Canadian Arctic passage


As an area of growing strategic and economic importance, the navigable passages of the Canadian High Arctic should be unconditionally secure. Uninterrupted monitoring, consecutive patrol, and the capacity to take action when needed are top priority in terms of safeguarding. Economically, an accessible high Arctic passage facilitates maritime trade between Canada and our Northern neighbours. Combine Canada’s sparse Northern population and spotty surveillance of vast territorial waters and the world’s second largest country is limitless.

Moreover, due to bordering international waters, inhospitable climate, and isolation, infrastructure and population density are minimal. The limited availability of community resources, remoteness, and austerity restrict the growth of communities and the development of businesses.

The Canadian Forces have recently become more aware of the need for persistent surveillance of extensive proportions to cover the Canadian waters and the network of passageway within our jurisdiction.
Lack of facilities for a comprehensive and interminable monitoring of the entire area is a factor that can compromise our security.

As the benefits of data collection and use are not immediately apparent or pertinent to the greater public, activities in this area are not viewed as a primary concern and are largely unknown. The Arctic’s small permanent population base has an increased transient population. Labour market shortages mean bringing in foreign workers, which the RCMP stated in the report “for the most part is not subjected to security screening prior to entering Canada.” Add in Arctic tourism – 15 cruise ships operate in Canada’s North — and the opening up of Arctic territory due to global warming and you have a problem.

Companies that can provide viable technological means, such as advanced satellite technologies, coupled with sophisticated data systems that can readily and precisely detect and identify the passing units, recognize, cross-reference and verify the data in the system are of appreciable value.
So how can Canada better secure its trade and security interests in the North? Several options are being examined including the use of Radarsat, improved data collection, monitoring climate change and the use and adoption of alternative technologies.


Radarset and the Proposal

In March 2010, the federal government announced it would spend $3 billion to develop high orbit Radarsat satellite technology by MDA, a Vancouver based company. For the multibillion dollar price tag, the government will receive six high orbit latest technology satellites at $500 million each. Benefits of the sophisticated technology include the ability to acquire images of Earth day or night and in any weather. It can deliver large amounts of data through its powerful synthetic aperture radar (SAR) instrument.

On the not so positive side, the satellites can be expensive to build, launch and operate. They also lack target capability recognition – that is, the ability to recognize targets or objects based on data obtained from sensors. Target recognition allows persistent surveillance – a crucial feature of Northern surveillance. Another downside is that they can take a long time to revisit a location on Earth. This means information received from the satellites may not be up-to-date, meaning surveillance of Canada’s North is not continuous. Another cause for gaps in surveillance data occurs due to delays in information – latency – gathering by satellites. Latency is the time gap between a data request and a response that occurs. It is the time it takes for a signal to travel to a satellite and reach Earth. Add to that bad weather and polar lightening which can affect the quality of satellite images received. On the plus side, satellite surveillance collects geographical data for spatial and geospatial information systems (GIS) mapping.

Installing radars may be more effective. Radars monitor objects and how fast they are moving – this would allow for the constant detection of ships and other objects on the ground. Radars pick up radio waves reflected from objects. The strength of the radio waves determines how close or far away the object is from the radar. Given Radarsat’s price tag – money spent on technology that identifies threats on a continuous basis might be a better way to spend government dollars.


Infrastructure of the North

The Canadian North lacks a central communication network in the region– all security data in the Arctic is channeled through central Canada. To change this, Resolute Bay and Nanisvik are becoming security and communication hubs to ensure Canada’s security interests along the Northern Passage. The Canadian Forces Arctic Training Centre, operating out of Resolute Bay, will provide year-round patrols, support military operations and provide a year round military training. A dozen Canadian military and civilian employees will be stationed at Resolute. The training centre will increase Canadian military operational expertise in the Arctic and Canada’s military presence in the North. Nanisivik, a former mining town inland of Strathcona Sound, is the new location for the construction of the CF Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships’ naval depot.

The Arctic Archipelago must have suitable infrastructure and secure response capabilities. Without it, the military’s capability in the North is compromised.


Data collection, Information Technology and Use

Alternatives to satellite technology are promising. One alternative is to construct sensors and radars that provide continual on the ground surveillance. Another is the use of a cluster of micro-satellites. Around $300 million dollars buys a constellation of satellites that provide a 24/7 surveillance loops – at ten times the efficiency of a single giant satellite.

COM DEV International Ltd based in Cambridge builds custom designed space hardware used for remote sensing. For between $5-$15 million dollars per communication satellite, these satellites provide up to date close-loop monitoring and data-gathering every 30-90 minutes.

Another advantage is that smaller satellites are less costly to replace once they complete their life span.

Another promising made-in-Canada solution is the state-of-the-art micro-technology emerging from Toronto’s York University. At the cost of $1 million per station, York is building micro-satellites subject to a satellite license granted to York’s Space Engineering Programme by the Canadian Space Agency.

Regardless of the satellite technology employed, the real challenge is how to process the data received to determine if a threat exists. Toronto-based AUG Signals provides a solution in its advanced motion detection and feature extraction technologies. These technologies classify targets and display them on a geospatial display, capturing images in real-time. Geospatial refers to locating objects on a geographic space with reference to natural and manmade features. AUG achieves this using synthetic aperture radar (SAR), electro-optical (EO), and infrared (IR) satellite data. AUG’s technology allows for real-time threat detection and for an emergency response. This all improves Canada’s Maritime Domain Awareness in the Arctic – that is, the surveillance of all maritime-related activities that could impact Canada’s security.

The Coast Guard and the Navy are yet to take full advantage of technological developments in micro-satellites and multi-sensor fusion technology which are a fraction of the cost of traditional high orbit satellites.


Monitoring Climate Change

In October 2009 World Wildlife Fund issued a report on the state of the Arctic, alerting the media, the government and all the organs monitoring this field, on the issue that climate change on accounts of global warming may jeopardize Arctic sovereignty due to more accessibility of the Passage deeper into the winter.

Predictions suggest that in a few decades, the Arctic may possibly be accessible year-round as the ice melts and the previously inaccessible glacial passages become all open water. The military capacity and patrolling efforts, as well as year-round surveillance will need to be fortified.


The wealth of the northern region – resources, communities, culture

Finally, Canada’s North is an important part of Canadian culture and identity. With its natural resources and cultural uniqueness, the Arctic helps shape Canada’s national identity and values. The importance of the Arctic to Canadians was reflected in a survey released in January 2011 by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. The eight-nation poll showed that Canadians were more likely to emphasis the need to protect the Arctic than residents from Russia, the United Nations, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden.

The challenges to protect Canada’s national treasure in a cost effective way that benefits both the remote communities in the North and Canada as a whole are clear but there is no question that overcoming these challenges, be they security-based, technological or environmental, the North is important to the future of our country.


I researched and completed this article, as commission by Ottawa Life Magazine.

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