Arctic SAR and the “security dilemma”

Published date01 December 2019
DOI10.1177/0020702019890339
Date01 December 2019
Scholarly Essay
Arctic SAR and the
‘‘security dilemma’’
Michael Byers
Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, British Columbia
Nicole Covey
Department of Political Studies, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg
Manitoba
Abstract
This article explains how search and rescue (SAR) equipment and personnel can
strengthen Canada’s Arctic security without contributing to a classic ‘‘security
dilemma’’—whereby a perceived military buildup by one state leads to a responsive
buildup by another state, and so on into an arms race. This is because Arctic SAR involves
dual-use assets that can fulfill most existing and reasonably foreseeable Arctic security
roles as a secondary mission. Avoiding a security dilemma is key with regards to Canada–
Russia relations. In the Arctic arena, Russia sees itself surrounded by North Atlantic
Treaty Organization states during a period of considerable tension with those same
states elsewhere in the world. Although most of the responsibility for that tension lies
with Russia, it is still in Canada’s interest to avoidfeeding Russia’s Arctic uncertainties and
insecurities, since regional military buildups can cause instability and even conflict.
Keywords
Arctic, security, search and rescue, Canada, Russia, China, security dilemma
Introduction
The cruise ship Viking Sky nearly became a major shipping disaster in March 2019
when it lost power in gale-force winds and drifted toward the Norwegian coast.
After eighteen hours of desperate efforts, the crew managed to restart an engine. At
that point, the ship was just 100 metres from the rocks. The Joint Rescue
Coordination Centre of Southern Norway mounted a major search and rescue
(SAR) operation during those eighteen hours, with five air force and oil industry
International Journal
2019, Vol. 74(4) 499–517
!The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/0020702019890339
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Corresponding author:
Michael Byers, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia, C425-1866 Main Mall,
Vancouver, British Columbia, V6T 1Z4, Canada.
Email: michael.byers@ubc.ca
helicopters winching 479 passengers to safety.
1
The extraction of so many people
under such extreme conditions and time pressures was a remarkable achievement.
A similar incident in the Canadian Arctic would likely result in the loss of all the
ship’s passengers and crew, since Canada’s maritime SAR helicopters are based in
southern Canada and cannot reach the Arctic without stopping to refuel. Yet the
Canadian Arctic is becoming an increasingly busy place due to melting sea ice,
natural resource development, and tourism—including cruise ships. Canada will
soon need to improve its Arctic SAR capabilities in order to save lives.
This article is not, however, about that humanitarian imperative. It focuses on a
second reason for improving Arctic SAR capabilities: namely, that SAR personnel
and equipment can strengthen Canada’s Arctic security without contributing to a
classic ‘‘security dilemma’’—whereby a perceived military buildup by one state
leads to a responsive buildup by another state, and so on into an arms race.
This is because Arctic SAR involves dual-use assets that can fulfill most existing
and reasonably foreseeable Arctic security roles as a secondary mission.
Avoiding a security dilemma is key with regards to Canada–Russia relations. In
the Arctic arena, Russia sees itself surrounded by North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) states during a period of considerable tension with those
same states elsewhere in the world. Although most of the responsibility for that
tension lies with Russia, it is still in Canada’s interest to avoiding feeding Russia’s
Arctic uncertainties and insecurities, since regional military buildups can cause
instability and even conflict.
At the same time, all Arctic states have an interest in strengthening their ‘‘con-
stabulary’’ (as opposed to combat) capabilities in the region. An increasingly busy
Arctic will see more criminal activity, including illegal fishing, smuggling, and
illegal immigration. Arctic SAR equipment, especially long-range helicopters and
icebreakers, is well-suited for responding to these challenges. Improving Canada’s
Arctic SAR capabilities could thus serve two purposes: saving lives; and addressing
readily foreseeable non-state security threats. Moreover, it could do so without
creating an Arctic security dilemma with a consequential: worsening of state-to-
state relations; a diversion of financial resources, equipment, and personnel; and an
increased risk of conflict.
This article is focused on Canada’s Arctic territories and maritime zones, and
makes recommendations concerning SAR and security there. As a theoretical
insight with powerful real-world implications, the security dilemma is relevant in
both the ‘‘Canadian Arctic’’ and the ‘‘European Arctic.’’ However, the circum-
stances in the two subregions are distinct. The European Arctic includes
Greenland, Iceland, the northern portions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and
the ice-free Norwegian and Barents Seas. It falls within the purview of NATO. In
contrast, the seasonally ice-bound Canadian Arctic is part of the North American
1. Susanna Heller, ‘‘Search-and-rescue crew members describe what it was like during the 18-hour
mission to rescue 1,300 cruise passengers during a storm,’’ Business Insider, 27 March 2019, https://
www.businessinsider.com/what-viking-sky-cruise-search-and-rescue-mission-was-like-2019-3
(accessed 7 September 2019).
500 International Journal 74(4)

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