More News From the North–An Armed Canadian Coast Guard?

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Ryan Erickson’s blog pointed out an article in the Vancouver Sun reporting that the Canadians are considering arming their icebreakers as a way to “bolster Arctic sovereignty.”

This was in response to “recommendations in a report from the Senate fisheries committee about strengthening Canada’s presence in the North.”

“The government also has indicated that it will review new shipping regulations in the Northwest Passage and other Arctic waters with an eye to extending mandatory registration of foreign vessels, which currently applies only to large freighters and other heavy ships, to all foreign-ship traffic in the region, regardless of size.”

Ryan links the report to the 1985 transit of the North West Passage by the Polar Sea, in which the USCG icebreaker transited what the Canadians consider their internal waters and what the US considers an international strait, after the US gave notification of our intention, rather than asking permission.

Since then, basically the US and the Canadians have agreed to disagree. Currently the US and Canada have an agreement that allows access to US military ships. They have given us blanket permission and we have said we will give notification.

For the US Navy this is a matter of avoiding a precedence that could close off access elsewhere.

For the Coast Guard, our interests are a little different, perhaps closer to that of the Canadians. We want Maritime Domain Awareness. We want ships to give notice of their intentions, and ultimately that has to mean we need some options to deny access, but the international norms are still being set.

The talk of arming Canadian icebreakers leads to the question, will the Canadian Coast Guard be transformed by it’s new mission to more closely parallel the military organization of the USCG. There has already been a question about whether the Canadian Navy or their Coast Guard would man the proposed Arctic Patrol Ship since they would be armed, unlike current Canadian cutters.

Passages North

56 years ago, on 4 September 1954, the icebreakers USCGC Northwind and USS Burton Island completed the first transit of the Northwest passage through McClure Strait.

There has been a lot more activity in the North lately (more here and here), with the promise that if the melting continues, passages from Northern Europe to Asia may be cut by up to half (link includes a nice comparisons of the routes). The Russians expect to make some money on fees for passage and the use of their icebreakers.

There is even talk that it may substantially hurt business at the Suez Canal and allow ships to avoid pirates off Somalia. Looks like that is still a few years off since the season is very limited and only ice strengthened vessels can use the route now.

Still other people are planning ahead. China is building their second polar icebreaker and positioning itself to exploit the Arctic. Maybe a little healthy competition is the wake up call we need.