Very soon, Canada will deploy a dedicated military satellite – Project Sapphire – into low earth orbit. Containing an optical sensor, it is designed to observe the outer earth orbits. It represents a Canadian military contribution to the United States’ Space Surveillance Network (SSN), and ostensibly replaces Canada’s earlier contribution of two ground-based Baker-Nunn cameras, which ended in 1992.

Of course, Sapphire will have civilian application as well. Nonetheless, Sapphire is Canada’s first military satellite and thus can be seen as a watershed event in Canadian military space. From largely being a “user” of military space, National Defence (DND) will become a “player,” albeit a small one.

Alongside Sapphire, Canada’s shift from military user to player is also evident in future plans for a radar satellite (Radarsat) constellation – Project Epsilon II – to be deployed in a polar orbit and designed to provide wide-area surveillance of the Canadian north. It is a follow-on to Project Epsilon I, in which DND invested in the development of a ground station located on each coast, with the possibility in the future of a third station located in the interior and/or Canadian north. The capability is designed to obtain wide-area surveillance imagery from the Canadian Space Agency’s Radarsat II satellite primarily for northern security purposes. In addition, DND funded a ground-moving target indicator (GMTI) on the satellite.

In contrast to Epsilon I, National Defence will contribute directly to the development of the currently planned three-satellite constellation, but it is unclear whether these satellites will also possess a GMTI capability. Apparently, three satellites will be sufficient to provide near continuous coverage of the Canadian north, and thereby enhance national security; a vital capability especially if predictions of greater access to the Arctic as a function of global warming are correct. However, the constellation also has a global potential, particularly if it were expanded and each satellite were to possess a GMTI.

Problematic, of course, would be the costs entailed given the current fiscal situation facing the government and other pressing National Defence acquisition demands. Indeed, the constellation project itself may be vulnerable. Nonetheless, an expanded constellation would provide a significant contribution to the security of Canadian allies, forces deployed overseas, and the international community as a whole.

As such, key Canadian allies, also faced with budgetary constraints, may be willing to invest in an expanded constellation. Turning Sapphire “on its head,” the potential exists for DND to take the lead and make a major contribution to military space. In so doing, it would also finally meet the commitment made to the United States in 1986 to develop a radarsat constellation with global utility in support of North American defence.

Canada’s formal entrance into military space has been a slow, agonizing process, and provides a note of caution about the future. Of course, the 1986 commitment faced the costly problem of developing new earth observation technology during more than a decade of significant defence cuts that began in 1989. Faced with a declining budget, estimated at 30 percent in real terms, the costs of international operational commitments, such as in the former Yugoslavia, and the need to maintain existing capabilities, it is not surprising that military space was a casualty.

In addition, there existed no departmental champion until the creation of the Directorate of Space Development (DSPACED) in the early 1990s, and even then the Directorate was ill-placed and ill-equipped to compete with preferences of the traditional services.

Furthermore, DND’s military space efforts were hindered by the government’s decision to create the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), vest it with the lead role, and embed it within Industry Canada. In so doing, a clash of cultures emerged of two organizations with different responsibilities, visions, and goals – the former a military, defence culture; the latter a civilian, scientific one.

Today, both DND and CSA officials argue that the issues and problems confronting their relationship are over-stated, pointing to the various cooperative agreements between them, and their close working relationship which sees many Defence personnel embedded within CSA. Nonetheless, the culture-organizational clash issue cannot be entirely ignored, especially in a climate of scarce resources as the government turns to deficit fighting.

Moreover, National Defence faces many hard procurement choices in this climate, including Navy modernization and the re-equipping and potentially re-structuring of the Army post-Afghanistan. It remains to be seen whether military space will again lose out to traditional service preferences. The first indication will be the state of space following the ongoing departmental Strategic Review.

DSPACED, resurrected following its initial elimination and the functional parceling out of its elements as part of General Hillier’s transformation, still is a weak “champion” in the politics of defence investment priorities. There remains no integrated, coherent national space policy, despite the best efforts of the CSA and DND.

Instead, the government’s approach has been piecemeal, driven on one hand by its Arctic obsession and on the other in response to political expediency as witnessed by the decision to block the sale of the space division of MacDonald Detwiller and Associates to the U.S.-based Aliant Techsystems without fully thinking through the long-term economic implications.

Regardless of the above cautions on “wide-eyed” optimism, the future will not replicate the past, not least of all because the military significance of space is now well-recognized within National Defence. Not yet released to the public, in 2009 a new Defence Space Policy was completed, and just recently a new Defence Space Strategy.

As best as can be discerned, both documents provide a realistic assessment of the significance of space, and a foundational roadmap for future Canadian investments. Within this roadmap is arguably the most important step that National Defence can take in the transition from user to player – the development of a cadre of “space” expertise within the Canadian Forces officer corp.

The importance of this expertise has long been recognized. Its foundation is in place with a range of excellent education and training opportunities, such as found at the Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Studies. The problem in the past, however, has been the lack of space billets, with the CF having to rely largely on the willingness of the U.S. through NORAD to provide opportunities.

Even officers successful in obtaining U.S. billets find no subsequent opportunities and instead are transferred out of space. Above all else, there is no career path for space officers within the Canadian structure essential to attract the best and the brightest.

Rectifying the career path is vital to ensure that the CF develops an internal capacity to meet the growing operational military significance of space. To be a real player requires internal capacity beyond the simple capability to “use” space.

One such avenue is to ensure that CF space officers become directly involved in Canadian space operations, like Sapphire and the future Radasat constellation. Unfortunately, Sapphire is to be operated by the private sector, rather than the military, primarily for economic reasons. Unless National Defence pushes hard to be the operator, the same result is likely for the Radarsat constellation. In both cases, DND and the CF will miss a key opportunity to develop an officer career path in space. Moreover, they will also miss key leverage opportunities with the U.S.

Overall, Sapphire and the Radarsat constellation, amongst other low profile initiatives, speak to the beginning of direct Canadian military engagement in space. Like Canadian air, land and sea capabilities, Canada can never hope to become a full-dimensional space player like the U.S. military. Nonetheless, Canada can become a significant player in select dimensions of space – earth observation and space surveillance. It will require a long-term commitment of resources, beginning with key investments to develop a viable and meaningful career path to create that vital cadre of space expertise within the CF.

James Fergusson is the Director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, and author of Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence, 1954-2009, published by the University of British Columbia Press.