Arctic Air Power

15 September 2008

Melting sea-ice, increased resource development, growing numbers of transpolar air flights, and renewed interest in the Arctic Basin by our neighbours all require Canada to have a robust air presence to exert Canadian sovereign rights. The fastest response to potential marine pollution incidents (expected due to increased commercial shipping), and other accidents requiring search and rescue (SAR) in the Canadian Arctic, requires the use of aircraft. This will require the Canadian Air Force, no stranger to the North, to take on a more prominent role in this century using fixed wing, rotary wing, unmanned and space-based assets in a creative and unique Canadian way, with some help from the private sector. As Prime Minister Harper reminds us, we either “use it or lose it,” when it comes to Canada’s Arctic.

The Arctic is a vast land with very little transportation infrastructure. In the Canadian North, aircraft and pilots – and the companies they founded – are an integral piece of history. Next year, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary flight of the Silver Dart at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, from an ice covered Bras d’Or Lake in 1909, we will note that little has changed in the Arctic over the last hundred years – other than ­aircraft types.

The challenges remain the same. Aircraft and good pilots remain central to Arctic operations. As we experience a changing environment, Arctic Air Power, meshed with a whole of government response, will be key to maintaining and dealing with Canadian Arctic governance.

Everything in the Arctic requires sturdy aircraft and trained aircrews; this is nothing new. However, the demands are going to increase in the coming years. It is becoming clear that cooperation between the Canadian Air Force and the Coast Guard will become central to enforcing Canada’s Arctic claim. Both have a longstanding working relationship, forged over decades delivering SAR services across three coasts. In fact, an article published in fall edition of FrontLine SAR highlights the very strong cooperation between these two groups. In the coming years, these friendships and working relationships will be put to good use in the Arctic.

Prime Minister Harper announced in August that the enforcement zones specified in the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (AWPPA) will be extended to 200 nautical miles from the present 100 nm. In addition, as recommended by the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, chaired by Senator William Rompkey, the NORDREG system of reporting will become mandatory for all commercial and other surface shipping entering Canadian waters.

This is not new, it has been the Canadian position since the early 1970s. However, we now need to back our words with action. Canada must have the mechanisms and means to enforce its law – we need to know what is happening in our waters.

We also need to develop a comprehensive national plan for Marine Domain Awareness and have input across all of government. Whatever the final form of such a plan, a subset of a larger Canadian Arctic policy, the Canadian Air Force will undoubtedly play a critical and key role. This will require the expanded use of air assets of the Canadian Air Force for surveillance, patrol and response functions, in conjunction with other means such as unmanned vehicles, High Frequency Surface Wave Radar, and Earth Observation Technologies. Make no mistake, the robust enforcement of Canadian laws will require the use of aircraft, early and often.

Building on Strength
The exercise of Canada’s jurisdiction does not occur in a vacuum. We need to build on existing strengths that have been developed and implemented as part of Canada’s Northern Strategy, through the evolution of Canada Command of the Canadian Forces, and the recently announced Canada First Defence Strategy, as this has an important impact on Canada’s Arctic. The exercise of jurisdiction involves issues that cut across government departments – the importance of viewing this matter in a holistic fashion will highlight linkages and interdependencies of a whole of government response.

In an area as vast as the Canadian Arctic, it makes sense to use all available assets and develop a team approach through joint initiatives, as is happening in the marine security area as a result of 9/11. Canadian Arctic Air Power has been somewhat overshadowed by the requirements of surface shipping assets, but will become increasingly valuable, considering that air assets are a solid necessity in the North.

Issues in the Arctic present a great opportunity for Canada. How we respond will require a combination of domestic and international responses and, I daresay, a creative approach – which is a Canadian trait when it comes to the Arctic.

Canada has played, and continues to play, a key role in the Arctic Council and the International Maritime Organization. With the full weight of international law behind it, Canada need not shy away from leading the development of new international law as it relates to the regulation of Arctic shipping. Canada sought this support from other coastal nations during the negotiations for a new Law of the Sea Convention in the 1970s and 1980s. During the international negotiations, which lead to the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC), Canada led the way with the development and inclusion of Article 234: The Ice Cover Waters Provision. It states:

“Coastal States have the right to adopt and enforce non-discriminatory laws and regulations for the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from vessels in ice covered areas within… and pollution of the marine environment could cause major harm to, or irreversible disturbance of the ecological balance. Such laws and regulations shall have due regard to navigation and the protection and preservation of the marine environment based upon the best available ­scientific evidence.”

Twin Otter aircraft from 440 Sqn provides resupply to 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, near Eureka on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. The Rangers’ patrol of Ellesmere Island is part of OP NUNALIVUT 08.

This serves as the international legal foundation of the mandatory NORDREG system. The underlying purpose of a mandatory NORDREG is to protect the Arctic marine environment. For the purposes of pollution response, it is critical to know where vessels are at all times; Article 234 supports this. That is not to say that Canada should not use other methods to maintain Arctic Marine Domain Awareness. A complimentary combination of active and passive means must be maintained through the use of sensors, satellites, UAVS and fixed wing patrol aircraft – and importantly, the Canadian Rangers, a human asset that has been vastly underutilized.

The preamble of Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, enacted in 1970, very clearly sets out the Canadian position over the unique nature of our Arctic waters:

“Whereas Parliament recognizes that recent developments in relation to the exploitation of the natural resources of Arctic areas, including the natural resources of the Canadian Arctic, and the transportation of those resources to the markets of the world, are of potentially great significance to international trade and commerce and to the economy of Canada in particular;

“And whereas Parliament at the same time recognizes and is determined to ­fulfill its obligation to see that the natural resources of the Canadian Arctic are developed and exploited and the Arctic waters adjacent to the mainland and islands of the Canadian Arctic are navigated only in a manner that takes cognizance of Canada’s responsibility for the welfare of the Inuit and other inhabitants of the Canadian Arctic and the preservation of the peculiar ecological balance that now exists in the water, ice and land areas of the Canadian Arctic;”

The intent is clear, the Canadian position has been clearly set out for 37 years. It was a novel idea at the time, but now finds solid support in Article 234 of the LOSC. It is not disputed. We do not have to seek the agreement of other nations. The Canadian Arctic is ours – full stop. There is no debate or uncertainty associated with the AWPPA.

Canadian Air Force aircrews know firsthand the vast land, its people, and the challenges that Canada as a nation faces in the coming years in governing and exerting jurisdiction over the Far North.

The history of the Royal Canadian Air Force is also tied to the Arctic, from the pioneering aerial mapping to Dew Line support during the Cold War. (Canadian CF18s aircrews have not lost their touch when it comes to hunting long range Russian Bears on the Arctic Cadiz line).

The waters under Canadian jurisdiction are equal to 40 percent of our continental land mass. We have a coastline of 244,000 kilometres. Most Canadians have no concept of the vastness of the Arctic or size of our ocean estate, but our CP-140 aircrews do. The only way to effectively move is by aircraft.

When it comes to the interaction of commercial surface shipping and airpower, we only have to look at a recent example to see its critical importance. Ask the passengers of the M/S Explorer what they thought of the Chilean Air Force’s response to the sinking of their vessel on an Antarctic cruise. One word sums it up – outstanding. I think a similar response would have been given to the Canadian Air Force if that incident had happened in Canadian waters, which, hopefully, it never will. The M/S Explorer frequented the Canadian Arctic on eco-cruises.

One example of the need for Canadian Arctic Air Power exists in Arctic marine pollution response. Under questioning by Senator Charlie Watt of Nunavik, former Commissioner Mike Turner of the Canadian Coast Guard had this to say when ­testifying on February 28, 2008 at the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans which was examining the Coast Guard’s role in the Arctic:

“Certainly, this is an area where multiple departments would come into play. It is perhaps the irony of the situation I was criticizing earlier that there is nothing like a crisis to bring cooperation and collaboration amongst the populous. They step up quickly and do an excellent job. I can name numerous situations I was involved in during my time where we had super cooperation between the departments.

“The Coast Guard has an excellent working relationship with DND, for example. You would see all Canada’s resources quickly brought to play. DND aircraft, like the Hercules, would fly supplementary equipment up into the North and parachute it out to the right area.”

Mr. Turner’s testimony highlights the important role air power would play in any marine pollution response. The Canadian Coast Guard would not hesitate to make use of air assets of the Canadian Air Force. Not just the CP130, but all Air Force aircraft – C17s, Chinook Helicopters, Griffons, the CP140, for example – all would have a role to play, as would the venerable Twin Otters.

Thinking Outside the Box
We need to start developing the plan now: to look at lengthening runaways in the North; to cache equipment and aircraft loading equipment; and to train with other agencies in joint exercises.

What better option than the massive 5 Wing Goose Bay facility (see photo above) to house that expertise? It has the necessary infrastructure and facilities and is the closest major airbase in proximity to the NW ­Passage. What is old is new. In a new cold war, Goose Bay takes on a critical role as Canada’s Arctic sovereignty airbase.

In addition, the Canadian Rangers can, and must, play a key role in the development and implementation of Arctic Air Power. As First Canadians, the Inuit have local knowledge and long experience with commercial aircraft – they are the lifeblood of the North. For example, in the 2nd Ranger Patrol (Nunavik, Quebec), the current Warrant Officer is a commercial pilot and longtime Air Inuit pilot, and the Civil Affairs Officer is an Air Force Aurora ­navigator with UAV experience from Afghan operations.

Yellowknife – a CC130 Hercules aircraft prepares to transport personnel and supplies from Joint Task Force North and 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group (1 CRPG) to Eureka and CFS Alert in Nunavut.

We need to utilize and build on these immense skill sets to make more use of the Rangers in air operations throughout the arctic. This could include the deployment of Ranger-based tactical UAVs, as one example. Thinking outside the box is ­necessary to uncover effective new ways to accomplish our goal.

Increasing Requirement
The international shipping community is already changing it’s view of the Canadian Arctic; many nations and ship owners looking to save time and reduce fuel costs will not seek our approval or permission.

Barriers to in-transit Arctic shipping are more financial (marine insurance) than technical and, as the sea-ice cover diminishes at record rates, risks that arise from commercial shipping will increase – as will the potential for marine pollution.

Major tanker oil spills such as the Arrow in 1970 and the Kurdistan in 1979, both off the Nova Scotian coast, are largely forgotten from public memory, but these incidents are burned into the corporate memory of the Canadian Coast Guard and Canadian Forces. These agencies worked hand in hand responding to these major incidents. Let’s hope it never happens in the Arctic, but we must be ready.

To enforce the AWPPA, we must be able to quickly move Transport Canada’s marine safety inspectors (who enforce the  Act) to foreign ships. Often, only local vessels are available to ferry these inspectors for boardings of ­foreign flag vessels in Canadian waters. This is not new for Transport Canada and is done daily in Canadian waters ‘south of 60°.’ Very often, the only way a marine inspector can get out to a ‘vessel of interest’ in the Arctic (north of 60°), is by fixed wing aircraft; rotary wing aircraft do not have enough range if distances are great. This ­scenario will require inter-agency teamwork not unlike what happens daily in Joint Rescue Centres across Canada for SAR incidents. The Canadian Air Force must continue to play a key role in Arctic operations.

The stakes for Canada are high and we need to develop processes and protocols for rapid air response to a variety of Arctic scenarios. A great deal of work has been done in the SAR field, but less in others.

A Bias for Action
Borrowing a term from Vice-Admiral Allen, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, we need a “a bias for action” when it comes to the Arctic. Canada’s Arctic response cannot be done on a wing and a prayer. Two wings and a bias for action, maybe.

The stakes for Canada and its Arctic claim are simply too important. Canadian aircrews have always risen to the Arctic challenge when called upon. The development of planning and exercises and the close interaction with commercial air ­services and those of other federal departments will strengthen and buttress Canada’s Arctic claim. The time to prepare Canadian Arctic Air Power is now.  
K. Joseph Spears has acted as legal counsel in numerous oil spills and salvage responses.
© Frontline Defence 2008