by Mark Cardwell

John Newton and Joe Spears go way back, and they have a lot in common. Both are descendants of families with multiple generations of sea-faring men. They grew up in the same Halifax neighbourhood, attended the same high school, and became friends while studying geology at Dalhousie University in the late 1970s. Both also went on to unexpected but successful careers in the maritime world: Newton as a Rear Admiral in the Royal Canadian Navy, and the current commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic and Joint Task Force Atlantic; Spears as a maritime law specialist, ocean consultant and media pundit on everything from marine protected areas to military matters. They also share a lifelong passion for Canada’s Arctic.

The two are worlds apart, however, in their assessments of Canada’s marine search and rescue capabilities in that vast, fast-thawing region. “I think we have good response for the current risks in the Arctic,” said Rear Adm. Newton, who as commander of MARLANT and JTFA is responsible for Canada’s Navy on the East Coast and for conducting routine and contingency domestic operations to meet Canada’s defence, security and SAR needs and objectives in both the Atlantic and eastern Arctic, an area he says includes “everything north of Goose Bay and Labrador,” as well as west towards Greenland.

“Canada is not meeting its international obligations to provide timely SAR in the Arctic,” countered Spears, a fifth-generation mariner, Canadian military affairs junkie, and a regular participant at defence forums where he and Newton have debated Arctic SAR – a subject they continue to dispute on Twitter.  “We’ve got the best SAR people in the world.  But they need the best equipment and the best thinking to do their job (and) as a country we are not providing that.”

To be sure, Canada’s SAR responsibilities in the Arctic are as big and daunting as the region itself. A signatory to international agreements that give it responsibility for SAR from the United States border to the North Pole, as well as 1,700 kilometres east of Newfoundland, 1,111 kilometres west of Vancouver Island, and on the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes – an area that accounts for 9.3 million square kilometres of ocean space, and 244,000 kilometres of coastline – Canada’s Arctic obligations extend over millions of square kilometres of land, ice and ocean in one of the harshest environments on Earth. For centuries, weather conditions and permanent pack ice discouraged and/or prevented all but the most adventurous and foolhardy explorers from venturing into the Canadian Arctic’s mostly uncharted waters. But global warming and the record pace at which the Arctic ice cap is receding have changed all that.

Cruise ships, for example, now travel the coast of Greenland in the Sea of Labrador, where Canada is responsible for providing emergency response services. Commercial ships, too, are now beginning to ply Canada’s Arctic waters with greater frequency. A recent example was the landmark voyage by the Nordic Orion, a 1A ice-class ship that left the port of Vancouver on Sept. 6, 2013 with a load of metallurgical coal bound for a steel mill in Finland. The ship would have normally transited via the Panama Canal.  But this time it sailed north through the Bering and Beaufort Seas, the Parry Channel, and entered Baffin Bay on September 22, becoming the first commercial ship to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage.

However, only a handful of vessels – mostly Canadian merchant ships ferrying supplies and equipment in and out of the region – visit the Arctic during the short sailing season.

But commercial ventures like the Mary’s River iron ore project on Baffin Island, together with Canada’s desire to enforce its sovereignty and defend its claim that the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway – an assertion that is challenged by several nations, including the United States and Denmark – are expected to generate increases in both maritime traffic and the risk of emergency situations in the coming years.

Despite several announcements by our current government since 2007 – including plans to build surveillance ships, polar ice breakers, and a deepwater port on Baffin Island – little has been done to develop SAR capacity in the Canadian Arctic. As a result, SAR services in the region continue to be provided mostly by southern-based federal assets.

In Canada, SAR is a shared responsibility among federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments, as well as volunteer groups like the Canadian Rangers. There is a distinct organizational difference, however, between the responsibility for ground SAR and aeronautical and maritime SAR. The latter falls primarily to the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), which sends half a dozen ships into Arctic waters during the summer months.

Canada is divided into three search and rescue regions (SRRs) – Ontario, and the East and West Coasts – each with joint rescue coordination centres (JRCCs). When SAR situations occur, CCG works in cooperation with the Canadian Armed Forces through the appropriate JRCC. According to the military, the JRCCs handle roughly 10,000 SAR calls a year, the vast majority between May and Sept. in well-travelled sea lanes, fishing banks, and coastal areas in the more southern latitudes of Canada.

In about 1,000 of those cases, the Royal Canadian Air Force responds with coastal-based CH-149 Cormorant and CH-146 Griffon helicopters, which offer quick response, powerful hover and hoist capabilities, and carry some of the military’s roughly 140 dedicated SAR personnel, who can provide advanced pre-hospital medical care and rescue for aviators, mariners and others in distress in remote or hard-to-reach places.

SAR fixed-wing aircraft like CC-115 Buffalo and CC-130 Hercules can also carry SAR personnel and a wide variety of specialized equipment, including air-droppable survival kits with life rafts and shelters. For its part, the Royal Canadian Navy keeps two ships on SAR standby – one on both the East and West Coasts – and can task other ships in the event of a maritime incident.

However, Canada’s SAR response to a maritime emergency in the Arctic would be an entirely different matter. According to Rear Adm. Newton, the scarcity of resources and facilities in the region means that SAR equipment and personnel must be brought in.

“The first line of defence is the CCG ships there, which are key assets,” said Rear Adm. Newton, whose office in the Navy’s East Coast headquarters is in the same building as JRCC Halifax, a region that consists of 4.7 million square kilometres and over 29,000 kilometres of coastline and includes the Eastern Arctic, and which handles some 2,700 SAR cases a year. “We can also leapfrog our capabilities into the region.  We can send Cormorants or Hercs from Gander or Greenwood (and) stage in Iqaluit.”

A self-described “Arctic nut” who first deployed there as a teenager and has returned many times on a variety of military missions, including as commander of a warship that sailed the eastern portion of the Northwest Passage in 2005 – fulfilling his childhood dream of one day following in the footsteps of British explorer John Franklin – Rear Adm. Newton said Canada’s SAR abilities in the Arctic are enhanced by the constant “fusing together” of satellite and other surveillance information at the disposal of JRCCs, which are staffed by a half-dozen federal agencies including the military, police, transportation, and border security. He said the centre plots and tracks the movements and whereabouts of ships known to be travelling in Arctic waters – everything from federal ships to cargo and fishing vessels – which helps to both react to a SAR emergency involving those vessels or to act against suspicious ships that are detected in Canadian waters.  “We do a lot less searching and a lot more finding these days,” he said.

While he applauds the efforts of Canada’s front-line SAR people, Joe Spears disagrees with his friend’s rosy assessment of the country’s ability to provide timely assistance in the event of an emergency maritime situation in the Arctic. “The official Canadian approach to this issue is smugness,” said Spears, a former federal prosecutor who became interested in maritime issues from a risk management and responsibility perspective while studying at London School of Economics, in England. “Bureaucrats in Ottawa (and) the CCG say SAR in the Arctic is not an issue, that everything’s fine. But as the people at Lloyd’s have known for a long time, the Arctic is a risk.”

According to Spears, the most likely SAR scenario Canada faces in the Arctic is a grounded cruise ship or the downing of large plane like Malaysian Flight 370. “Picture 2,000 tourists in lifeboats or clinging to a disabled or sinking vessel in the Arctic,” he said. “This could happen, and if and when it does, it will expose our minimum SAR capabilities there for the whole world to see.” Though he credits actions like the recent auditor general’s report, which questions Canada’s ability to meet its international SAR commitments, Spears believes a public debate on the subject is long overdue. “We need a risk analysis (and) an honest and frank debate that will pinpoint our needs in regards to equipment, facilities, and organization,” he said. “Whether or not there is a demand now (for such services) is a moot point. The Nordic Orion came out of nowhere, and the Chinese, who are partners in the Mary Bay project, just built a $400 million icebreaker.  And we have real obligations, so we need to be proactive in our strategic thinking.  We haven’t even built a base in the Arctic, or created a fuelling facility.”

In the short term, Spears added, CCG and RCN should be equipping their vessels with practical equipment like kevlar tow ropes. And they should be mounting major capacity-testing exercises like the U.S. Coast Guard’s Black Swan exercise, which revealed major gaps in U.S. cruise ship SAR capabilities. “As a sovereign country we’re expected to be able to respond, but advance training is needed,” he said. “You don’t want to be learning in a Costa Concordia moment.”