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Commanding the Arctic

Canada leads search for surveillance solutions

Mar. 1, 2011 - 03:45AM   |  
By Jim Hodges   |   Comments
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It was simpler during the Cold War. The United States and Canada set up a string of U.S.-built Defense Early Warning radars in the Arctic to watch for bombers and missiles that might be headed from the Soviet Union toward U.S. military bases and cities.

Melting Arctic sea ice has created a vastly more complicated situation for the U.S., Canada and the joint North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Strategists worry that terrorists could use ice-free waterways as infiltration routes or other nations with stakes in the Arctic could try to tap the lion's share of the region's undiscovered petroleum reserves.

NORAD is in planning mode when it comes to this new reality, but Canada, with arguably more at risk than the U.S., wants to move faster.

Canada has set a goal of asserting sovereignty over its region of the Arctic. Canadian officials want to protect their share of the Arctic's oil and also of the diamonds recently discovered under the thawing Arctic tundra Canada is now third in the world in diamond mining. Canada also argues that the Northwest Passage shipping routes, which remain ice-free for longer periods each year, are internal to Canada, a claim that the U.S. and other nations dispute.

With so many national interests in an area larger than continental Europe but with only 104,000 inhabitants, Canadian officials are testing new sonars and ship-spotting radars. They are mapping the continental shelf below the Arctic to make an international legal case for control of more waters. They are eyeing improvements to satellite communications and making plans to launch new versions of their cloud-penetrating Radarsat satellites. And they must do all this within the constraints of a $21.8 billion defense budget that some in Parliament want to reduce.

"Building a more robust ISR technological capability in the north is recognized as a priority within the department [of Defence]," said Rick Williams, general director of science and technology operation for Defence Research and Development Canada, which will develop much of the new capability. "It's stated repeatedly in the Canada First [Defence] Strategy," he said, referring to the 2008 strategy document released by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The strategy says that Canada's top priority must be to protect its own territory and interests, followed by contributions to the defense of North America.

In one view, Canada is not so much devising new intelligence and communications capabilities as it is pushing to revive them.

"At the end of the Cold War, like everybody else, we stopped doing things in the north," said Rob Huebert, associate director of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. "We let almost all of our entire capability just wither on the vine."


While looking to protect national rights, Canadian officials also recognize that their country is geographically positioned to protect North America from infiltrators. A partially declassified Canadian intelligence assessment, "The Canadian Arctic: Threats from Terrorists and Extremists," reportedly makes this case. The document was obtained in November by several of the country's press outlets under Canada's Access to Information Act.

The threats reportedly portrayed by the intelligence report come in stark contrast to the ISR and communications links Canada has available in the Arctic. Besides the Defense Early Warning radars, there are patrol boats and airplanes, along with older, smaller radar facilities and a few Royal Canadian Mounted Police outposts. It has been an inexpensive system that has counted on the formidable Canadian winter as its greatest asset.

It is clear that "we didn't even understand the communications challenge," Huebert said. "We were having situations so overt that the prime minister would go up and check things out, and all of the phone services would blank out because the cell phones would just overwhelm the existing system."

The Canadian winter is becoming shorter and the need for ISR technology is greater, Huebert said.

"I just got back from a conference with some people who live in the Eastern Arctic," he said, "and they say that, for the first time in their lifetimes, they are seeing open water in January."

The trade route from Europe to China shrinks by 4,000 miles when ships go through the Arctic, where they also avoid the tolls and size limitations of the Suez and Panama canals, as well as the increased insurance rates charged for sailing in the pirate-terrorized waters off Africa. The Northwest Passage, a route between the Atlantic and Pacific through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, is open longer because of the diminishing ice, and each year more ships come through the passage.


For now, NORAD counsels calm.

"While sometimes we see mixed signals from other nations in this regard, it seems to me that no nation has an interest in a militarized Arctic," U.S. Adm. James Winnefeld, the NORAD commander, told an audience in Toronto.

Perhaps, but Norway is buying 48 F-35 aircraft. Canada test-landed a C-17 at Alert, the northernmost air base in the world, last spring and has talked of buying 65 F-35s.

While Canada and Russia work cooperatively in some respects, for example, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched Canada's latest ship-spotting Radarsat spacecraft in 2007 there is also evidence of competition. On July 31, two Canadian fighters scrambled to turn back two Russian TU-95 long-range bombers in a buffer zone just outside Canadian airspace. But then, 11 days later, NORAD and the Russian Federation Air Forces held their first joint counter air-terrorism exercise.

Three weeks before Winnefeld's Toronto speech, NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command sponsored an "Intelligence Support to the Arctic" conference in Chantilly, Va.; a top secret security clearance was required to attend. "While things are changing relatively rapidly, I think we just have a measured response as to how quickly we deal with the Arctic," said Canadian Naval Capt. Kurt Salchert, head of maritime ISR for NORAD. "It's not going to melt overnight, but we are watching and trying to anticipate what's happening in the Arctic."

That's NORAD-speak for planning, which is going on at the organization's Colorado Springs, Colo., headquarters.

It's the sort of talk that sets off Huebert and others who have sounded alarms about the shrinking Arctic ice and increased maritime possibilities for more than a decade.

"At times I think people are listening, and at times I think there's a Cassandra syndrome," Huebert said. "If you're not saying the common theme, not saying what people want to hear, they are shutting you out."


For now, Canada's two Radarsat spacecraft remain the most visible ISR asset in the region with their cloud-free images of ice and ships made available to NORAD. After launching Radarsat-2 in December 2007, the Canadian military paid $25 million to MacDonald Dettwiler of Richmond, British Columbia, to bolster Radarsat-2's capability to offer surveillance of the nation's Arctic maritime region and to facilitate ship-tracking.

"The [Canadian] Coast Guard is ecstatic with Radarsat," Huebert said. "Every operator I've talked to in both the ice services and the Department of National Defence says the imagery coming back is astonishing."

A constellation of three smaller Radarsat satellites is scheduled for launch in 2014-15 to provide more flexibility in surveillance and communication.

Other kinds of sensors are being developed in a 3-year-old program called the Northern Watch Technology Demonstration Project, run by Defence Research and Development Canada. Canada hopes to improve collections by establishing layers of sensors from orbit to the ocean, to land, with the Northwest Passage considered a priority.

The work is proving difficult. "We're fighting two things: technology, to make sure it meets our expectations, and the environment," Williams said.

That was evident in testing a sonar array over the last two years in Gascoyne Inlet, off Devon Island in the Barrow Strait, at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage. Using an annual six- to eight-week weather window for infrastructure implementation, Northern Watch technicians aboard a ship laid down a tethered sonar instrument, called the Rapidly Deployable Sonar, at a choke point to the passage to test its ability to detect surface and submarine traffic.

The object was to provide persistent surveillance to complement the intermittent information offered by satellites.

In the first year, the 11-meter-long sonar array was deployed in a storm and part of it was damaged by ice. The healthy part sent usable data.

"The next year, we got a little smarter and made ourselves more logistically flexible," Williams said. "We were able to deploy the capability and were able to gather information. Also, fortuitously, a couple of ships came by, which gave us the opportunity to gather data on real targets.

"So you walk a little, you run a little, then you run a little more through the process of this technology demonstration."

The array works. When or if it will be deployed is up to Canada's military, and whether it can be squeezed into the defense budget.

Canada also hopes to overcome technical challenges discovered when officials tried to use existing High Frequency Surface Wave Radars for Arctic surveillance. The land-based radars, which use the ocean's saltwater as a conducting surface, have proven adept at detecting ships at long distances when pointed east or west from the Canadian coasts. But aimed north, the radars experience interference from the charged particles of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.

"Right now it's very experimental," Williams said. "It's very effective when it operates. It's very inexpensive because you've expanded the range from terrestrial platforms and not had to force a presence in the extreme north."

Spotty communications satellite coverage is another issue. ISR aircraft and ocean sensors need a method to relay their information to command and control centers, but options are limited over the Arctic because communications satellites are parked over the equator, with their antennas arrayed to maximize coverage of populated areas; coverage usually is limited to 70 degrees north. Possible solutions are under consideration. McDonald Dettwiler is working on a satellite that would follow an elliptical orbit to facilitate reception and transmission in the Arctic. Other ideas are to put ground antennas up high enough to transmit to geosynchronous satellites or condense and prioritize information to conserve bandwidth.

While the sonar array was deployed underwater, Operation Nanook, an annual summer Canadian military exercise, was going on above it. Last year, for the first time, a U.S. Navy ship, the destroyer Porter, was part of the operation. So, too, were Raytheon personnel, who were aboard Porter and later the Canadian Navy frigate Montreal to demonstrate a software tool called the Raytheon Arctic Monitoring Prediction, or RAMP. The software synthesizes environmental sensor data to monitor retreating ice. If intelligence officials know where the ice isn't, they know where to look for ships.

Raytheon hopes to sell the software to Canada and the U.S. Navy. The software has potential as a command and control architecture for ISR sensors, according to Steve Shelton of Raytheon.

"We were working with land-based, ship-based and buoy-based observations that get reported by sensor suites," said Bob Bowne, RAMP's chief engineer. "We fused together sensor products to provide additional value to develop situation awareness."

Though Raytheon used readings from a German satellite called TanDEM-X during the demonstration, Radarsat-2 also could serve, Browne said. Using undersea unmanned vehicles, Canada also has embarked on a program, Operation Cornerstone, to map the floor of its Arctic claims and determine the limits of its continental shelf. The country has a deadline of December 2014 to submit territorial boundaries to the United Nations. At stake could be access to part of an estimated 25 percent of the world's unproven oil reserves in the Arctic region.

For now, NORAD is working on a plan for increased maritime information-sharing between the U.S. and Canada, but even that involves unusual caveats for a military organization.

Because the Canadian Arctic has not only warship traffic but also commercial shipping and fishing vessels, and because other governmental agencies such as those that regulate transportation, immigration and law enforcement have jurisdiction, depending on the issue, information-sharing can become problematic.

"Our equity within this is to assure that information is shared within the law, within the bounds of privacy," said Salchert of NORAD. "Indisputably, there is information that is not shared because of prosecutorial and regulatory reasons. We abide by the law, but we endeavor to affect a comprehensive shared understanding across the governments of Canada and the United States."

Before any of that is an issue, though, the information has to be harvested and there is, for now at least, a dearth of tools to do it.

"You see that people now are starting to invest in Arctic-capable platforms," Huebert said. "Generally speaking there is cooperation, but we will protect our interests."

However slowly, signs are that Canada is beginning to do that now.

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