Monday, September 28, 2015

Arctic Threats? Yes, I Dare to Pooh-Pooh

Huh?  I got into an argument last night with a friend about a piece by a bunch of friends who downplay threats to the Canadian Arctic.  Why?  Because I am a committed Arctic skeptic.  It is not that I don't that the Arctic does not exist, but that threats to it are not very scary.  Especially compared to other threats in the world.  Of course, since Canada faces little of those threats because it is geographically privileged (surrounded by seas and one friendly neighbor), any modest threat can stand out.

I was accused in this argument of being a dinosaur (ok, being a Cold Warrior throwback) because I emphasize geography.  That is, the Arctic is a hell of a long way from everyone including ... Canada and Russia.  If a cruise ship has a problem up north, help will be arriving in weeks and months, not hours or days.  Ooops.  I also scoffed at the Chinese threat because China is far, far away.  And any effort to get there requires going through a strait or through relatively narrow passages that NATO has much practice monitoring (the spaces in between Greenland/Iceland/UK).

My combatant argued that my thinking was too conventional, and that cyber stuff, satellites and pesky research ships (where research means spying) matter in all of this.  And I ponder how?  How can stuff that cannot occupy any space threaten Canada's holdings in the Arctic?  Yes, other folks can have heaps of information about the Arctic and where the resources are, but getting those resources out in any volume requires either massive teleportation devices or ships and much effort to sustain a resource extraction enterprise.

My friend mentioned subs.  Indeed, Canada does not really know what is happening underneath the waves.  Join the club.  The undersea is vast, and only a few countries can operate in any kinds of numbers there--US, Russia, maybe China.  But what can do those subs do to threaten Canada from under the Arctic?  They can launch missiles, but doing so from there is not that meaningfully different from doing so in the Pacific or elsewhere.  What else?  They can launch some squads of Special Operations Forces .... to do what?  Occupy briefly a random island?  For what purpose?  To declare that said island is now part of China or Russia?  We already play the island hopping game with the Danes over Hans Island.  And any island way up north is far easier to isolate.  Again, straits.  Until the Chinese develop planes that can have damn near infinite range, I am not too worried.  Canada could easily invest in the anti-access/area-denial stuff that the Chinese have done in their neighborhood.

What else?  Ah, the Northwest Passage came up.  Canada would like to consider the NWP internal waterways and part of Canadian territory.  Good luck with that, as the Law of the Sea is pretty clear about such stuff--folks can steer their ships between whatever straits they want, ultimately.  The real problem is who is responsible for when one of those ships hits a rock, spills oil and maybe starts to sink.  Back to the cruise ship problem.

Unless Canada seriously invests in the Arctic, which no party really promises to do, Canada will have to rely on the traditional strategy: partnership with the US.  Oh, yes, the US which has a different stance on NWP.  But given Canada's size (population) and size (territory) mismatch and the relevant threats out there--US, Russia and Denmark (and China if one wants to dream), the choices are obvious and obviously constrained.  Either work with the Russians against the Americans or work with the Americans against the Russians (and mythical Chinese).

Harper has been reluctant to bring NATO into this (unlike the Norwegians), and the Canadian First Defence Strategy is a nice bit of nationalist propaganda, but Canada already depends on the US for help in defending the skies above Canada and the waters off of Canada.  The US has far better eyes undersea than Canada ever will.  That is the reality.  Just because it was true during the Cold War does not make it less true now.  The math of distance and expense still apply.  It is incredibly expensive to operate and sustain way up north, so if the Russians want to blow a lot of money on it, I say let them. Yes, Canada needs to improve its search and rescue capability and have a few icebreakers around, but there is nothing going on up there that is genuinely threatening.

Of course, I could be an old codger with a fax machine, betamax recorder, three main channels on ye olde big-ass un-flat screen TV.   And this dinosaur still thinks that sovereignty means making choices in a constrained environment and not so much being able to independently defend one's stuff.

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