The Extra 'S' in Arctic SAR - Sovereignty

15 March 2009

SAR and Sovereignty made front pages recently with the announcement by President Bush of U.S. Arctic Policy, and with the miracle on the Hudson – when Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, a U.S. Airlines pilot (a former Air Force fighter and nationally rated glider pilot) ­completed a forced approach with an Airbus 320, ensuring the safety of 150 souls.

The United States desperately needed a win, and was handed one on this day. American first responders and civilian mariners in New York, no strangers to difficult incidents, responded in true Bravo Zulu fashion. These two seemingly unrelated events impact Canada’s Arctic SAR capability which I will explore in this article. Canada has neither the time nor the luxury of gliding on the important issue of Sovereignty and the entwined responsibility of SAR (Search and Rescue) capabilities in the north. Like our American neighbours, as ­witnessed in New York Harbour, we need to bring all the players, including Northerners, into an integrated Arctic SAR strategy and incident command system. A true team approach is needed. It is an integral and underlying component of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.

Recent changes in global climatic conditions are rapidly changing Canada’s arctic. How other nations view the Arctic and the potential resources and the geopolitical landscape is also rapidly changing. The story is being written as the future unfolds. In the past, Canada has been reactive to outside forces which potentially have challenged Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic. We have seen the EU, the U.S. and Russia all making claims – the Australians have even gotten into the act. It is time for Canada, as part of an infrastructure investment, to become proactive in the Arctic. As Mary Simon, national leader for Inuit in Canada, and President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) has stated, “sovereignty starts at home.” It is the same way with SAR.

Canada’s challenges to its Arctic sovereignty are not restricted to the 21st century. They can be traced back to uninvited foreign whalers making use of Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea in the 19th century. This illegal activity led to the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) patrolling, by dog­sled, from Dawson City to the Arctic coast.

In recent years, many FrontLine ­articles, including my own, have addressed various Arctic issues. Of pressing importance now, is to examine the pressing subject of the ­interaction of sovereignty and Search and Rescue from a broad perspective.

The subject of SAR is very much a real and pressing issue rather than a ­perceived threat. The provision of SAR is a fundamental basis of a state’s control of its lands and waters. Canadians can be proud of its world class SAR professionals in the Canadian Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard, plus police and firefighters. These groups are backed by experienced and dedicated volunteer professionals.

When it comes to Arctic SAR, whether marine or air, we need to take a functional and practical approach to search and rescue. Canada’s Arctic, including the offshore waters which make up the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), is as immense as the number of challenges this harsh environment can present.

Canada must be prepared for the major incident and increases in the multitude of local incidents occurring as a result of sea-ice changes brought about by climate change. This situation cuts across marine, air and ground SAR.

Canada’s National SAR program has been in place since 1986. The RCAF first commenced dedicated SAR operations in 1947. The Chief of the Air Staff is responsible for strategic Canadian Forces’ SAR Policy. CanadaCommand has operational control of Canada’s SAR resources for marine and aviation incidents. The lead minister is the Minister of National Defence. For most of the recent past, SAR issues have been driven by operational matters. I believe we should challenge that thinking and look at the reasons SAR has become a very important and pressing need for Canada to address – from a sovereignty perspective.

We need to start thinking about SAR broadly, in the policy context, and develop a unified approach to benefit Canada.

The provision of SAR in the Arctic is one of Canada’s greatest challenges. A rescue is a rescue – it makes no difference if the lives saved are Canadian or foreign ­citizens on land, ice or at sea.

As we all know, the height of an emergency is no time for a meet and greet. It is the same with Arctic SAR. Canada and Canadians need to make friends now – long before an incident. This is a fundamental cornerstone to a strong and robust incident command structure, not unlike the Canadian Forces Command and Control System. The National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS), a unique federal agency that coordinates SAR policy across all the federal departments has begun the development of a Northern SAR strategy. This Strategy is aimed at bringing all parties together, and progress has been made.

We saw the benefit of a unified command system during rescue operations after the January landing of a US Airways plane into the Hudson River, and a month earlier, when both engines of a Cessna failed over the Hudson Strait, just south of Baffin Island. The two Swedes scrambled onto the ice as the plane sank, and were reached 18 hours later (in –13°C weather) by a Canadian fishing vessel with ­assistance from the Halifax Joint Rescue Coordination Centre.

Challenges to Canada’s sovereignty are only going to increase with a melting arctic. We see that in the recently announced U.S. arctic policy which has been consistent over the last 50 years. Canada needs to take a proactive approach and deal with real rather than perceived threats.

The Search and Rescue component of sovereignty is often overlooked. Canada has signed a variety of international agreements to provide SAR services, and thus plays a key leadership role at the ­International Maritime Organization (IMO). For example, Canada is a signatory to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979 , the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and International Civil Aeronautical Organization (ICAO) agreements which have matured into a SAR blanket that cover the world’s oceans and airspace. In addition, Section 130 of the Canada Shipping Act, 2001, gives broad power to Marine Controllers to divert civilian vessels and aircraft in searching.

SAR is a key component of the exercise of a nation’s sovereignty and the interaction of alleged rights of transit passage under the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC). The right of transit through the Northwest Passage (which the United States considers an international strait), is subject to the right of transit passage. The LOSC also covers the right of overflight for aircraft above the strait (Article 38), not just the right of ­surface vessels to navigate through such waters. The responsibilities and legal implications therefore require that SAR requirements be carefully considered and accounted for.

The importance of Search and Rescue to Canada’s sovereign rights has received very little attention in the policy context and international legal debate. The provision of SAR in a state’s territory and area of sovereignty is a central component of statehood. The concept of sovereignty, like that of international law, is not static but evolves in reaction to changing circumstances and world conditions.

One recent developing example of evolving international law and states’ rights is the issue of piracy off the coast of Somalia. Customary international law is what is generally accepted by like minded nations and which can be codified into international conventions. Sovereignty is defined in part as:

    “Paramount control of the constitution and frame of government and its administration; the international independence of a state, combined with the right and power of regulating its internal affairs without foreign dictation…”

The Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, chaired by Senator Bill Rompkey, summed up the SAR and sovereignty nexus in its 4th Interim Report:

Search and Rescue (page 34)

    “Obviously, more shipping and navigation, resource development activity and tourism will increase the risk of Search and Rescue (SAR) incidents. Witnesses considered the ability to provide SAR to be an important means for Canada to demonstrate its commitment to sovereignty in the vast and sparsely populated region that is the Canadian Arctic.” [Emphasis added]

The development of international law is also fluid. Sovereignty provides Canada with a fundamental basis to control and administer and respond to, for example, a marine or aviation SAR incident. The international community expects that Canada has the ability, will and capability to respond in an emergency. Canada has, as noted earlier, international obligations to provide SAR (in addition to providing SAR generally for its own citizens). For example, with Arctic overflights, ­foreign Airlines are paying Canada (through NAV Can, a private sector company and the country’s civil air navigation services provider), monies to over fly Canadian airspace. It is expected in the international community that Canada can respond adequately to a SAR incident.

 Canada needs to take a functional approach to search and rescue. We need to develop clear thinking around this very important national subject. We need the same skill and expertise and thinking developed on SAR policy as that witnessed daily by our SARTechs, Rangers and the dedicated volunteers that beef up our National SAR response.

Contrary to the current “save money” thinking, one cannot simply look at the geographical distribution of SAR incidents in deciding where to place scare resources. A country is more than a balance sheet or the statistical loci of SAR incidents.

Clearly, Canada’s Arctic is our future. We now need to put in place, and buttress, and strengthen, and invest in Canada’s sovereignty infrastructure. We have seen the wisdom of that thinking. Incidents will and do happen. When they do – all eyes will be on Canada and how it responds.
The exercise of Canada’s jurisdiction does not occur in a vacuum. I would like to focus on specifics, such as building on existing strengths that have been developed and implemented as part of Canada’s Northern Strategy, the evolution of Canada Command, and the 2008 announcement of the Canada First Defence Strategy – these have an important impact on Canada’s Arctic and the exercise of jurisdiction.

The importance of examining Canada’s exercise of jurisdiction in a holistic fashion which will highlight the linkages and interdependencies of a whole of government response, involves issues that cut across government departments.

In an area as vast as the Canadian Arctic, it makes sense to utilize all available assets to develop a team approach through a joint effort which is now happening in marine security as a result of 9/11.

In a recent policy announcement, Admiral Thomas Keating of the United States Navy, the Commander of Pacific Command, said that soft power “underscores the fundamental importance of ­sustained and persistent cooperation and collaboration in times of relative peace to mitigate situations that could lead to conflict and crisis.”

This applies equally to Arctic SAR. Cooperation between all players in Arctic SAR requires a sustained investment in our sovereignty infrastructure and long-term funding to develop a unique Northern based response that is buttressed by our existing SAR infrastructure which is based predominantly in Southern Canada.

It is important to understand that Search and Rescue in the Arctic is directly related to Canada’s claims of sovereignty. SAR is merely one government function of a sovereign nation – a lens by which to view the exercise of jurisdiction.

Arctic SAR is not without its challenges and Canada has pioneered the development of Arctic SAR. We can be proud of our expertise and the heroism of the professionals and volunteers who make SAR work in one of the world’s most hostile environments.

Such expertise and dedication could equally apply to marine pollution response, aids to navigation, enforcement of shipping legislation, salvage capability, marine domain awareness or hydrographic charting to name a few of Canada’s exercise of jurisdiction related to in transit international Arctic shipping. All of these government functions require Canada to take positive steps. Over time, there will be increased marine traffic (including expedition cruises vessels) entering Canadian Arctic waters, and over 300 daily polar commercial flights transiting Canadian Arctic airspace. Many of these, commercial aircraft carrying in excess of 300 passengers. This is happening, and the future is now.

A robust, whole of Government, Arctic SAR response requires the input and assistance of Canada’s First Canadians – the Inuit. We need out-of-the-box thinking and new creative, effective solutions. This is nothing new for Northerners – we need to merge the latest in technology with ­traditional skills to make this work.

There is a great deal of activity in our Arctic. In 2005 there were 114,986 international and 119,505 domestic overflights – and those numbers are increasing. It is the same in Arctic waters.
Approximately 150 large cruise ships frequent the west Greenland coast, with over 120,000 people on board. The M/S Explorer, which sank off Antarctica in 2007, was a frequent visitor to the Canadian Arctic.

At any one time on an average day, there are more people in commercial aircraft overflying Canadian Arctic airspace than the entire population of the North. This is a real situation not a perceived one, and one that likely keeps the Commander of CanadaCommand awake at night.

In a recent issue of the Canadian Naval Review, Spring, 2008, Colonel (retired) Brian Wentzell, a fellow of the Dalhousie Centre for Foreign Policies Studies, set out the differences between sovereignty and security in a comment “A Rebuttal of Defending the Empty North” on an earlier article comparing the Canadian and Australian experience that appeared in the Winter edition which is directly relevant to our discussion. Col Wentzell writes:

    “As Rear Admiral Robert Timbrell eloquently observed in 1979: ‘Sovereignty is not the same as security… [S]ome of the sources that threaten our sovereignty could be our strongest allies for the preservation of security. Whereas our security is bound up with our allies, our sovereignty is our own problem, to be defended by ourselves alone.’

    “The need for the defence of national sovereignty is not a uniquely Canadian requirement; it is the core function of every state. With the emergence of environmental threats arising from the exploitation of fisheries, marine transportation, tourism, and newly accessible minerals and hydro­carbons, the concepts of sovereignty have been extended by international agreement and national legislation to include ­regulation of activities in vast areas contiguous to the territorial sea. Most countries, excluding the United States have signed the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty which legitimizes many of these actions.”

RAdm Timbrell’s comment rings true. At issue here is not our basis for claiming sovereignty but the challenges to exercising lawful jurisdiction over Arctic waters that is at issue. Other nations will challenge our right to exercise jurisdiction. International legal scholars, Faculty of Law Professors Ian Townsend-Gault of the University of British Columbia, and Don McRae of the University of Ottawa, have made similar comments. This is why it is important for Canada to exercise its SAR jurisdiction over the Canadian North in a clear confident manner, and in a holistic fashion, for both vessels and overflying aircraft. We do not need to ask any other nation’s permission. Canada cannot defend its sovereignty solely through military force but must utilize all sovereign powers to control, monitor, regulate and enforce its laws over international shipping in its Arctic waters. In this way, SAR is a cornerstone of ­functional Sovereignty.

The National SAR Secretariat is developing a Northern SAR strategy and bringing all stakeholders together in a ­collaborative manner. This must include innovative solutions, a stable northern ­presence, a variety of airframes, public and private sector input. Most importantly, we need to have input from the North.

We need to get this Arctic SAR Strategy completed. Any landing you can walk (or swim) away from, is a good one. ­Captain Sullenberger might be a good choice to lead a discussion session on Arctic SAR. He has a unique perspective to share.

A robust and broadly-based Canadian Arctic SAR capability – involving the Inuit, the Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian Forces – backstopped by the latest in space based technology, new airframes and icebreakers, the latest sensors, and a solid underlying policy will be the symbolic flag of functional sovereignty which will be draped across the Arctic, strengthening Canadian Sovereignty.

An investment in SAR sovereignty infrastructure is an investment in Canada’s future. It has to be done. A strong Canadian SAR capability in the Arctic will, like our flag – Stand for Canada. It will ensure that Canada glides confidently into its Arctic century.

Joe Spears has been involved in Arctic SAR, survived an Arctic forced landing, and recently testified before the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans on Arctic SAR.
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2009