Peace Time: April 5, 2004

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Canada may be having trouble funding overseas deployments, but that is not preventing the military from conducting a three-week exercise in the Arctic this summer. The exercise, code-named Narwhal, involves at least 200 troops, the Halifax-class frigate HMCS Montreal, and a squadron of CH-146 Griffon helicopters around Baffin Island. This is the largest exercise Canada has ever run in the Arctic.

Despite official claims to the contrary, the reason Canada is scraping together the funds to conduct Narwhal is a territorial dispute with Denmark. The island in question is Hans Island, an uninhabited three-kilometer long piece of rock in the middle of the Kennedy Channel, the northern portion of the Nares Strait, a body of water separating Greenland and Ellesmere Island. To be precise, around the 80th parallel.

Prior to this year, the dispute over the island had not been contested. However, Denmarks position is that if Canada is going to claim the island, Canada had better be able to get to the island. If Canada cant get to the island, it really isnt Canadian. In the summer of 2002, a Danish warship (reportedly the Vaedderen, a Thetis-class patrol frigate designed for Arctic operations) sailed in the area, and a group of soldiers are alleged to have disembarked and hoisted the Danish flag on the disputed island, prompting a diplomatic protest that turned this dormant dispute active.

Canadas military has been unable to seriously contest the issue in the past, since its major naval combatants are not ice-strengthened, only its Coast Guard has icebreakers, and they are rarely at sea due to financial constraints. However, despite the restrictions, Canadas military is slated to increase operations in the Arctic, beginning this spring, with enhanced sovereignty patrols from Resolute to Alert by Canadian Rangers (a group more akin to the National Guard and largely consisting of Inuit). This summer, the tempo will increase with Narwhal, a war game, will kick off a five-year plan to expand Canadas presence in the Arctic. The includes additional sovereignty patrols (the first of which departs on April 1), tests to see how well unmanned aerial vehicles handle Arctic conditions, and Project Polar Epsilon, a satellite surveillance system that will cover northern Canada. Canada is even considering the construction of radar stations to detect and track unauthorized use of the Northwest Passage.

The Canadian response is intended to prevent a situation similar to that which led to the Falklands War. The British left the impression that the Falklands did not matter that much through defense cuts and their public posture. This led to the Argentinean invasion in 1982, and the weeks-long war. The British now maintain a very strong presence in the Falklands as a result. This exercise is intended to show that the financial problems the Canadian military has suffered recently will not prevent Canada from defending its territory. This dispute will not likely result in war, but it will be interesting to see how Denmark responds. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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