VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada's military for years has had a wishlist of billions of dollars of new equipment designed to support Arctic operations. But this year it is actually moving ahead on those acquisitions, first with new patrol ships and then by upgrading utility aircraft for operations in the country's northern regions.
The first steel will be cut on the Royal Canadian Navy's Arctic offshore patrol ships in September. Five ships will be constructed by Irving Shipbuilding of Canada, while Lockheed Martin is handling onboard combat systems in the CAN $3.5 billion (US $3.4 billion) project.
This year will also see the release of a request for bids on an upgrade program for the Royal Canadian Air Force's CC-138 Twin Otter aircraft, which are used for utility transports in the Arctic. The project is expected to cost $20 million to $49 million.
"The CC-138 Twin Otter will undergo a life extension program to ensure the fleet remains safe and operationally effective until the UTA [utility transport aircraft] enters service," Air Force spokesman Maj. James Simiana said.
The UTA is a proposed new fleet of transport aircraft for the Arctic but isn't expected to be ready to replace the 40-year-old Twin Otters until 2025.
In the meantime, the upgrade will replace the Twin Otter's wing boxes and install cockpit voice/flight data recorders, improving supportability with a new supply chain of parts, according to the Air Force.
In addition, high frequency radios and aircraft spares will be acquired and training devices will be improved.
The Air Force expects the upgrade contract to be awarded in 2016, with final delivery of the modernized Twin Otters in 2020.
Navy League of Canada analyst Norm Jolin said the focus for new Arctic equipment shouldn't be weapon systems but the austere environment. Much of the Arctic is still uncharted and despite global warming, the region is often inaccessible, said Jolin, a retired Royal Canadian Navy captain.
"Up in the north, it's still about survival," he said.
With that in mind, the Canadian Army plans to outfit individual soldiers with new winter warfare equipment, including snowshoes, skis and toboggans. Up to $49 million will be spent on that gear with deliveries to begin in 2021.
Further into the future, the Army plans to purchase up to 100 all-terrain vehicles capable of operations in the snow. The vehicles would replace tracked BV-206s purchased in the 1980s. The program is estimated to cost between $100 million and $249 million, but the military doesn't expect to go to industry for bids until after 2021.
Increasing the Canadian government and military's presence in the resource-rich Arctic is a key defense platform for Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In January, he named Julian Fantino as associate defense minister with a focus on Arctic issues.
Harper contends that the increased military and government presence is needed because oil, gas and minerals in the Arctic are critical to the country's economic growth. The types of incidents the Canadian Forces would most likely have to respond to in the Arctic, Jolin said, would be a major environmental disaster or a search-and-rescue operation, such as aiding a commercial cruise ship that has capsized after hitting an uncharted obstacle.
"The biggest thing will be coordination, so you'll want to have the ability to mount a command post, have good radios and radars, good surveillance," he said. "It's about command and control, power generation and communications."
To meet the communications and surveillance needs, Canada's military plans to take part in two space programs to support Arctic operations.
The government will fund the construction of two polar communications and weather satellites. An analysis of various options for the project is expected to start this year, with a request for proposals to be issued to industry in 2018. A contact will be awarded in 2020.
The two spacecraft, which will provide the backbone of military and government communications in the Arctic as well as weather forecasting, are estimated to cost $1.5 billion.
The Canadian military also has an increased surveillance capability planned for the Arctic, dubbed Polar Epsilon 2. The system will use the data produced by the Canadian government's Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) spacecraft currently under design. The RCM satellites are scheduled for launch in 2018.
Polar Epsilon 2 will involve the construction of ground infrastructure and systems to collect and process data from the three RCM satellites. The project is estimated to cost between $100 million and $249 million. A contract is expected to be awarded in 2017, with delivery of the systems two years later.
The building of other Arctic infrastructure is also underway. In 2013 the Canadian Forces opened a $25 million Arctic Training Centre in Resolute Bay. Canada has also just started work on a naval refueling facility on Baffin Island, Nunavut, Department of National Defence spokeswoman Dominique Tessier said.
Originally the plan was to build a deep-water port at Nanisivik, but because of the high costs of construction in the Arctic that has been scaled back to a $130 million refueling site for the Royal Canadian Navy. The site will be used to support the new Arctic offshore patrol ships.
Early preparation work for construction began in September 2014, Tessier said. Full operational capability of the facility is planned for 2018, she added.
"This upcoming construction season [in] 2015 will involve jetty recapitalization and site material preparation," Tessier said.
Subsequent construction seasons in the north, from 2016 to 2018, will see construction of tank farm and road upgrades.