Grey Power in the Great White North
Canada’s Geopolitical Need for Long Range Patrol Aircraft
Now more than ever, Canada, with the world’s longest coastline and the world’s largest littoral zone, needs a robust long range maritime patrol aircraft capability which the CP-140 Aurora provides.
With the pending sale of the information and geospatial division of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) of British Columbia to the American firm, Alliant Techsystems, Canada may lose the sovereign right to control the most advanced surveillance satellite in the world. This satellite was “touted to be an ace in the hole when it came to protecting the country’s sovereignty in the Arctic” wrote David Pugliese in The Ottawa Citizen (March 8, 2008).
All is not lost, however, as Canada has some proven, solid workhorses in its marine domain awareness arsenal. The CP-140 Aurora might not be as high tech as the newer members of the marine domain awareness family, but these aircraft have proven their worth to Canada.
Canada is witness to an increasing need for a robust and well trained, long range, maritime patrol aircraft capability which is currently provided by maritime patrol squadrons of the Canadian Air Force – based at 14 Wing, Greenwood, Nova Scotia, and 19 Wing in Comox, British Columbia – which operate 18 aircraft in total. Working in conjunction with the Navy, these combat aircraft, along with the venerable Sea King helicopters, have done yeoman service over Canadian waters and around the world.
Without a doubt, these aircraft, with skilled and dedicated air and ground crews, have made Canada the best sub hunters in the world. With upgrades, the Aurora can continue to serve as Canada’s eyes and ears, covering a littoral zone equal almost to the entire land mass of this country, and will take on increasing importance to monitor both surface commercial shipping and potential submarines in our Arctic waters. Once again, it will be Grey Power that will ensure Canada’s True North remains Strong and Free.
In a changing geopolitical climate, made more complex by climate change, Canada cannot take for granted its Arctic waters claim. These 18 maritime patrol aircraft have been flying in the harshest marine conditions in the world. They have served Canada well and must continue to do so.
In a recent Globe and Mail op-ed piece (December 18), Brian Flemming Q.C. had this to say about Canada’s role in the creation of a North West Passage authority: “Despite being surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans, Canada has never – except for a brief shining moment after the Second World War – regarded itself as a maritime power. But the faster-than-expected melting of the Northwest Passage, a similar thawing of the often overlooked Northeast Passage above Russia, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s new policies for Canada ‘north of 60’ may soon change all that.”
The important role that Canada’s Maritime Air Forces have played in the proud history of Canada’s nationhood have often been overshadowed by other elements of the Air Force that have captured the public’s attention.
During the Cold War, maritime patrol aircraft operated in secrecy and, given the remote areas in which they have flown, are not well known to Canadians. This is due in part because, as Mr. Flemming succinctly notes, Canada does not consider itself a maritime nation. That does not, however, diminish the important role and critical importance to Canadian sovereignty, and has been recognized by the present government, which announced on December 18, 2007 continued funding of the AIMP (Aurora Incremental Modernization Project) and ASLEP (Aurora Structural Life Extension Project) to keep 14 of the aircraft flying until 2020.
These modernized aircraft, combined with the newly announced Polar icebreaker and a robust whole of government response, will send a clear message to the world that Canada is a serious Arctic nation ready to protect is Northern areas and exert its sovereignty.
The Aurora has the ability to provide a command and control function for marine SAR and also marine pollution incidents. With increasing commercial shipping activity as result of resource development and thinning sea-ice cover the CP-140’s ability to stay airborne is seen as an important component of a coastal nation’s ability to protect and enforce its sovereign rights in the littoral.
Sovereignty is more than simply claiming territory, it requires a nation to exercise control – this can be done in a variety of ways. The recent federal budget announced $720 million in funding for a new polar class ice breaker – that is only one aspect of a robust Canadian response. Ice breakers travel at a few knots. Cruising at 405 knots with a flight range of 5000 nautical miles (9,260 km), the Aurora can cover vast areas. As Canada’s eyes and ears in the Arctic, the Mark 1 Eyeball can be buttressed by a variety of sensors and a suite of surveillance equipment.
Having the ability to remain above a vessel is a key component of a Canadian response. The CP-140 has already proven itself – and its new camera system – in a variety of enforcement roles with other federal departments.
The ability to place CF personnel over a target is a key component of a nation’s sovereignty. Ships and other targets move around and can be difficult to find. The CP-140 is well-suited, but the modernization is critical to continued effectiveness.
Clearly, long-range patrol aircraft, operated by highly trained crews working with other federal agencies, is a fundamental cornerstone of Canada’s ability to enforce its sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic.
As the Arctic changes, both with respect to sea-ice cover as well as changing geopolitical factors, long-range maritime aircraft can play a variety of roles. The CP-140 has the ability to project both soft and hard power as well as serve to enforce Canadian laws in the Canadian littoral zone.
Maritime Patrol Squadrons on both coasts (404, 405 and 407) have a long history of collecting marine evidence in oil pollution cases – leading to successful prosecutions by the then Federal Prosecution Service of the Department of Justice (now the Public Prosecution Service of Canada) on behalf of Transport Canada Marine Safety, the lead enforcement agency of the government of Canada with respect to the regulation of shipping and the enforcement of ship-source marine pollution. The Aurora’s FLIR cameras can collect evidence on marine pollution infractions and enforce the Arctic Waters Pollution Act. Versatility and endurance to stay in the air for up to 17 hours is a key advantage in gathering such evidence.
The importance of the aircrews properly briefed to deal with situations as they arise cannot be overstated – and they will become central to a Canadian approach to its Northern Sovereignty. Litigation is an expensive way to learn – especially when Canada’s sovereignty is at stake.
Flexibility is seen to be key considering the rapidly changing nature of the Canadian Arctic. These aircrews have proven themselves time and time again – they can assume this role and work with other government agencies. Now more then ever, these aircrews, and the CP-140 itself, will be put to the test. The pilots and aircrew can collect evidence and provide a Charter of Rights warning to suspected wrong-doing vessels which might become critical in contested cases in both Canadian and international courts arising in the disputed waters of the Northwest Passage where, for example, the United States among other countries allege a right of transit passage under the Law of the Sea Convention. Highly trained aircrews can take action and even seek legal advice on international issues should the need arise during operational flights. The Aurora aircrew have the dedication, the training, leadership and experience to reason and solve problems. They have proven this though the Cold War to the present day – most recently detecting driftnets in the North Pacific while working in conjunction with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
The Aurora, operating with a suite of domain awareness tools is one of the most effective items in Canada’s tool box of sovereignty-exercising mechanisms.
Sometimes, low and slow with a weapons payload is a very, very good thing. In my experience, the dedicated aircrews of the Maritime Patrol Squadrons are up to the challenge.
Foreign shipping activity will soon become aware of maritime patrol aircraft protecting its Arctic waters – and these aircrews are adept at getting the attention of surface shipping. In addition, having the ability to monitor and stay on-station for long periods of time to exercise control of its littoral zones is a powerful projection and symbol of sovereignty. Satellites can provide marine domain awareness but nothing beats a low-level pass by a CP-140 over a surface vessel to indicate that these waters are Canada’s.
Prime Minister Harper recently stated about the Canadian Arctic “Use it or Lose it.” This should also apply to operational flights of the Aurora – “Use It.”
Let’s get the entire fleet of long range aircraft modernized as soon as possible. The Canadian aerospace industry is up to the challenge, as are the Squadrons.
Given the changing geopolitical conditions in the Arctic region, we must remind the world that the Canadian Air Force’s long range maritime aircraft have not lost their ability to locate and monitor surface (and subsurface) vessels.
The Aurora Borealis is an Arctic phenomenon, let’s ensure that other nations view the CP-140 Aurora as Canada’s northern sovereignty phenomena – it will truly will be a case of Grey power. We can do this – with or without Radarsat 2. It makes good sense, from a nation-building perspective, to maintain this fleet.
Should the Russians decide to place a capsule at the sea-floor at the North Pole again (or anyone else for that matter), we can let the world know that Canada is an Arctic Maritime nation with both the will and the ability to both protect and project its national sovereignty in the Arctic Basin. We will be a better country for it.
Joe Spears, a Horseshoe Bay based maritime lawyer and marine policy consultant, has been involved in Arctic shipping and sovereignty issues for over 30 years.
The writer would like to thank Colonel (ret) John Orr for his assistance and insight into Marine Domain Awareness and the importance of Maritime Air Power.
© Frontline Defence 2008