SAR & Sovereignty

15 May 2010

Recent events, with the E15 volcano eruption in Iceland and the Deep Horizon oil rig explosion and resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, highlight the fact that low ­probability events can and will happen – often with catastrophic consequences.

These two incidents could easily have given rise to Search and Rescue (SAR) incidents – 11 lives were lost on the Deep Horizon rig, with 150 crew rescued.

When incidents of this magnitude happen, and they will, responsible nations need the agility, capability and capacity to be able to respond effectively within its area of jurisdiction. This is difficult at the best of times, but even more problematic when the underlying basis of jurisdiction is challenged by other nations. This is the dilemma Canada finds itself in the Arctic.

Far from being brittle, a nation must maintain an ability to respond to a wide range of incidents. Emergency response protocols must be resilient and strong.

SAR is just one of a bundle of potential responses of the coastal state when it comes to ocean management. In Canada’s case, this requires, especially in the Arctic, an enhanced SAR capacity for the potential for low probability catastrophic incidents from increased marine activity brought about by changing sea-ice conditions. 

April 2010 – Canadian Ranger Bart Hanna relaxes with a coffee while camped at a bivouac on Oopik Island, near Canadian Forces Station Alert during Operation Nunalivut 10. It is one of three joint operations conducted annually by the Canadian Forces in Canada’s North. It employs the unique capabilities of the Canadian Rangers in support of Joint Task Force North operations in the extreme environment of the high Arctic. The operation ran from 6-30 April 2010 out of Alert, Canada’s most Northerly permanently inhabited location. Photo: Cpl Shilo Adamson, CF Combat Camera

This presents a massive challenge for Canadian northern response – an expansive jurisdiction with a very small population base. The Canadian Arctic will again be subject to incidents, it is just a matter of time. As any military commander knows, the best laid plans can be tossed out the window after the first shot is fired. It is at that time when people and their training become the most important resource.

The Canadian Arctic is seeing a host of changes unlike any we’ve experienced before. Is difficult to predict the future, but one thing is certain, Canada needs to seize this opportunity and create capability in the Arctic communities. Some of the more ­critical international aspects of SAR were explored in the January 2009 issue of FrontLine Defence. Increasing numbers of transport flights over the arctic mean there are often more people in the air over the Arctic than the population of Nunavut.

The ability to conduct activities within the state’s territory is a key component of sovereignty. International attention has put SAR under a lens which signals to the world that it has the national will, capability and capacity and trained personnel to exercise sovereignty over its Arctic jurisdiction and out into the Arctic Ocean Basin.

A focused national approach on this can create economic opportunities by creating opportunities to showcase Canadian technology. The Transport Canada Dash 8 conducting oil spill surveillance presently in the Gulf of Mexico is a case in point.

The concept of risk management is embodied in safety legislation, regulation and private sector management practices. Prevention, protection and mitigation are ways to avoid incidents.

SAR fits into the risk management equation in the latter part of the protection and mitigation phase. A SAR incident results when the prevention and protection phase of risk management have failed, for instance, when B.C. snowmobilers ignore severe avalanche warnings and manage to congregate in areas marked as dangerous. The issue is more compounded and complicated in a coastal state as large as Canada which has a massive territory and a small population. If we don’t have the ability to provide basic SAR, we weaken the ability to exert sovereignty over such areas. More importantly, we lose creditability on the international stage because of the lack of ability to respond.

The Fixed-wing SAR aircraft project is important because it has broad implications for Canada’s interest in the Arctic. Has the needs assessment for this project been defined in light of changing conditions?

Canada’s present SAR regime was set up in 1948 when aviation and trans-polar flights were in their infancy. In the Arctic this presents challenges with no dedicated SAR aircraft positioned in the region. There are however lots of potential SAR assets which can be accessed. We need to revisit the SAR framework in an organized and structured way and allow innovation to flourish. The National SAR Secretariat, which reports to the Minister of National Defence, is ideally suited to address this. The inception of the NSS arose from the tragic 1982 sinking of the oil rig Ocean Ranger; it provides the government of Canada advice on SAR issues.

The plume of volcanic ash from Iceland affected jet travel which could have seen airliners succumbing to the ash and going down in the Canadian Arctic. While this is a low probability event, it would have had catastrophic consequences. Ash monitoring and the shut down of commercial flights kept this in the upstream area of risk management. The same is true with increased adventure tourism and cruise ships that are frequenting the Northwest Passage.

There been little input from Arctic communities on how SAR service delivery is provided. This needs to change.

It is safe to say that Canada’s SAR professionals and volunteers operate in some of the most hostile environments in the world, yet with a great success. Just ask the Australian and who was rescued by a military SAR Tech after falling through the sea ice 525 kilometres north of CFS Alert. “The unexpected yet successful search and rescue of Australian Tom Smitheringale during Operation Nunalivut 10 demonstrates why we need a strong presence in the Arctic, as well as continual improvements on the capabilities to operate here,” commented Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

It is important to look at how SAR is provided in Canada, especially as it relates to the integration of local resources into a national SAR structure in a rapidly changing Arctic. This is a solveable problem which can be dealt with by all groups working together and having discussions on this important subject. We need to apply the same focused professionalism that is applied at the pointy end of SAR during operational incidents – moving beyond turf wars and opening our minds to the direct input and participation of our northern ­citizens. Let’s get this right as a nation.

At a March meeting with foreign ­ministers of the five Arctic Ocean coastal states – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States – Lawrence Cannon, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, stated that “we, as Arctic Ocean coastal states, are taking action and showing leadership consistent with our roles as sovereign nations and coastal states in this important region.”

The Arctic presents a great opportunity for Canada to create innovative out of the box thinking when it comes to delivery across the region and harnessing technological advances that Canada has made in the area of sensors – MDA’s Radarsat-2 and Com Dev’s space-based AIS to name just two examples.

The recent appointment of Lieutenant-General Leslie as Chief of Transformation (to take effect on 22 June 2010) provides a fitting juncture to ask how the Canadian Rangers and Canadian Army reserve units can fit more vigorously into a renewed Canadian SAR regime and allow input at the local level. The Danes should not be the only ones using dog sleds during Operation Nunalivut 10. The Rangers’ marine capability also needs to be developed. As Commander of the Army since 2006, LGen Leslie is very familiar with the confident capability of the Canadian Rangers.

It is time to look at our arctic and start the heavy lifting by examining the existing SAR structure. Unrestrictive dialogue leads to innovative new approaches.

In Canada’s case, arctic SAR presents a unique opportunity to position itself as a world leader and embrace the traditional and well-honed skills of the First Canadians – the Inuit. Through the Canadian Rangers program, the Inuit already play a key and valuable role, but they can do much, much more if we open our minds to possibilities and opportunities for youth.

The need for SAR capabilities can lead to more international cooperation at the local and operational level around the Arctic Ocean Basin. The benefits are both immense and thus virtually immeasurable; the outcome can generate added economic sales for Canadian industry.

Why not have the Canadian Ranger greeting the Russian paratroopers with good Canadian double-double when they jump at the North Pole later this year. What better way to create, as the Norwegian ­Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store stated at the Arctic Ocean Foreign Minister’s Conference, “High Arctic – Low Tension” and have some good coffee too. The Russians would likely enjoy it.

Canadians have always been a welcoming people, and Canada, as a SAR leader, is poised to lead the way on Arctic cooperation – strengthening its own Arctic claim in the process. The world needs leadership in response to the geo-political changes of the Arctic, and Canada is well suited to provide innovative solutions. It is the Canadian way when confronted with a real problem.

Joe Spears is a Principal with the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group.
© FrontLine Defence 2010