Vanguards of the Thawing Arctic
After two decades of war in the desert, Canadian troops must relearn how to operate in the frozen north.
RESOLUTE BAY, Canada—Master Cpl. Noah Alookie puffs his cigarette and looks impassively over the small fleet of snowmobiles as soldiers huddle in small groups, going over final checks of their snow-dusted gear.
Alookie is guiding a platoon of the 1 Royal Canadian Regiment for what seems a simple training exercise. Their mission is to travel a dozen miles on snowmobiles and practice securing a landing zone for inbound planes.
It’s a short trip, but daunting. The soldiers are in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, a frigid outpost of civilization deep inside the Arctic Circle and home to a small Canadian military base. Much farther north than Iceland or Siberia, Resolute Bay suffers deadly extremes. Winds can hit 60 miles an hour, and temperatures can plunge to 60 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Uncovered skin can turn frostbitten in minutes, while whiteout conditions can disorient even the most experienced soldiers. The harsh climate makes the simplest of activities, let alone military drills, slower and significantly more complex. (I know: The ink in my pen froze when I was trying to take notes.)
Nevertheless, the soldiers have to brave the cold: A thawing Arctic has fueled a boom in human activity in the once inaccessible region, while the West’s top geopolitical foes are pressing for more claims of the frozen north. This adds up to new demands for military drills and search and rescue operations.
“We’re learning a lot about the stages of planning this sort of operation. It’s a big moving machine with little tiny pieces, and if one little piece isn’t working right, the whole plan isn’t going to work,” says one of the soldiers, peeking out from under his hood and two thick wool hats. Both his beard and his neck warmer are caked in ice.
This day in late March, fortunately, is relatively mild. A thick morning layer of clouds gives way to sun, and the temperature settles at between minus 20 and minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit with light but stinging wind gusts. It is a welcome reprieve after temperatures in weeks past plunged to minus 60.
The soldiers, clad in thick green camouflage parkas, stomp their feet and tighten the tethers on their gear and guns. Hitched to the snowmobiles by half-frozen ropes are clunky wooden sleds, called qamutiiks, carrying provisions and equipment to survive the traverse across the sea ice and snow.
Next to the soldiers is a bent and rusted airplane propeller that juts out of the frozen ground, marking the launch point for the day’s exercise. A hill gently slopes upward in the distance to the right of the snowmobile fleet. Beyond that, there are no discernible landmarks on the vast white plane of snow and ice they will drive into. It would be all too easy to get lost once out of sight of Resolute. Especially without the rangers.
Alookie is a master corporal in the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, an 1,800-strong force of mostly Inuit Army reservists tasked with patrolling Canada’s frozen and nearly empty northern territories. Alookie’s job this week, alongside other rangers, is to help guide the Canadian soldiers and teach them how to beat (or at least survive) the Arctic conditions.
Nearby, a group of more than a dozen soldiers are huddled around a hole dug out in the hardened snow. Jeetalo Kakee, a ranger, kneels in the middle with a saw and large knife, cutting and stacking blocks of snowpack around him as the soldiers watch and learn. No one can survive the high Arctic without shelter, and if you don’t have it, you have to build it. In a pinch, experienced rangers can make a small igloo in under two hours on their own. It can take a group of eight to 10 soldiers six hours or more on their first try.
For nearly two decades, Canada’s Army has been fighting alongside the United States in the deserts and mountains of the Middle East and Afghanistan. Many of its soldiers have little idea how to operate in the punishing, far-reaching corners of their own home.
“Because we’ve been busy elsewhere, we’ve kind of let some of the skills atrophy,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick Carpentier, the commander of Canada’s Joint Task Force (North), which oversees northern Canada. “We’re trying to get those skills back.”
If Canada is racing to regain those Arctic skills, that’s because geopolitics is barging into a region still largely iced off from the rest of the world. The soldiers and rangers prepping their snowmobiles are the vanguard of Canada’s push to address new challenges in the Arctic, buoyed by increased interest from Washington and NATO.
The melting Arctic is opening up the once isolated region to more shipping, tourism, mining, and oil exploration. Climate change is warming the Arctic, which helps regulate the rest of the earth’s climate, at a faster rate than the rest of the world. Where scientists warn of crisis from the cascading effects of a thawing Arctic, others see opportunity. The ice there has locked up vast caches of natural resources, including an estimated 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of undiscovered natural gas.
It’s also becoming a battleground once again in the standoff between Russia and the West.
Russia is dramatically expanding its military footprint in the Arctic as tensions roil further south, though still not at levels seen during the Cold War. Moscow has modernized and expanded its Soviet-era Arctic bases, including on the Kola Peninsula near Scandinavia, where its massive Northern Fleet is based. The expansions include facilities to house nuclear missiles and long-range cruise missiles pointed at North America and Europe.
Moscow also has high hopes of turning the opening Arctic into a Russian-dominated waterway as ice melts, opening new avenues for maritime trade. At an International Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg in April, Russian President Vladimir Putin outlined plans to expand commercial shipping across the Arctic Ocean. Without summer ice, traversing the Arctic could drastically shorten maritime shipping routes between Europe and Asia, and it could grow to rival other strategic trade corridors including the Suez Canal and Strait of Malacca. “We need to make the northern sea route safe and commercially feasible,” Putin said.
The Canadian Parliament issued a report last month analyzing threats to Arctic security, and questioning Moscow’s designs. “Russia’s behaviour since 2014 — whether in Ukraine, Syria, the North Atlantic, Salisbury or cyberspace — has put the country on an adversarial footing with the West,” the report said. “What is less clear is whether Russia views the Arctic in the same way that it does Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and whether such regional distinctions even matter from the perspective of collective defence and deterrence.”
China, meanwhile, has planted its own diplomatic flag in the Arctic, declaring itself a “near-Arctic state” and outlining ambitions to create a “Polar Silk Road” with other countries to boost trade and commerce through the region. China has shoveled money into infrastructure projects and building sprees wherever it can find willing partners, including in Iceland and Greenland. Beijing maintains that they are purely commercial projects, but Washington and other Western capitals see the moves as a geopolitical ruse to get its foot in the door on Arctic claims.
Greenland, the self-governed territory in Denmark’s kingdom, has emerged as a microcosm of the intensifying commercial tussles and a potential crown jewel in Beijing’s Polar Silk Road. Last year, China developed plans to finance and build three airports in Greenland, whose cash-strapped government welcomed the prospect of foreign investment. The plans sparked fears in Washington, particularly at the Pentagon, that Beijing could take control of the airports and create a beachhead in the Arctic if Greenland lapsed on loan payments. A last-minute dash by the U.S. and Danish governments to squeeze China out of the projects averted those plans. But it’s unclear if Washington can fend off Beijing’s Arctic ambitions at every turn.
Even NATO, which in the past has avoided discussions about the Arctic due to political sensitivities, is getting into the game. Last year, NATO conducted a massive military exercise with tens of thousands of troops in Norway aimed at strengthening its ability to operate in Northern Europe. It included the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman sailing into the Arctic Circle to train—the first such move in decades.
“Russia is increasing its military presence in the Arctic … investing in reopening Soviet-era military bases,” said Dylan White, NATO’s acting deputy spokesperson. “NATO is monitoring Russia’s Arctic buildup carefully.”
As Russia, China, and some NATO countries charge ahead, the United States is struggling to catch up. The U.S. Coast Guard has only two aging icebreakers in its fleet capable of punching through thick Arctic ice, one of which is normally deployed to Antarctica, compared to Russia’s 40. Moscow plans to expand its fleet of heavy icebreakers to 13 by 2035, including nine nuclear-powered icebreakers, compared to the four it has now.
While U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration appointed high-level envoys to oversee a new Arctic policy and released a national strategy on the Arctic in 2013, it devoted few resources to back up its ambitions. Now, under President Donald Trump, the U.S. government has done little more, some analysts say.
That could change as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travels to Europe later this month, where he is set to give a speech outlining U.S. Arctic policy and attend an Arctic Council meeting in Finland. His trip includes a stop in Greenland, with an eye on Chinese interests there.
The Trump administration is “reinvigorating” its ties with Greenland and Denmark “after a period of neglect,” a senior State Department official told reporters ahead of Pompeo’s trip. “We’ve committed to peace and sustainable economic developments for the long term. And we’re concerned about activities of other nations, including China, that do not share these same commitments.”
A Pentagon report on China released in May also outlines growing concerns over the prospect of China’s submarine fleet operating in the Arctic more frequently.
The U.S. Coast Guard, in a new strategy on the Arctic, has called for boosting the U.S. presence in the region to counterbalance Russia and China. “Over the past 15 years, the Nation’s strategic competitors have invested heavily in Arctic-capable assets, infrastructure, and relationships, some of which are targeted at eroding the influence of America and the rule of law,” the document reads. “U.S. investments over that same period of time have been comparatively modest.”
After two years of back-and-forth congressional funding battles, the government finally signed a contract in April to add up to three three new heavy icebreakers to the Coast Guard’s fleet.
There has to be more to a U.S. Arctic strategy than tallying up icebreakers and policy speeches, argued Heather Conley, a scholar on trans-Atlantic relations and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. In Washington, “there’s a greater appetite for discussing [the Arctic]. But there’s no greater appetite to put the financial resources to bear, to reposition the United States in any meaningful way,” she said.
Canada doesn’t have the luxury of waiting to invest. In response to the growing concern over Russia and China, plus the new demands for search and rescue and other patrols, Ottawa is currently spending billions of dollars to beef up its military capabilities in the Arctic. The Navy is adding more Arctic patrol vessels, its Coast Guard received the first of three new icebreakers last December, the Air Force has purchased more aircraft for search and rescue operations, and the Army is boosting military training exercises like the one in Resolute Bay.
“I served in Afghanistan in a desert. But, ultimately, our job is not to just look at where the current problems are,” said Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s defense minister, in a phone interview. “We always have to be prepared to deter and defend our nation’s sovereignty.”
That’s where men like Alookie, the Canadian ranger, come in. At the outset of the training exercise, he gestures at the soldiers stomping around the snowmobiles in the minus 30-degree chill. “We teach them how to survive,” Alookie says.
Alookie’s Ranger Patrol Group is responsible for patrolling Canada’s three northern territories of Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, as well as a small sliver of British Columbia. It’s an area nearly equal in size to the continental United States, but with a population of only about 115,000.
Donning signature red hoodies under thick down jackets, the rangers are armed with a deep-seated knowledge of the region and the same Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles members of the patrol have carried since 1948—aging guns that are sturdy and reliable in the frigid Nunavut expanse.
While training other Canadian soldiers how to fight in the frozen north, the rangers also help check on the remote chain of radar stations used by Canada and the United States to track inbound missile threats from Russia. The North Warning System line, the successor to infrastructure built during the distant days of the Cold War, has taken on fresh importance as Russia and the United States abandon decades-old arms control treaties and race to upgrade their nuclear arsenals.
Even with geopolitical change afoot, Russia and China are far from the minds of the soldiers in Resolute. Their top priority, and the main topic of almost every conversation, is how to stave off the cold. Then, there’s the herculean task of managing supplies and logistics in one of the world’s most remote places.
In some ways—temperatures aside—Canadian troops are finding parallels between operating in the Arctic and campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s actually very similar. There are very few resources on the ground,” said Carpentier, the Joint Task Force (North) commander. “The main difference would be from the Canadian Arctic perspective, that the size of the territory, it’s not even comparable to Afghanistan … the distances we need to do operations are just enormous.”
Because it is so difficult to access Resolute, Canadian officers based there have to meticulously plan out everything they need—from fuel and food to spare parts—well in advance. Constant wear and tear in the extreme conditions requires four times as many spare parts for snowmobiles and other vehicles.
“There is no local store here,” said Maj. Gary Johnson. “I am planning a minimum of 18 months out from today what’s going to be happening.” Most supplies that do come in arrive on a once-yearly sealift, when a container ship slips through a window of ice-free weather in the fall to drop off a year’s worth of food, fuel, and other supplies in a frenzied 36-hour offload.
Even that’s not guaranteed, as the ocean around the islands in northern Canada can become clogged up with chunks of ice (troops up here call them “bergy bits”) that could render the sea lanes impassable even in the late summer thaw. “Out here,” one soldier says, “the weather always gets the final vote.”
For most of the soldiers, Resolute is the farthest north they’ve been. For days, they will practice setting up and taking down tents in strong, biting winds, hacking into the ice as they learn to build clunky igloos, and figuring out how to start up stoves in subzero temperatures without succumbing to frostbite.
Inside the base’s high-vaulted garage, where food and gear are stacked on metal shelves, several soldiers pour water from a hose into narrow cardboard tubes to freeze and pack out as portable sticks of drinking water. Those on patrol can melt and rehydrate them once they can set up camp and light their portable stoves.
Outside, one ranger says when his rifle jams in the cold, he can pour a splash of gasoline or antifreeze on the bolt action to get it moving again. The rangers need to be ready in case they spot polar bears.
Hidden under layers of ice-covered beards and frosted balaclavas, some of the nearby soldiers try to put on a brave face.
When asked how he stays warm, one simply shrugs and gestures to his balaclava. “If the kit’s working right, it’s alright. If it’s not functioning, it’s pretty cold.” Before he swings his legs over the snowmobile to set out on the day’s expedition, he adds one last thought: “I have a new appreciation for a thermos.”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer