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Robert Smol holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada and served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 20 years, retiring as a Captain in the Intelligence Branch.

In recent months, the Danish government has been considering establishing a Canadian Ranger-style volunteer militia among its Inuit.

As prudent as this is, there will inevitably be those on this side of the Hans Island dispute who will interpret a Greenlandic version of the Canadian Rangers as proof that Canada is a leader and inspiration when it comes to Arctic sovereignty.

Danish HDMS PETER WILLEMOES, left, and Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship WINNIPEG, right, sail during Exercise JOINTEX 15 as part of Trident Juncture 15 on October 24, 2015. Photo courtesy of LS Peter Frew, Formation Imaging Services Halifax HS2015-0838-L034-001

So let’s take some time and review the Danish military presence in Greenland where the Canadian Ranger-style force has been proposed as only the latest complementary tool in an extensive professional military toolbox employing technology and capability far exceeding Canada’s efforts on land, sea and air.
Whereas Denmark views its proposed Ranger-style militia as a latent attempt to “help close its Arctic capability gap” Canada consistently views its non-combat ballcap and hooded Rangers as the bulwark of Arctic sovereignty defensive posture. Secure in our naïve belief that the American administration and Congress will now and forever expend all resources needed to defend Canada, at no apparent cost to Canadians, there seems little beyond our auxiliary, non-combat capable Rangers to keep Canada secure in the Arctic.

An administrative headquarters, a non-combat squadron of Otter aircraft, a small communication station on Ellesmere Island (CFS Alert) and an army reserve detachment in Yellowknife make up Canada’s actual military presence in the Arctic.

While also closely allied to the U.S and its military, the Danes have assumed a far more mature and self-respecting stance on the defence of their Arctic territory. In Greenland, the Danish Forces maintain regular consistent sovereignty patrol presence mainly through an elite professional military unit called Siriuspatruljen (Sirius).

This unit consists of members of the Danish professional military who undergo a rigorous seven-month training program aimed at teaching them how to operate in small teams usually by dog sled. Training for Sirius typically lasts seven months and includes a range of specialties from shooting, to reconnaissance, to advanced first aid, to sewing, all skills needed to patrol and survive, for extensive periods, in extreme Arctic conditions. Those who make it through the rigorous selection process can expect to be deployed in Greenland on sovereignty patrols for two years.

Nothing remotely equivalent to Sirius exists in Canada. Our Rangers have an optional training course lasting 10 days.

But land operations serve as only part of the total defence, as then-head of the Royal Canadian Navy Admiral Mark Norman stated to Parliament in 2014 the Arctic is a “fundamentally maritime operating environment.” Yet whenever Canada manages to complete its perennially delayed Arctic Patrol vessel programme our ships will never be a match weapon-wise to Denmark’s recently completed Arctic Patrol ships.

That is because Canada’s Arctic ships will only carry a single machine gun and their role will be “constabulary” as opposed to combat military.

Compare this to Denmark’s Knud Rasmussen class of patrol ships, which went into operation between 2008 and 2017. These ships carry an OTO Melara 76 mm main gun as well as two smaller 12.7 mm machine guns. The Danish Arctic ships also carry MU90 ASW torpedoes and can be fitted, if necessary, to carry RIM-162 Sea Sparrow surface to air missiles. And Denmark’s three Arctic Patrol ships are only part of a modern naval building program that also included three Air Defence Frigates, two Combat Support Ships, and six smaller coastal patrol vessels all launched over the last 15 years.

Canada, meanwhile, plans to replace our sole fleet 25 to 30 year old Halifax frigates hopefully by – are you ready – 2040!

And what can I say about the Royal Canadian Air Force other than the fact that, while Canada purchases old, used F-18 fighter aircraft from Australia, Denmark is in the process of acquiring 27 new F-35 fighter jets, the same jet Canada still can’t decide if and when it will ever purchase.

And with all the above capabilities in place, the Danes are also thinking of adding a Canadian-style Ranger force to complement its modern, professional military.

So, when it comes to total defence of it’s Arctic territory, should tiny, social-democratic Denmark look up or down on on Canada? You decide.

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  1. Smol’s take on the Rangers’ purpose and mission has always been askew, and this is a step along that path. To begin with, his understanding of Canada’s military response to defence threats in the Arctic is fundamentally misguided, while his criticism of the Rangers’ inability to fend off enemy soldiers is a comical attack on an obvious strawman. While no Canadian defence policy of the past thirty years has anticipated invasion, the CAF regularly trains ground forces to deploy and fight in the North. The Rangers aren’t equipped for combat because that’s not their job. The Canadian Army has Arctic Response Company Groups and initial response units responsible for defence tasks. That these forces are stationed in the South – with the ability to project into the North – is simply a continuation of Canadian operational practice that backs back to 1945. Maintaining a combat capable force armed with modern weapons in the High Arctic, waiting for a fictitious invader would be ruinously expensive and drain the Canadian defence budget, making us weaker overall.

    Smol’s assessment of Canada’s maritime security is also painfully simplistic. He’s right that Canada’s Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships are not combat vessels, armed with a 25mm autocannon (not a machine gun as he states). The implication is that we will be unable to fight high-end naval battles in the Arctic – yet he curiously leaves out who we’re supposed to be fighting. What precisely does he suppose the Russian or Chinese will be doing with frigates in the Northwest Passage? In fact, building the AOPS as constabulary vessels fills two Canadian objectives. It gives the Navy the right ships to meet the non-defence security threats that most analysts expect in the North and frees up resources to build the Navy’s new frigates – which are designed to fight those high-end battles in areas of the world far more likely to see conflict than the Arctic.

  2. Once again, I very much disagree with Mr. Smol’s opinions on and characterization of the Canadian Rangers. I’ve addressed his past critiques of the Rangers in a previous NNSL commentary (See: https://nunavutnews.com/opinion/rangers-reset-ignores-direspects-what-actually-they-do/). Now he his unfavourably comparing the Rangers to Denmark’s Siriuspatruljen (Sirius) patrol, which performs reconnaissance and sovereignty patrols across Greenland. They are undoubtedly a well-trained and impressive unit, but Mr. Smol neglects to mention that, in any given winter, the patrol consists of only 12 members and six dog teams. 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group has an establishment of 1,800 Canadian Rangers in 60 patrols located in communities across the north. Their in-depth local knowledge allows them to ably serve as the eyes and ears of the Canadian Armed Forces in the North – far more eyes and ears than the Sirius patrol provides. There is a reason why Denmark is trying to establish an equivalent to the Rangers in Greenland.

    Several of Mr. Smol’s assertions about the weakness of Canada’s defence posture in the North have already been challenged by other leading experts. See Dr. P. Whitney Lackenbauer’s rebuttal of Mr. Smol’s assertions about the Canadian Army and the conventional military threat facing the North at: https://jmss.org/article/view/62819. See Dr. Adam Lajeunesse’s rebuttal of Mr. Smol’s critique of the Arctic and Offshore Patrol vessels at: https://www.cgai.ca/unarmed_warships_what_are_the_aops_for and https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0308597X20309702.

    Peter Kikkert
    St. Francis Xavier University