In the Library

Recent Developments in Arctic Maritime Constabulary Forces: Canadian and Norwegian Perspectives

Jan Mayen Class © Vard/LMG Marin/Nordwest3D/K.R. Venås
Jan Mayen Class © Vard/LMG Marin/Nordwest3D/K.R. Venås

By Timothy Choi

Within ongoing discussions on the state of Arctic geopolitics and prospects for continued interstate cooperation, a prominent variable has been the changes in Arctic states’ respective military power. Foremost amongst this has been the observation that all five Arctic coastal states have been procuring maritime forces dedicated to operations in Arctic waters, with the assumption that these are meant for balancing against other state-based naval threats. This post provides an overview of two major Arctic naval procurement projects – Canada’s Harry DeWolf class and Norway’s Jan Mayen class – and briefly contextualizes their capabilities and functions within their countries’ recent historical maritime force structures and practices. It aims to provide a perspective on the extent to which these new projects represent new practices that might be considered a new “militarization” of the Arctic. 

The Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN’s) ongoing acquisition of the Harry DeWolf class “Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessels” (AOPVs) notes a marked shift in that institution’s role in Arctic, ice-covered waters. With six on order for the RCN and two more for the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), the DeWolf class will return the RCN to ice-covered waters. In the 1950s, the RCN operated for four years the 6,500t icebreaker HMCS Labrador, which was used to assist in the construction of the Distant Early Warning radar stations in the country’s far north. Once that was completed, however, Labrador was transferred to the civilian Department of Transportation, the maritime arm of which would eventually coalesce with other governmental civilian maritime elements into the CCG – a process that would not be completed until 1995. In the meanwhile, and even today, the RCN’s ability to operate along Canada’s third, northern, coast has been limited to sporadic exercises during relatively warm summer months when the risk of collision with sea ice is at a minimum: Canada’s naval forces have lacked the hull strength to operate in ice heavier than the slush-like material that occasionally appears in its southern waters. The introduction of the DeWolf class, with their Polar Class 5 hull’s ability to operate in waters covered in one metre of first-year pack ice, allows the RCN to return to the country’s Arctic waters throughout the majority of the shipping season, ensuring a constant presence where those waters are most heavily trafficked by non-local users.

Harry DeWolf class in RCN service (artist rendering) © Irving Shipbuilding

Despite their 6,800t size, exceeding that of Canada’s warfighting Halifax class frigates, the DeWolf class are not meant for high-end warfare. Armed with only a remotely-operated 25mm cannon on the main deck and a pair of .50 calibre machine guns alongside the bridge, the ships lack the armament to conduct state-on-state naval battles, even though they may suffice to deter escalatory actions at close ranges. Rather, these AOPVs are will be used for a range of peacetime missions, such as sovereignty patrol, fisheries inspection, humanitarian assistance, search and rescue, and scientific research, all the while building a clearer maritime situation picture in Canada’s northern and offshore areas. Fundamental to this is its ability to embark and operate Canada’s fleet of Coast Guard and Navy helicopters, which greatly expand the ship’s awareness of its surrounding maritime domain and, if necessary, carry out specific tasks such as search and rescue or fisheries enforcement. 

This peacetime focus suggests that the introduction of the DeWolf class for the RCN will become the basis for a more “robust” Canadian approach to maritime security issues, which have heretofore been primarily the purview of the Canadian Coast Guard and its predecessors. These latter agencies have tended to avoid the use or threat of force as a part of their day-to-day maritime activities; in this context, the adoption of those same activities by the country’s military arm in the form of the RCN’s DeWolf class suggests a recognition that the coming decades may see the need for greater at-sea force-based measures against non-state violators. With Canada’s newly ratified accession to the Central Arctic Fishing Moratorium, for example, the entry into service of theDeWolf class and theirability to enforce such a moratorium by surveillance, inspection, and removal measures will become ever more relevant as global interest in Arctic access increases. 

On the other side of the North Atlantic, the Norwegian Coast Guard’s three Jan Mayen class offshore patrol ships are scheduled to be delivered starting in 2022. A result of a five-year long design process starting in 2013, these 9,800t vessels are three times larger than the early 1980s-era Nordkapp class vessels they will replace. In terms of capability, both the Jan Mayen and their predecessors share ice-strengthened hulls enabling operations in the waters around Svalbard. However, the Jan Mayen class’s dramatically increased size enables them to house two of the new NH-90 helicopters in its hangar, doubling their predecessor’s capacity. This highlights an increased recognition of the importance of organic helicopter capabilities in the Arctic offshore role, where assistance can be difficult to come by. By increasing the aviation capability on hand, a Jan Mayen vessel can potentially assist multiple emergency and/or enforcement missions at the same time, or concentrate its helicopters, small boats, and the ship itself on a single major casualty event. Furthermore, having two helicopters on board will reduce the chances of a helicopter being unavailable due to maintenance. Given the increased traffic that the Svalbard area will see in terms of both destinational cruise ships, fishing vessels, and transit traffic through the Russian Northern Sea Route, the Jan Mayen’s doubled fast-response capacity will play a crucial role in the decades to come. However, unlike the Nordkapp class, the Jan Mayen do not appear to be fitted with provisions for a wartime armament configuration, reflecting a mission set that is focused on peacetime maritime security. A single 57mm gun on the bow will be the ship’s main armament, though the ship’s design includes magazine space for torpedoes that the helicopters might need to carry. Otherwise, these new ships do not appear to be designed for playing a warfare role which might see it equipped with anti-ship missiles or torpedoes of their own as was the case with their Cold War-era predecessors. 

Unlike the Canadian case, Norway’s new patrol ship project is a not a marked departure from recent historical practice. This is partly due to the Norwegian Coast Guard being a part of its Navy since its formal institutionalization in the late 1970s alongside the country’s declaration of a 200 Nautical Mile fisheries protection zone around Svalbard. This created a maritime agency responsible for peacetime missions but equipped and authorized to use force in pursuit of those and wartime missions. In contrast, Canada’s dependence on its navy for armed seagoing platforms has meant that most acts of maritime contestation, even in peacetime, have had, and will have, to be conducted by the RCN. It is in this institutional context that we see the Harry DeWolf class representing a marked shift in the RCN’s role towards greater peacetime responsibilities, one that has traditionally been held by the primarily unarmed Canadian Coast Guard and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. A perceived need to deter or compel non-state actors through the use or threat of force into obeying Canadian maritime laws and regulations in the coming decades would appear to lie behind the decision to equip the RCN with the Harry DeWolf class and a greater peacetime focus. Meanwhile, Norway’s procurement of similar, but larger, ships reflects an intensification of existing practices reflecting lessons learned from the ships’ predecessors and the expected increased demand for their services in the coming decades.In sum, while the Canadian approach might be interpreted to be a new militarization of its Arctic waters and the Norwegians as continuing existing militarized approaches to its Arctic maritime security, both developments are aimed at constabulary and “soft” security threats rather than interstate conflict. 

Timothy Choi is a PhD Candidate at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies. Engaging archival sources and field research, his dissertation looks at how smaller navies – specifically Denmark, Norway, and Canada – balance wartime requirements with day-to-day peacetime interests within the context of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. His most recent publication, “Sea Control by Other Means: Norwegian Coast Guard Operations under International Maritime Law”, will be published in Oceans Development and International Lawlater this year.