UAVs in the Arctic

15 September 2012

The summer of 2012 was another record-breaking year for diminishing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean Basin and scientists have predicted that the Arctic could be ice free by summer 2016. While Canada inches forward on its own internal timeline, both commercial marine and illegal activities continue to escalate in the increasingly ice-free Arctic.

To exercise sovereignty, a nation must be aware, and be able to respond and enforce. The requirement to maintain marine domain awareness in its vast Arctic ocean space is a cornerstone of Canada’s sovereignty infrastructure as set out in the Canada Northern Strategy. To do this cost-effectively in a short timeframe, we should make better use of the Canadian Rangers and also leading-edge technologies, including the use of space-based assets such as MDA’s Radarsat Constellation, High Frequency radar, UAVs, and various ocean and ground-based sensors and cameras.

It is important to understand the weather of the high Arctic and the fact that is in darkness from October through to early March. Electro-Optical and Infra-red (EO-IR) sensors should be augmented by Synthetic Aperture Radar to create a complete data picture for year-round surveillance.

The near real-time data from these assets and space-based AIS (Automatic Identification Systems) needs to be integrated in order to ensure that Canada, with a variety of federal departments having jurisdiction, has the ability to exercise ­sovereignty – this includes various governmental agencies exercising a functional approach for defence, security, law enforcement, pollution response, and regulated environmental navigation and protection.

It requires a whole of government approach, with an important role played by the Canadian Forces. Understanding what is happening in the complex and demanding environment of the Arctic requires a data collection system that can stand up in an international court of law. It is time to begin evolving our current system of infrequent ranger patrols, sparse fixed sensors, and occasional air and sea patrols into a coherent real-time cognitive plan for the near future.

One of the primary mandated roles of the Canadian Forces in the 21st century is to help exercise Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic. Since the release of Canada’s Northern Strategy in 2007 and the Canada First Defense Strategy in 2008, the number one role for the Canadian Forces is to provide security at home. The strategy states:

“The Canadian forces must have the capacity to exercise control over and defend Canada sovereignty in the Arctic. […] As activity in northern lands and waters accelerate, the military will play an increasingly vital role in demonstrating a visible Canadian presence in this potentially resource rich region, and in helping other government agencies such as the Coast Guard respond to any threats that may arise”.

Of the six core missions defined in the Canada Defense strategy, the first is to “conduct daily domestic and continental operations including in the Arctic and through NORAD”. The new Canada Joint Operations Command is responsible for conducting full-spectrum Canadian Forces operations at home, including the Arctic.

Data Integration
In examining the broad context of C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) in the arctic, we should discuss the need to integrate data.

C4ISR is a critical and normal military function that can be applied in the Arctic. The information collected by the Canadian Forces, subject to legislative requirements, can be shared with other government departments for various purposes outside the CF mandate. This will benefit a whole of government approach in the Arctic.

An effective Northern Strategy would provide an overarching concept for data brokering and the development of agreements to share this information. The stove piping of Government departments in narrow jurisdictional silos is one of the challenges of Canada’s Arctic governance. That is starting to change, as it must, as the world comes to the Canadian arctic.

However there are still challenges with Arctic operations, especially as it relates to satellite communication links.

The interaction between space-based sensors, such as the Canadian-built Radarsat 2 (RS-2) and the need to employ persistent aerial surveillance to balance the any temporal weaknesses, requires some consideration. Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology may be an important contribution. However, and more importantly, the collection of all source information must be handled in a coherent and structured manner to ensure that high fidelity knowledge is generated and not a series of false alerts. Polar Epsilon is designed to provide an all-weather day/night surveillance capability through the RS-2 synthetic aperture radar satellite constellation.

In addition to the consistency provided by Polar Epsilon, an unmanned aerial system (UAS) capability could provide more persistent coverage and the related knowledge and understanding. Many of these unarmed birds have proven track records of persistent capability and an ability to collect a wide range of data for multiple purposes using a variety of sensors. The data collected in real time can be used by a variety of government departments, including for scientific research.

Earlier this year, Northrop Grumman proposed Arctic-modified Global Hawks, renamed Polar Hawks, to operate out of RCAF airbases in Goose Bay (Labrador), Comox (British Columbia), and other locations. NASA has operated their Global Hawk to 86°N (within 300 miles of the North Pole), using existing communications methods. New systems are expected to extend Polar Hawk’s reach closer to the pole without having to revert to autono­mous flight operations (such as when a UAV is dispatched to conduct a mission without a communications link and the air vehicle conducts a pre-assigned mission, collecting data before returning to re-establish communication).

Increased Arctic activity leads to an imperative for a complete maritime picture in order to ensure marine domain awareness of Canada’s vast territories in the North. Earlier articles that I’ve written in this magazine have examined some of these challenges and the need for both fixed wing aircraft as well as space-based assets. Without full domain awareness, and the ability to verify targets within Canada’s ocean space, we will not be able to defend sovereignty and ensure proper ocean governance as international marine and air traffic increases.

The signing of the 2006 NORAD Agreement added Maritime warning to NORAD’s role. The bilateral Command has been monitoring and defending the Arctic airspace of both nations for over 50 years and its North Warning System radars are due for replacement in about 12 years. It is critically important to know what is going on in our Arctic waters and approaches if we are to maintain a low-conflict environment. It is in both Canadian and American interests.

Presently, there is no functioning Arctic MOSC (Maritime Security Operations Centre). The development of an integrated marine domain awareness, embracing the whole of government approach, can showcase technologies through development of a data fusion from a variety of sensors and an information system or data brokering across government. For example, the U.S. government has set up the marine domain awareness information exchange to share information (http://www.mda.gov/). Canada needs to examine this and take a similar approach in the Arctic. This is good business and there is a great opportunity now, with Canada taking the Chair of the Arctic Council in 2013, to showcase this integrated and unified approach which can lead to export opportunities for leading-edge Canadian technology.

Challenges & Discussion
Experiencing extremes of solar radiation, fluctuating temperatures between –40°C and 30°C, and plunged in darkness for over half the year, the Arctic environment creates unique technological challenges, especially given the fact there is very little infrastructure in the high North. The former Chief of the Defense Staff General Natynczyk, no stranger to foreign operations or the Arctic, has made it very clear that Arctic operations is one of the most challenging environments in which the Canadian Forces will ever operate.

Canada needs discussion and dialogue, across all of government and the private sector, to look at how can we can most cost-effectively provide marine domain awareness on a year-round basis. It is time to expand thinking and ideas around how Canada can achieve its ocean governance goals in the Arctic. The free flow of ideas and dialogue is key as we seek, as a nation, to obtain cost effective Arctic solutions.

Combined with an effective command and control system, satellites and robust un­manned systems can be a unique Canadian 21st century Arctic solution. UAS have proved their worth in times of war, and they will help protect Canada’s Arctic interests in a time of great climate change. However, the Arctic airspace is not hospitable, intense winds will eradicate most small UAS, which means a variety of options must be in place.

As Canada’s Northern Strategy makes very clear, now is the time for the Canadian Forces to invest in the platforms, personnel, and support requirements for increased marine domain awareness as part of a whole of government response.

There is a strong case for Canada to combine satellite and UAS systems when it comes to Arctic surveillance. As a major Arctic nation, Canada needs to be at the forefront of this integrated thinking and technology for Arctic Marine domain awareness. An integrated approach solution will provide the information needed for complete awareness; and a robust response capability will allow Canada to protect its sovereignty. One thing is clear – the Canadian Forces has a key role to play in Canada’s Northern Strategy as the 21st century unfolds.

Joe Spears is Maritime Counsel at Straith Litigation Chambers and has been involved in Arctic shipping and governance for over 30 years. He was recently invited to the 2nd Sino-Canada Workshop on the Arctic hosted by Dalhousie University. Joe can be reached at kjs@oceanlawcanada.com.
© FrontLine Defence 2012