ABOARD THE HMCS FREDERICTON, Arctic Ocean (AFP) — The largest ever military exercise in the Arctic is underway this week to firm Canada's disputed claim to this lonely region.
"It's a sovereignty operation" to counter grabs by Russia, Denmark, Norway and the United States, Brigadier General Chris Whitecross, commander of Joint Task Force North, told AFP.
Each nation is claiming flaps of Arctic seabed, believed to hold 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves. All of them, including its allies, deny Ottawa's hold on the famed Northwest Passage.
Of late, the international rivalry has heated up, with Russia planting a flag at the North Pole and Denmark reportedly on its way, as melting polar ice caps make the region more accessible to economic activity and shipping.
As part of Canada's Operation Nanook, Aurora surveillance aircraft track the wayward ship "Rusty Bucket" and its connecting flight smuggling narcotics from Mexico into Quebec, via an abandoned runway on Resolution Island in the Arctic.
In the Hudson Straight, the Navy submarine Cornerbrook shadows the vessel, waiting for the patrol frigate HMCS Fredericton and Coast Guard vessel Martha L. Black to intercept it, while CF-18 Hornet fighter jets force the aircraft to land in nearby Iqaluit.
There, Inuit rangers and Royal Canadian Mounted Police pounce, while Navy seamen armed with automatic weapons zip across icy waters in inflatable Zodiacs and board the target ship, search it for contraband and arrest its Turkish captain.
"We're here to show the world we'll be watching if they trespass on Canada's Arctic," says Al Fry, HMCS Fredericton's executive officer.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed to "vigorously protect" Canada's interests in the North, "as international interest in the region increases."
Last week, he announced Canada's first deep sea port and military base in the Arctic Circle, as well as six to eight new ice-breaking patrol ships to prevent encroachment on its northern frontier.
Arctic trespass is actually rare, even more so undetected.
"There are vast uninhabited regions of the Arctic," said Brigadier General Whitecross. "But our (1,500 Inuit) rangers do notice passing ships or strange tracks in the snow."
Radar, and soon unmanned surveillance flights, would cover gaps, she added.
In 2006, a US submarine passed unannounced through Arctic waters claimed by Canada, causing a diplomatic row.
The same year, a Romanian man landed in Grise Fiord, Canada's northernmost town, after a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) trip from Greenland in a tiny motorboat, its propeller bent and windshield smashed by waves.
Two Turkish sailors also jumped ship in Churchill, Manitoba, claiming refugee status after being nabbed by a rail ticket clerk.
Meanwhile, US oil firms are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on exploration in the Beaufort Sea, and South Korea is dramatically expanding its ice-breaker-building capacity.
"There's going to be a lot more people doing a lot more things in the Arctic," said Robert Huebert, an Arctic geopolitics expert at Calgary University. "The world is coming to the Arctic."
"If push comes to shove, it all comes down to control," he said. "We need to be ready to claim what we want to control and show that we can control what we claim."
"Nations could agree to cooperate in the Arctic, but increasingly, each is acting on their own. So Canada should prepare for unsettled weather ahead."
Operation Nanook, the military's first major push north, was plagued by equipment failures and storms causing delays.
Communications systems did not work as well in the Arctic Circle, fog cut visibility and travel, and frostbite and hypothermia were constant threats. "You have to do things in a very deliberate manner," explained Whitecross.
At the southern tip of Baffin Island, commanders fretted about icebergs, 10-metre (30-foot) waves and predators such as polar bears.
"It's much different operating in these parts because we're dealing with severe weather," said Whitecross. "The environment is far more fragile, far more hostile."
"With temperatures of minus 50 (degrees Celsius) to minus 75 (degrees Celsius) in winter, you can't just issue a parka and a really good pair of boots, mitts and a hat, and say (to troops), 'Go north.'"
Huebert suggested Canada would not be fully Arctic capable until 2025-2030.
Of note, HMCS Fredericton is usually tasked with securing Canada's Atlantic Coast. Its 225 crew sailed here from the Caribbean, where it was training alongside the US Navy last week.
"The 50-degree change in temperature was a bit of a shock," said one sailor, tanned, looking out at the starkly quiet, cold shores of Baffin Island.
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