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NATO is Not Needed in the North American Arctic

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This commentary is published as part of IPD’s project, European Security in a Shifting World Order: Debating Canada’s Role.

By virtue of its location, the Arctic is an avenue of approach to North America, Europe and Russia. The Arctic, therefore, has always been strategically important. And yet strategic attention from NATO – and Canada especially – has waxed and waned.

A new, emerging world order of strategic competition in which formerly agreed rules of international behaviour are flouted, together with the desire for great powers to “command the commons”, particularly to exploit natural resources, have placed the Arctic back on NATO’s agenda. Because Russia is the most consequential Arctic state, its egregious and unprovoked attacks on Ukraine mean that the Arctic’s “exceptional peace” (i.e., cooperative activities among the Arctic, non-Arctic states and indigenous representatives on the Arctic Council) has been ruptured.

The best way for Canada to protect its Arctic from military threats is to ensure the investments in the North American Aerospace Defence Command modernization are made irrespective of the pressure that Canada faces to contribute resources in other regions.

Many conclude that the Arctic needs more NATO, and, as a NATO ally, Canada needs to shift its attention in the Arctic toward contributions to NATO, including in the North American Arctic. However, we argue that the best way for Canada to protect its Arctic from military threats is to ensure the investments in the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) modernization are made irrespective of the pressure that Canada faces to contribute resources in other regions. Such insulation would represent a statement of strategic intent on the part of the Government of Canada and is demanded by the US government.

NATO's Growing Arctic Profile

NATO has increased attention to the Arctic of late. First, NATO has held two of its biggest exercises ever in the Arctic in 2018 (Trident Juncture with 51,000 personnel) and 2022 (Cold Response with 35,000 personnel), both organized by Norway and conducted in and near Norway. Next, NATO adopted a new Strategy in 2022 that references the “High North” (NATO speak for the European Arctic) for the first time. It is important to recall that it was Canada that rejected a reference to the Arctic at the Kehl/Strasbourg NATO summit in 2014. Moreover, NATO has a new Joint Force Command based in Norfolk twinned to the US 2nd Fleet with a mandate to surveil the North Atlantic and Arctic maritime approaches.

There is a long tradition in Canadian defence policies for successive governments, both Conservative and Liberal, to justify Canadian contributions to CANUS North American defence agreements as a NATO commitment. Indeed, Prime Minister Diefenbaker invoked the contribution to NATO as the reason for Canada to sign the binational agreement creating the North American Air Defence Command in 1958, and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau rationalized the Canada-United States’ Cruise Missile Testing Agreement in 1983 as a NATO commitment.

From the creation of NATO in 1949, however, North American defence agreements have always been operationally and practically within the sole purview of Canada and the United States. As well, European NATO allies have shown little, if any, interest in North American defence until recently. After all, the United States was the world’s military hegemon and was assumed to be providing its own homeland defence and ensuring continental defence. From either side of the Atlantic, NATO has been about European defence, notwithstanding the ultimately disastrous campaign in Afghanistan.

Two changes have occurred of late, however, that have turned NATO’s attention to the Arctic, and both are direct results of Russian aggression elsewhere in the world, especially in its near abroad. First, NATO has recognized the Arctic as an avenue of approach to Europe and to North America. Russia’s military presence and capability in the Arctic and its new missile technology that can threaten both North American and Europe requires attention to the Arctic. As such, the Arctic has emerged as the most direct route to  threaten North America and Europe.

Second, with the accession of Finland, and soon Sweden, to the alliance, seven of the eight Arctic States will be NATO allies with only Russia outside the alliance. The NATO-Russia Council is all but moribund and, due to Western sanctions, official contact with Russian government officials has become decidedly complicated. This means that many of the Arctic fora, that include the eight Arctic states, can quickly resemble an Arctic-7 versus Russia. 

NATO in the North American Arctic?

For the alliance and certainly for national reasons, Canada directing its attention and defence investments to the Arctic appears reasonable and necessary. However, Canada’s and the United States’ primary focus is on the Arctic as avenue of attack against North America, not NATO writ large.

For the alliance and certainly for national reasons, Canada directing its attention and defence investments to the Arctic appears reasonable and necessary. However, Canada’s and the United States’ primary focus is on the Arctic as avenue of attack against North America, not NATO writ large.

NORAD has always been focused on the North American Arctic’s position relative to the Soviet Union/Russia. The Harper Government’s Canada First Defence Strategy (2008) reignited a concerted Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) effort to orient toward the Arctic with the start of yearly Operation NANOOK in which individual NATO allies (such as Denmark and the United States) were invited to exercise in the Canadian Arctic. The Trudeau Liberal’s 2017, Strong, Secure, Engaged, continued this trend but now Operation NANOOK takes place year-round in four tranches and NORAD’s most important asset, the North Warning System, was earmarked for “renewal”. This was followed by significant investments of $38.6b over 20 years for NORAD Modernization, of which a significant portion is devoted to new Arctic and polar radar systems.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Canada’s Arctic August 24 – 26, 2022 (the first time a Secretary General has visited Canada’s Arctic) served mainly as signalling, but the most important for Canada was to highlight the government’s attention to NORAD modernization. While Mr. Stoltenberg underlined the High North’s strategic importance for Euro-Atlantic security, especially in the context of a rapidly warming climate and rising geostrategic competition, he visited some important NORAD sites such as Cambridge Bay to see an NWS radar and he visited 4 Wing at Cold Lake, Canada’s busiest fighter base.

Stoltenberg’s visit did not provoke or reflect a rethink of Canada’s position on NATO in the Arctic nor Canada’s Arctic posturing. It also does not signal that NATO’s focus on the European Arctic will change. NATO remains focused on the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap, and the Arctic coasts of Norway, Finland, and Sweden (the High North). Rather, Stoltenberg’s visit signals the importance of linking NORAD’s Arctic efforts in North America to NATO efforts, including its large Arctic exercises off the coast of Norway, Norfolk Joint Force Command activities and the general solidarity of NATO allies to share information, and align strategic messaging, as well as capabilities and training opportunities.

There is no indication that the United States wants more NATO in the North American Arctic other than certain Arctic-capable NATO allies to participate in their exercises.

The United States has never ceded control of its security and defence to another country or combination of countries and is not likely to start now. There is no indication that the United States wants more NATO in the North American Arctic other than certain Arctic-capable NATO allies to participate in their exercises. The United States relies on its 2nd Fleet, NORAD, USNORTHCOM, the US Coast Guard’s 17th District, and deterrence by punishment. In this respect, Canada and the United States are very much aligned: their focus is on integrating and coordinating efforts across problematic US combatant command seams and between NORAD and NATO so that they are not stovepiped in their collective defence efforts. It is not time to put NATO in the North American Arctic; rather it is time for allies to work together.

To be sure, the investments in NORAD to protect the North American Arctic contribute to the defence of NATO as a whole, as argued by Timothy Sayle. The last thing NATO needs is to come to the rescue of North America because it has undervalued continental defence given the very real pressure on NATO eastern flank. But great caution must be taken if arguing to increase the CAF’s military footprint in Canada’s Arctic or the need for NATO personnel in Canada’s Arctic. The best way to defend Canada’s Arctic and contribute to NATO is via NORAD modernization, investment in the Canadian Coast Guard, better coordination and sharing of domain awareness information, and exercising with the (soon to be) seven Arctic NATO states. Large, permanent bases in Canada’s Arctic present more harm than help.

The NORAD modernization projects of most importance, therefore, are the Arctic and Polar Over-the-Horizon Radar Systems, upgrades to the Forward Operating Locations in the Arctic (Iqaluit, Inuvik and Yellowknife), and the Deployed Operating Base in Goose Bay, a space-based Constellation for enhanced surveillance and communication, and research and development in new technological solutions, including sensors for undersea surveillance. These assets will provide domain awareness that can be shared with NATO allies, fulfill Canada’s obligations to NORAD and mitigate pressure on the very limited infrastructure in the Arctic. With too few houses, old and limited septic systems, polluting power supplies, inadequate communication infrastructure and few essential services (like hospitals, social workers and schools that support military families), a large permanent military base in the Arctic will only deprive local communities.

Canada's Arctic Defence Needs

The solution, therefore, is not more of Canada in NATO’s high North or NATO in Canada’s Arctic, but more attention to continental defence. First, the Canadian government, via the Northern Policy Framework (ANPF) (2019) and NORAD modernization, is already committed to an enhanced military presence in the Arctic that is “persistent” (not permanent) with an ambitious, if not unrealistic, timeline for operational completion. While the ANPF was first to encourage a whole of government effort and discuss the potential multi-purposeness of future Arctic infrastructure, it is NORAD modernization that sees significant funds committed and concerted government consideration of civilian infrastructure needs in Canada’s Arctic.

The idea for a permanent military base, whether for an enhanced Army and/or Navy presence in the Arctic, is problematic. In terms of an Army base, two already exist. The first is the base at Yellowknife, the home of Joint Task Force North, with detachments in Iqaluit and Whitehorse. The second is the CAF’s Arctic Training Facility in Resolute Bay co-located with Natural Resources Canada’s Polar Continental Shelf program. And of course, there is the very important presence of the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group. Expanding the Joint Task Force North or the training centre would be extremely costly and a strain on Canadian Army capabilities, especially given the commitment to the NATO Multinational Brigade in Latvia with a planned increase from 800 to 2,100 troops. Furthermore, a larger permanent Army presence in the Arctic with southern soldiers poses potentially major implications for Army recruitment and retention, especially in terms of pressure on military families posted to the Arctic.

It is NORAD modernization that sees significant funds committed and concerted government consideration of civilian infrastructure needs in Canada’s Arctic.

More importantly, there is no ground-based military threat for Canada that would necessitate a major, permanent Army presence, especially in mid-winter. Their purpose would be to assist with the logistical challenges that are Arctic exercises, providing support as necessary to territorial governments and to other government departments. The CAF has primary responsibility for aeronautical search and rescue, while the Canadian Coast Guard is responsible for maritime search and rescue. Land-based searches are conducted by police, local communities, and Parks Canada (in the national parks), although territorial and provincial governments can request CAF assistance. Moreover, whether at Yellowknife, Resolute, or some other Arctic location, such a base would place an immense burden on persistently strained local resources and infrastructure. Many local Arctic communities face, for example, a housing, drinking and grey water/sewer crises.

As for the Royal Canadian Navy’s presence in the Arctic, the Harper government commissioned a refueling station at Nanisivik (still not operational and not appropriate for winter use), designed to support the new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships with first-year ice capability. Canada’s Northwest Passage (claimed by the Government as historic, internal waters) has seen an increase in activity but not enough to require military support given unpredictable ice conditions, lack of navigational aids and the need for more bathymetric mapping of the seabed. The Northwest Passage is only navigable in the summer even to Canadian Patrol Frigates and future Combat Vessels, as well as allied ships.

By contrast, a permanent, year-round naval base at Nanisivik or Churchill, Manitoba, the only existing deep-water port in the Arctic, would also be problematic on several grounds and more likely to be needed for the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada, RCMP, Ice Services and CBSA.

Churchill would certainly shorten travel times for the RCN, currently embarking from Halifax, but even so the distance is significant. In addition, although Churchill possesses other useful assets – for example, a long runway (operated by Transport Canada), an old rocket testing facility and a new University of Manitoba Churchill Marine Observatory – providing support and supplies to the town with no road connection would be via air or the rail line that is vulnerable to melting permafrost. Such upgrades would require additional federal and provincial funding, and both rail and port upgrades are a Transport Canada responsibility.

Finally, like the Army, a permanent year-round naval base in the Arctic is not required. There is no major naval threat to the Canadian Arctic and no real naval role, especially during the winter. Certainly, the AOPS are valuable to reinforce Canada’s presence, undertake surveillance and assist other government departments, especially the Canadian Coast Guard. The real naval threat is the potential use of the Arctic Ocean by submarines capable of launching missiles against North America. In that regard, the Department of National Defence (DND), through Defence and Research Development Canada has been experimenting with underwater sensors to track submarine movements.

Certainly, DND’s Arctic investments as part of NORAD modernization will have a positive impact on the local communities, including the government’s mandatory requirement that federal departments and agencies “ensure a minimum 5% of the total value of contracts [be] held by Indigenous businesses”. The result, if properly coordinated with other government funding for infrastructure, could improve living standards in the Arctic, but this is not the focus of NORAD modernization nor within DND/CAF’s purview to promise. For example, the planned space-based communications component of modernization could assist the local communities with improved communication, assuming a low (civilian) and high (secret) side to the infrastructure can be created.


Increasing defence investment in the Arctic beyond what is planned for NORAD modernization is simply unrealistic. As for the NATO side of the equation, the alliance’s attention to the Arctic is not the North American part. For Canada’s European allies, the Arctic remains primarily limited to the approaches to the North Atlantic, especially the GIUK gap rather than the Canadian Arctic. As we argue in our book on NORAD, Denmark, as a function of its responsibility for the defence of Greenland, and Iceland are countries to watch for future partnering with the United States given their proximity to USNORTHCOM’s area of responsibility.

Increasing defence investment in the Arctic beyond what is planned for NORAD modernization is simply unrealistic. As for the NATO side of the equation, the alliance’s attention to the Arctic is not the North American part.

Depending upon the future of the alliance’s relationship with Russia, Canada may face pressure to expand its forward military presence in Eastern Europe. This is likely to be the best predictor for an increase in defence spending. The danger, however, is that calls for more Canadian assistance in Eastern Europe will not come with an increase in spending, but a re-allocation of investments away from continental and North American Arctic defence.

In the end, the NATO 2% of GDP commitment does not differentiate between investments directly relevant to NATO’s front line in Europe and other defence commitments or requirements. Canada can continue its tradition of legitimizing North American, national and Arctic defence commitments as part of its NATO commitment, but this will not get Canada to 2%, nor will it significantly change the operational reality of North American defence.

Written By:
Andrea Charron
Dr. Andrea Charron is the Director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.
James Fergusson
Dr. James Fergusson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.
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