Hans Island is a lump of barren rock in the middle of the Nares Strait between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Denmark’s Greenland. It is unremarkable in every respect except this: it is situated in the territorial waters of both Canada and Denmark and has been claimed by both countries.
Being of no real importance, the dispute over Hans island has been good-natured. A tongue-in-cheek website has been set up by supporters of the Danish claim urging people to Free Hans Island, and the dispute itself has turned into something resembling a game of Secret Santa, whereby each country stakes their claim by leaving a bottle of whisky that is then removed by the other country and replaced with one of their own.
Canada is lucky that Hans Island isn’t sitting on top of a vein of platinum, because if it came down to fisticuffs Canada would get its ass kicked.
Veteran and military journalist Robert Smol compared the Canadian and Danish navies for Esprit de Corps magazine, and the result was concerning. Denmark, with a coast line 1/27th the size of Canada’s, 1/6th the GDP and 1/6th the population (not to mention free university and better health care) dramatically outguns Canada.
Canada has only one destroyer remaining in its navy, and it is 44 years old. Canada does out-number Denmark in frigates, with 12 vs the Danes’ 9, but the newest Canadian boats are older than the oldest of the Danish boats. The Danish ships include the impressively armed Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates that sport the following weapons:
- up to 32 SM-2 111A surface-to-air missiles
- up to 24 RIM-162 Raytheon Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles
- 8-16 Harpoon Block II ship-to-ship missiles
- 2 dual MU90 Impact anti-submarine warfare torpedoes
- Oerlikon Millenium 35mm gun for close combat
- 2 OTO Melara 76mm guns
Perhaps more importantly when it comes to protecting sovereignty, Denmark has been busy building offshore patrol vessels — 31 in total. They have two classes, including the larger Knud Rasmussen-class vessels that sport Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles, an MU90 Impact torpedo, a 76mm gun and two 12.7mm heavy machine guns.
By contrast Canada has 12 Kingston-class coastal defense vessels with one WWII-vintage 60mm gun per ship and two 12.7mm guns … and some of these ships are already being pulled out of service.
Embarrassingly, Canada does not even have a supply ship. We are currently borrowing one from Spain, and are in the process of converting an old container ship into a supply ship after our last one caught fire and had to be decommissioned. Denmark has not one but two purpose-built support ships, and both are (you guessed it) “impressively armed” with guns and missiles of all types.
Canada does have something Denmark does not — submarines — but the problems with our second-hand diesel clunkers are well documented. It is uncertain if we can rely on any of them in any serious conflict.
Denmark has other advantages beyond hardware, such as a tactical special ops branch that has been operating for 60 years, with extensive training in tactical assault, sabotage and anti-terrorism. They also have their Sirius Sledge Patrol, a specialized arctic sovereignty patrol force that has been intensively trained for the purpose.
Canada has only recently cobbled together 13 navy specialists as a tactical boarding unit, and we rely on “minimally trained” Rangers with rifles to patrol our arctic on the ground.
It all adds up to a lopsided contest where Canada does not come out on top.
Fortunately Denmark is not likely to infringe on Canada’s sovereignty aside from perhaps peeing on our side of Hans Island. But it’s not Denmark that we need to worry about — it is Russia.