In 1986, senior Canadian defence officials proposed to the United States that Canada would develop a radar satellite constellation for the North American defence mission with global utility. In 1995, the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) RADARSAT-1 was launched into a sun-synchronous polar orbit. Twelve years later, RADARSAT-2 was launched into the same orbit. Two years earlier, the government announced funding for MacDonald Detwiller & Associates to undertake a feasibility and design study for a three-radar satellite constellation. In 2010, the Harper government, along with the CSA, budgeted funds for the construction of the constellation, with the first launch planned for 2014.

During this period, National Defence established Project Polar Epsilon 1 to build ground stations on the east and west coasts for the reception and analysis of RADARSAT-2 data. The department is currently proceeding with Polar Epsilon 2 designed to exploit the radar satellite constellation for enhanced, persistent coverage of the Arctic and maritime approaches to Canada, which will include the integration of the maritime automatic identification system. Epsilon 2 may also include an additional ground station located potentially in the High North or the prairies to provide more efficient data collection and analysis.

This roughly 30-year odyssey from vision to completion has been driven by the combination of North American defence cooperation with the U.S. and national sovereignty and security requirements. Without the emergence of the Arctic as a government priority, however, vital government support and funding would likely have been absent, especially for the constellation component.

The Arctic equation
Since the transfer of British sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago and North West Passage (NWP) to Canada in the late nineteenth century, Canadian knowledge of foreign activities in the Arctic are noticeable by their absence. But then, there was little, if any activity except for exploration to notice. The harsh climate, frozen passages and lack of technology ensured Canadian sovereignty and security by default.

During the Cold War, little changed except for the potential threat of Soviet bombers flying over the Arctic to targets in the south. This generated the conditions for the establishment of the Distant Early Warning line in the 1950s, modernized in the 1980s, the creation of NORAD in 1957, and establishment of forward operating locations for Canadian interceptors. An initial surveillance capability emerged with the creation of the Rangers program and limited aerial surveillance capabilities with the Arcturus platform. But still, the realities of the Arctic environment produced little need for terrestrial surveillance.

In the maritime sector, the development of Arctic capable icebreakers provided some degree of greater access by foreign nations, and a nascent Canadian capability to monitor its Arctic waters. But there was no significant Arctic maritime threat. The Arctic waters were also the home of Soviet and American nuclear ballistic missile and attack submarines on station. The extent to which they transited through Canadian arctic waters remains unknown. Regardless, the lack of technology to monitor their passage underwater and high costs associated with the technology, which sank Canada’s nuclear submarine program in 1989, alongside strategic considerations, foreclosed this aspect of surveillance.

All changed with global warming and the shrinking of the permanent Arctic ice cap. While estimates of when we might see a summer ice-free Arctic vary significantly, maritime traffic is growing, with projections of the Arctic becoming a major global transportation route. Whether the NWP will also become a major route is a little more difficult – the rotation of the earth will drive ice flows into its entrance points, potentially restricting traffic. Regardless, the need for Canada to be able to monitor projected maritime traffic is growing, and this extends beyond the NWP. In addition, climate changes are also opening access to on- and off-shore resources. Their exploitation, alongside environmental concerns and their impact upon local communities, further drives the vital need for Canada to possess full situational awareness of the Arctic as a whole.

Monitoring the Arctic
Like the nation, the Canadian Arctic is a huge expanse of territory and adjacent waters. The radar satellite constellation, along with RADARSAT 1 and 2, is one piece, albeit the essential one, of the monitoring and response puzzle. Its wide-area surveillance capability with 36-minute active dictation per orbit for the constellation as a whole will provide at least daily coverage of the entire Canadian Arctic and maritime approaches.

In addition, the constellation possesses a coherent change detection capability. These capabilities provide domain and situational awareness, and damage assessment for National Defence, as well as for other government departments and their respective mandates.

For the National Defence security mission, in conjunction with the Coast Guard and RCMP, the constellation will provide cueing for terrestrial, maritime and air assets for target reconnaissance and target interception as required. This, in turn, demands significant investments in acquiring and deploying the necessary assets for a relatively rapid response. Initial steps, indicated through the Canada First Defence Strategy, including the recent naval shipbuilding program to acquire a fleet of first-year ice capable vessels and the establishment of an Arctic deepwater re-fueling and logistics facility at Nanisivik on Baffin Island. An adjacent airfield provides air access to the facility. A small army training base has also been established at Resolute Bay. Both facilities are located in the eastern Arctic.

While year-round permanent military presence is unnecessary, depending upon Arctic warming patterns, a summer ice-free seasonal presence may be required. In addition, as activity increases, similar consideration may need to be given to establishing a military presence in the western Arctic. Already, for example, calls to locate military search and rescue capabilities further north have been heard. The future expansion of a Canadian Forces presence in the north will carry a very steep price tag. The Arctic will remain an expensive theatre of operations.

The ability to exploit the radar satellite constellation to its fullest extent will also require close cooperation and integration amongst the CF, Coast Guard, RCMP and other government departments, as well as local authorities. Notwithstanding highly contentious concerns of an emerging military threat in the Arctic, the security questions primarily relate to constabulary functions outside of National Defence’s legal mandate.

Moreover, the constellation itself is not a military owned or operated asset. In effect, the primary role of National Defence and the CF is to facilitate the execution of the legal mandates of others, whether through the provision of analyzed imagery or direct military support to others executing their mandates as cued by this imagery. In so doing, the need to replicate the existing Maritime Security Operations Centres on each coast is likely to become a priority for the Arctic.

New security environment
The Canadian Arctic has made the radar satellite constellation possible. The sovereignty issue is more rhetoric than reality. No nation contests Canada’s ownership of its Arctic archipelago, and the NWP, despite Canadian protests, will remain an international strait, rather than internal waters. The security issues driven by increased maritime access to and through Arctic waters are the major concern driving the government. The constellation is a vital piece of the government’s response to this new security environment.

At the same time, the North American and global significance of the constellation should not be ignored. Constellation imagery provides a valuable Canadian contribution to North American defence cooperation. Its global potential will also be of great value for allied overseas operations.

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