Royal Navy could expand into the Canadian Arctic to support allies

·3-min read
Royal Navy submarine HMS Trenchant breaks through ice in the North Pole - PO Arron Hoare/Royal Navy FRPU
Royal Navy submarine HMS Trenchant breaks through ice in the North Pole - PO Arron Hoare/Royal Navy FRPU

The Royal Navy could expand into the Canadian Arctic in a bid to contain strategic rivals Russia and China.

General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said the UK was “keen to cooperate” with Canada in learning how to fight in the cold, in monitoring melting ice, and in “helping Canada do what Canada needs to do as an Arctic country”.

His comments come in the wake of the Aukus pact under which the US and UK will provide nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia.

Heightened British involvement in the Arctic would be seen as a way to beef up Nato’s countering of Russia, and China, in the region. It would further the UK’s aims of post-Brexit realignment under a new Global Britain foreign policy.

The Arctic is seen as an increasing strategic priority as climate change opens up shipping routes and valuable natural resources.

In March, the Kremlin released a video of three of its submarines breaking through five feet of ice to surface within 1,000ft of each other, and it has been modernising Cold War-era bases.

There is as yet no firm commitment, but there is some concern in Canada about its omission from the Aukus pact as it watches three of its closest allies deepening their ties.

Speaking to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Sir Nick said: “I think we have military capabilities, certainly in the maritime domain and in terms of our science that would be useful to Canada, and I think operating alongside Canada in that regard is clearly going to be good for both countries.”

He was speaking before the Aukus deal was made public.

Canada currently has only diesel-electric submarines, bought from the UK in the 1990s, which cannot operate for long periods under the Arctic ice.

A report this week by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute said Canada’s ability to control its vast maritime domain will be tested in the coming years and “serious questions remain” over whether it will have replacement submarines ready when needed, between 2036 and 2042.

Britain has a training base in Suffield, southern Alberta, but it is over 1,000 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

‘Canada is one of the UK’s oldest and closest allies’

In the past, Canada has been hesitant to accept too much help in the Arctic due to disputes about its own sovereignty in the region, according to allies.

Earlier this year, Norway cancelled a series of cold weather exercises involving thousands of international troops, including from the US and UK, due to the pandemic.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan may also contribute to a refocusing on winter warfare for British forces.

Military analysts believe the Arctic is a region where a small British contribution could have an outsized impact.

The Arctic is believed to hold up to one quarter of the Earth’s undiscovered oil and gas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has put the potential value of Arctic minerals at $30 trillion and is seeking to assert influence over wide areas of the region.

Russia’s Nagurskoye air base in the Arctic, which during the Cold War was little more than a communications outpost, has had its runway extended to accept all types of aircraft including nuclear-capable strategic bombers.

Rob Huebert, an expert in Arctic security at the University of Calgary, told CBC: “We do not have the capability of engaging Russian submarines or Chinese submarines [in the Arctic] if and when that ever becomes a reality. That’s the number one capability that the British [would] bring to the Arctic.”

A UK Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “Canada is one of the UK’s oldest and closest allies. We work together to address security challenges around the world, including through Nato and the Five Eyes partnership.

“The UK will continue to work with all our allies, including Canada, on countering shared threats to our security.”

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