passage.

“Sovereignty will continue to be a driver (of polar science) in the short, medium and long terms,” the report says, adding that “a pan-northern network, including ship platforms, would provide a highly significant demonstration of sovereignty – far more than any amount of activity at a single location.”

The report also suggests that “economic development will potentially be the most critical driver” for science investments in the coming years. Reading between the lines it’s clear that a lot of the science being proposed is mapping of the seabed to try and reinforce Canadian claims over potential oil and gas reserves. All the Arctic powers are scrambling to try and improve their research capabilities. Claims to extend territorial waters in international law are based on proving that seabed landscape is an extension of a nation’s continental shelf.

Record-high oil prices have spurred global interest in the potentially petroleum-rich Arctic seabed, and the five nations with Arctic Ocean coastlines – Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark and the U.S. – are gathering geological data on the polar sea floor to support territorial claims under terms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“Pressures will mount with current world stress on fossil fuel reserves for the extraction and transport of these resources,” the report states. “Science must be proactive, not reactive, to development proposals.”

Even China, a nation with no Arctic coastline, is trying to get involved in the race to understand the changes taking place in the Arctic and what opportunities it presents economically. China’s 3rd Arctic exploration mission will set sail from Shanghai in July. The mission plans to study the polar region’s distinctive maritime resources and air quality, according to Zhang Haisheng, chief scientist for the project.

Scientists will also do comprehensive research on geological and meteorological conditions with the help of a helicopter, a yacht and an underwater robot, Zhang said.

“An important task is to observe the effects of the polar ice surface changes upon the climate of our country,” said Zhang, who is also director of the Hangzhou-based No. 2 research institute under the State Oceanic Administration.

The ice-breaker “Xuelong” (Snow Dragon) will leave Shanghai on July 11 and return on Sept. 25. China’s first North Pole expedition ran from July 1 to Sept. 9, 1999. It collected information on the Arctic maritime ecology and atmospheric, geologic and fishing conditions. During the second expedition, in 2003, Chinese scientists probed the inter-reactions of the Arctic region and global climate and analyzed Arctic influences on Chinese weather. They also set up China’s northernmost observation station.

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