James Fergusson

After nearly 20 years of planning and development, Canada will finally enter into military space with the expected launch of the Sapphire satellite early next year.

Built by prime contractor MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates in conjunction with COM DEV and two foreign firms, Britain’s Surrey Satellite Technology and Denmark’s Terma A/S, this electro-optical satellite will be located in low earth orbit and is designed to monitor the outer orbits between six and forty thousand kilometres from earth, and particularly the geo-synchronous and stationary (GEO) orbits in support of the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN) and the NORAD early warning mission.

It will join the U.S. Pathfinder satellite, built by Boeing, launched in the fall of 2010, and declared operational last summer as the only two space-based components of the network.

The significance of Sapphire is threefold. First, it represents Canada’s first dedicated military satellite, even though a private contractor will fly it, and it can also serve civil science functions. Prior to Sapphire, Canada’s contribution to military space was limited to the provision of personnel to various components of the U.S. military space infrastructure in relation to the NORAD early warning mission. In addition, Canada contributed to the U.S. SSN by providing two ground-based Baker-Nunn cameras, located at Cold Lake, Alberta and St. Margaret’s Bay, New Brunswick until their retirement in 1981 and 1992, respectively. Thus, Sapphire is milestone for Canada’s engagement in military space.

Second, Sapphire provides a major contribution to the SSN as space continues to grow in strategic significance. The ability to monitor objects in space is essential to NORAD’s early warning mission of a ballistic missile attack on North America. This mission requires the capacity to track objects in space to differentiate between objects that may be de-orbiting for a variety of reasons and ballistic missile warheads, thereby avoiding potential dangerous assessment errors. This capacity continues to increase in importance as space becomes more and more congested, particularly in the strategically essential GEO orbits. Moreover, the importance of precise observations of objects in GEO will grow with the development of on-orbit servicing systems in the near future.

Finally, Sapphire is key to Canada’s longstanding strategy of ensuring a binational, rather than national approach to the defence of North America via NORAD. During the Cold War, this was largely assured because Canadian real estate was essential to the defence of North America from the Soviet air-breathing threat. Since then, the threat has largely evaporated, and emerging new space-based technologies can replace key ground-based radar assets if necessary in the future. Canadian territory became marginal in terms of a Canadian contribution to binational defence. As such, Canada needed to replace its territorial contribution with a substantive one – hence Sapphire.

The significance of Sapphire is also a function of the Martin government decision to stand aside from the U.S. ballistic missile defence program in 2005; the only major U.S. continental defence program of the last decade. Missile defence is inherently linked to military space particularly through the Space Tracking and Surveillance System. In saying no to missile defence, not only did Canada say no to access to classified information about missile defence, but also implicitly said no to access to related military space systems. As these, in turn, are assets supporting NORAD’s early warning mission, the missile defence “no” might be interpreted much more broadly by the U.S. The potential result could be the marginalization of NORAD into an air-breathing defence mission only, and the closure of all U.S. military space to Canada. As such, NORAD could become a “hollow shell,” despite indefinite renewal in 2006. Moreover, the loss of Canadian access to U.S. military space would undermine Canada’s strategic interests as laid out in Canadian defence space policy and the likely key elements of the long-awaited Canadian defence space strategy.

Overall, the strategic significance of Sapphire cannot be under-estimated. This may be surprising when one considers the size of the U.S. defence budget in general, and military space budget in particular, when compared to Canada’s relatively low cost investment of less than $100 million in Sapphire. However, the U.S. as the pre-eminent military and space power faces large demands across the services in an environment of significant planned defence cuts. As such, Canada’s contribution via Sapphire is significant to the U.S. on cost grounds and the value-added capability it provides to space security.

Like the U.S., however, National Defence also faces significant defence cuts. The danger is that Sapphire may become a “one-off” contribution, rather than the first of a series of space-based satellites. Space investments are vulnerable given the demands emanating from the traditional services within the Canadian Forces. National defence officials may well believe that the “space box” has been checked, and Canada’s access to U.S. military space assured. This may be true in the near-term, but as time moves on, and the strategic significance of space continues to grow, Canada will have to continue to make strategic investments to ensure its place as a space player.

Continuing on the track lines laid out today by committing to additional space-based surveillance satellites, possibly in cooperation with the Canadian Space Agency and its near-earth observation surveillance satellite assuming its capability meets SSN requirements, is essential for Canada’s strategic interests and the binational defence relationship.

There are, of course, other valuable defence and security space programs, especially the radar satellite constellation mission, that cannot be ignored. Space-based surveillance, however, is Canada’s real entry into military space, that needs to continue to grow.

Dr. James Fergusson is the director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.