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Military exercises in Arctic reveal gap in US capabilities

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
U.S. Coast Guard photo

The Canadian Forces have just commenced one of their annual sovereignty exercises in the Arctic, called Operation Nunalivut.

One-hundred fifty Canadian Forces personnel from the Navy, Air Force, Army, and Canadian Rangers are participating. This year, the exercises are taking place around Cornwallis Island and on the western portion of Devon Island in Nunavut.

Sovereignty and search and rescue (SAR) training compose a large portion of the operations this year. Royal Canadian Navy divers dove under six feet of ice in Gascoyne Bay to simulate a medical rescue.

Two Royal Canadian Air Force CC-138 Twin Otters also performed ski-landings to resupply a temporary camp in Viks Fiord.

Another exercise helped Canada look into the dangerous past of the Arctic: sailors cut a hole into the ice with heated saws to submerge a remotely operated vehicle to survey the world's northernmost shipwreck, the HMS Breadalbane, which sank down into the murky depths in 1853.

Testing communications

Participants are also testing new communications capabilities for Op Nunalivut. For the first time, rangers can communicate through a chat program that connects them both to headquarters in Resolute and Yellowknife, thousands of miles away in the Northwest Territories.

Before, phone and radio were the only options. Lt.-Col. Glen MacNeil observed to CBC, "If the person in a deployed forward headquarter is talking to, let's say Yellowknife, then we can see what they're saying in Resolute Bay. So we have an all-informed net. So if anything is going on or we need something to happen, we can immediately communicate over that mechanism.

It's great in terms of situational awareness." Canada's Arctic region is vast but unpopulated, with only a little over 100,000 people living across the whole region. That means it's much harder (not to mention uneconomical) to create widely distributed communications networks, unlike in a place like Norway, where the northern area is much smaller and more densely populated. As such, the chat network could represent a big leap forward for communications in the Canadian North.

USA: 2011 Fleet Arctic Operations Game

Meanwhile, the U.S. is "behind the power curve regarding the Arctic" according to Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Bob Papp. The U.S. Naval War College's War Gaming Department recently carried out an operations game in which it found that the Navy is woefully unprepared and ill-equipped for activities in the Arctic.

Without any heavy icebreakers, it must rely on other countries for that capability. Walter Berbrick, assistant research professor in the War Gaming Department, stated, "We have limited capability to sustain long-term operations in the Arctic due to inadequate icebreaking capability. The Navy finds itself entering a new realm as it relates to having to rely on other nations." Previously, the Navy mostly just had to rely on the Coast Guard, to whom it gave its last icebreaker, the Glacier, to the Coast Guard in 1966. That year, it decided to hand over all icebreaking operations. Coast Guard

Captain Craig Lloyd, chief of response for the 17th Coast Guard District in Alaska, remarked, "It's very likely that whatever operation goes on up there would be a joint operation." This parallels many other activities in the Arctic, whether they be oil and gas exploration or mapping of the sea floor. Countries, corporations, and scientists all have to band together to get work done. The scale and expense of Arctic activities make cooperation almost a necessity.

U.S. falling behind?

The U.S. falls behind other countries, including Canada, in terms of its communications infrastructure in the north. Dana Goward, director of marine transportation systems management for the Coast Guard, stated, "If you're in Barrow [Alaska] and two people pull out iPhones at the same time, service goes down."

At the International Polar Year Conference in Montreal last week, I listened to a speech given by Steve Maclean, president of the Canadian Space Agency. He said, "Without a doubt, two of the most pressing challenges in Canada's North are communications and weather." The CSA, along with other space agencies like NASA, is trying to tackle those challenge by putting up more satellites in space that are focused on the circumpolar region. Maclean later continued that the Arctic needs more infrastructure, and "like any road or bridge, these satellites are an integral part of that infrastructure." (The full text of his speech is available here).

While it's hard to imagine the NASA Administrator giving a speech about the connection between outer space and the Arctic, many of Canada's agencies and departments have a view towards the region. In fact, the U.S. is the only Arctic country lacking an Arctic strategy, and it shows in the military's lack of preparedness. Though Canada's capabilities in the Arctic have many holes of their own, and though Stephen Harper has left many promises unfulfilled up north, the country is still miles ahead of the U.S.

Lieutenant-General Walter Semianiw, Commander of Canada Command, said, "Sovereignty operations like Op Nunalivut 2012 allow the Canadian Forces to regularly demonstrate a visible presence in the region. As part of the Canada First Defence Strategy, we maintain the capacity to exercise control over and defend Canada's Arctic territory, and to provide assistance to other government departments and agencies when called upon." Canada might soon have to provide assistance to the U.S., too.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.