Arctic Sovereignty & Radarsat-2

15 March 2008

Is Canada’s Sovereignty for Sale?
What does this mean for Canadian Foreign Policy and the ability to enforce our Arctic Claim? The announced sale, in January 2008, of the information and geospatial division of BC company, Macdonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), to the U.S. aerospace company, Alliant Techsystems, raises important issues about Canada’s foreign policy that must be considered in a broader context than merely a corporate takeover between two private businesses, one foreign and one domestic. It brings to mind the Avro Arrow, the leading swept wing fighter that was infamously cancelled by a previous Conservative government in 1959. Much of the American aerospace industry benefited as a result of Canadian investment in cutting edge aerospace technology and the subsequent migration of Canadian workers to the United States.

At the time, cancellation of the program was allegedly because Canada could not afford this fighter and the long range bomber threat at the height of the Cold War was waning and being replaced by threats of ICB missiles. There seemed ­little need for a high altitude supersonic fighter aircraft, but the economic effects were felt for many years – and the damage to Canadian pride remains an open wound for many.

Fast forward to 2008, when a new cold war, caused by changing climate patterns, is arising because some key nations don’t recognize Canada’s claim to Arctic waters – a serious threat.

The sale of Radarsat-2 must be considered in a broad policy perspective, especially in light of Arctic ­sovereignty issues. In a speech on Canada’s Arctic claim, the Prime Minister gave one of his strongest and, I dare say, best speeches: “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic: either we use it or we lose it… Make no mistake; this government intends to use it.”

Industry Minister Jim Prentice seemed to support this notion in October, when he said, “[Radarsat-2] will help us vigorously protect our Arctic sovereignty as international interest in the region increases.”

On the other hand, as Marc Garneau, former President of the Canadian Space Agency, was recently quoted as saying, “if you’re going to say MDA must stay Canadian, it involves a level of commitment, and that means making it viable for a company to do business here.”

The decision to sell the space division makes great business sense for MDA. However, there comes a time when, we as a country need to step up to the table. A nation’s sovereignty cannot be measured merely by a line entry on a balance sheet. We must invest in our future and our children’s future. Taxpayers understand this, the Prime Minister understands this, and Parliament understands this. Since Canada invested so heavily in the development, we must closely examine the sale of Radarsat-2 to determine if it is in the national interest. If it is not approved, the government could compensate MDA – if anything is owing – and that can be dealt with in courts and arbitration proceedings.

Why is a satellite so important to Canadian sovereignty, and why should Canada’s duly elected officials be concerned about a ­private business deal? There are times in a country’s history when the national interest trumps private commercial interests (which can be compensated). This issue also highlights the need to coordinate our Arctic, defence, environmental, foreign, space, and technology policies with a whole of government approach. We can use Radarsat-2 as a  policy development vehicle to establish a whole of government response across a variety of sectors. It is an opportunity to do truly great things

In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Scott Boregeson, a Fellow at the influential Council of Foreign Affairs, headquartered in New York – the same Council where the Prime Minister set out Canada’s position on its Arctic – had this to say about a changing geopolitical forces at work in the Arctic basin: “The Arctic Ocean is melting, and it is melting fast… There are also battles over sea-lanes. Decisions made by Arctic powers in the coming years will therefore profoundly shape the future for decades. Without U.S. leadership to help develop diplomatic solutions to competing claims and potential conflicts, the region could erupt in an armed dash for resources. Canada has just launched a satellite surveillance system designed to search for ships trespassing in its waters. Self-preservation in the face of massive climate change requires an enlight­ened, humble and strategic response.”

Boregeson, a former professor of the United States Coast Guard Academy and a former U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander, has held command positions afloat. His comments were published in a peer-reviewed essay from a prestigious U.S. think-tank. Should we eschew such informed notions?

As a serious Arctic nation, Canada has led the world in the development of ­synthetic aperture radar technology and remote sensing technologies that can “see” regardless of visual conditions. For much of the year, the Arctic is covered by darkness or cloud cover so this makes perfect sense.

The Radarsat-2 technology, heavily funded by the government of Canada, is leading edge. In exchange for priority access and a credit on Earth Observation imagery, the Government contributed $445 million, plus launch costs – does the funding contract consider intellectual property rights? MDA has taken this technology and improved upon it. Had the sale not taken place, this would have been a win-win for all parties. If the deal does not receive approval, MDA is entitled to full and proper compensation. Would a repurchase deal be in our national interest? – a problem that can be fixed with money, is not a problem.

A Public Private Partnership (P3) could improve upon the technology, retain the dedicated engineers and start work on the next generation of remote sensing space technology. In fact, this could be the ­cornerstone of a revitalized space industry – which has huge opportunity.

A new entity, controlled by Canada, could purchase Radarsat-2 and its ground support. Turning it into a profitable business, however, as Garneau says, will be a challenge. Traditionally, space mission companies only survive on very large national programs as in Europe and the U.S., or through ‘public good’ missions, or by competing for foreign projects. In the value added and image sales, there is some potential for sure, but minor compared to the major mission business. The upside to Canada though, as an industrial and scientific strategy, apart from the importance to Canada’s sovereignty, is as immense as the Arctic itself. 

RADARSAT 2 communication masks are located near Halifax, NS and Victoria, BC.  Ship surveillance information within the footprint of these communication masks can be achieved in 15 minutes. The Government of Canada, through the Canadian Space Agency, invested $445 M in the Radarsat-2 programme. Polar Epsilon was approved by Treasury Board on31 May 2005, at a cost of $59.7 M.

This is about more than a satellite, it is the means by which Canada can control and protect its sovereignty and maintain its marine domain awareness. In an early issue of sister publication, Frontline Security (Spring 2007),  LCdr R.J. Quinn wrote on the subject of Arctic and Maritime Domain Awareness from Space and the important role that Radarsat-2 would play in the 60 million dollar Polar Epsilon Project. On 10 January 2008, Defence Minister MacKay stated “Polar Epsilon will support Canadian Forces’ sovereignty patrols and strengthen Canada’s presence in the North.” Would this strong statement have been made if the leading-edge real time domain awareness project’s imagery was controlled by a foreign company?  

Radarsat-2 can be the cornerstone of a new and revised NORAD which could include a maritime focus for both surface and undersea ­vessels. Maintaining control of this asset will confirm Canada’s ­seriousness about her Arctic frontier.

We have earned the right, albeit the hard way, to be an equal partner with our American neighbour. For less than the price of a C17 military transport aircraft, we can retain control of our destiny as a nation. This is a Canadian success story of an entrepreneur who partnered with the Canadian government to develop world class technology, and now wants to sell it – without full protection and control of the intellectual property rights for Canada.

A Canadian Radarsat-2, coupled with new Arctic Patrol vessels, a new Polar icebreaker, and a vigorous Canadian Arctic Policy will, with accurate marine domain awareness, ensure our rightful position as an Arctic power. Retaining Radarsat-2 will send a strong message to the world.

This is a non-partisan issue – one that should be given careful attention by Parliament. Canada’s sovereignty should never be taken for granted. We must, as responsible Canadians from all regions, remain vigilant and discuss and debate these important issues. We owe this to future generations.

The Prime Minister may choose to investigate whether the sale conforms to Canada’s national interest. If it is determined not to be, MDA can always be compensated in damages – the company would lose nothing, and Canada, a serious Arctic nation, would come out the winner by retaining the capability and control of of the most advanced marine domain awareness satellite in the world.

My pick for the Canadian with the necessary skill set to carry out this investigation would be the Honourable John Manley who recently chaired the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan for the Prime Minister. He was Deputy Prime Minister during 911, and was the Minister responsible for the Canadian Space Agency.

Can the government risk allowing Radarsat-2 to become another Avro Arrow? The Polar Epsilon project could instead enable a new and invigorated  “Arctic Arrow.” The result, for Canada, could be out of this world!
Joe Spears is a Principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group and maintains marine domain awareness in the Port of Horseshoe Bay. He had the privilege of speaking on international Arctic shipping at the First DRDC Northern Watch Conference last fall.
A FrontLine Conference in Ottawa on 8 April 2008 will present options and examine the broader sovereignty and public policy issues and consequences of Earth Observation technology. For more info: www.frontline-security.org
© Frontline Defence 2008