Why Canada spent $597,000 on a ‘stealth snowmobile’

August 20, 2013

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is greeted by Canadian Rangers as he arrives in Whitehorse, Yukon, Aug.18 on his northern Canada tour. (AP Photo/Sean Kilpatrick)

The Canadian military is testing a “stealth snowmobile” worth $620,000 Canadian dollars ($597,000 USD) -- the better to achieve eventual Arctic domination.

The Canadian Press reports that the quiet, hybrid-electric snowmobile was commissioned in 2011 as part of Canada’s long-term military buildup in the Arctic, where melting ice is opening access to a part of the world with lots of natural resources and sketchy territorial claims. A prototype was reportedly designed to help conduct “winter operations” on a variety of terrains and to operate more quietly than other models on the market.

The issue is quite serious for Canada’s conservative politicians, who have lobbied for more than a decade to expand the country’s presence up north. It’s not that they expect to be fighting up there, exactly -- more likely, as a Canadian Forces report imagined in 2011, soldiers would need to respond to emergencies like oil spills or disease outbreaks in Arctic communities. They could also keep an eye on foreign activity in the far north, a critical step toward bolstering Canada’s disputed territorial claims.

Arctic claims, as it turns out, are highly contested and terribly passive-aggressive, even more than 60 years after Canada resettled Inuit families in Resolute Bay to assert its sovereignty there. International treaties have, for the most part, neatly divided up the lands around the Arctic: No one owns the North Pole, but Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark/Greenland and Norway have extended their borders northward to claim the territories around it.

The problem is the water outside those  territories, particularly as global warming creates more of it. Traditionally, Canada and others were entitled to an exclusive economic zone 200 nautical miles off their Arctic coasts. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, however, countries can stake exclusive rights to their extended continental shelves – and to the large deposits of oil and gas thought to lie beneath them. As you can see in this map from Durham University, those continental shelf claims are often quite extensive.


(Durham University)

To further complicate things, Canada considers the Northwest Passage, an Atlantic-Pacific route through its northern archipelago, to be national waters subject to Canadian jurisdiction -- a claim that a number of countries, including the United States, have chosen to ignore. While the whole disagreement has been more or less academic for years, global warming has made the passage far easier for to navigate. Given more melting and better regulation, the trans-Arctic trade could theoretically rival that of the Panama Canal.

As a result, Arctic sovereignty and surveillance have become big issues for Canadian politicians, particularly conservatives. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s big-budget plan for an Arctic military buildup -- now mostly tabled out of budget concerns -- earned enthusiasm from many who liked Harper’s vision of Canada as an “Arctic power.”

But some do question how a special “stealth” snowmobile will help Canada further its Arctic claims when a run-of-the-mill, military snowmobile (estimated price tag: $10,000) would move soldiers around just as well.

“In terms of asserting Arctic ambitions, stealth sleds aren’t likely to cut it when others can drive heavy polar icebreakers, nuclear subs and tankers through our waters,” points out an editorial in Tuesday’s Toronto Star. “Despite all the talk of an ‘Arctic awakening,’ this government’s rhetoric over the past seven years has soared higher than its investment. The gap is getting harder to ignore.”

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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