Interview article

BGen Rick Pitre

Director General talks about 'Space'
CHRIS MacLEAN  |  Nov 15, 2013

“Space” has become an integral component to military planning and operational success. Director General Space, which was stood up in 2011 under the leadership of Brigadier-General Rick Pitre (above) is the ‘go to’ organization within DND for all things related to space. DG Space works with the CSA (Canadian Space Agency) and other government departments, such as Environment Canada, “to deliver agile, effective and affordable space support to our military.” BGen Pitre joined the Canadian Forces in 1980 and, following fighter controller training at the Air Weapons Control and Countermeasures School in North Bay, went on to serve in a variety of challenging operational, training, staff and command appointments in Canada, the U.S. and the UK before taking on the challenges of the Space domain. The ­following is a Q&A format of a FrontLine interview with BGen Pitre about the ­priorities at Director General Space.

Q: In your mandate to develop space-enabled capabilities to become critical enablers for the operational success of Canadian Armed Forces missions, what are the specific priorities at Director General Space?

In our work, there are really three key drivers. The first is to conceive, design, and deliver operationally relevant space capabilities to the Canadian Armed Forces. The second is to integrate these critical space enablers into operations and assist in future planning. And the third driver is to inform and educate the Canadian Armed Forces on the key dependencies and responsibilities that flow from the space environment.

These drivers then direct our work in three ways. First, we work to ensure continued access to space and space capabilities, as part of the global commons. It used to be that space was a fairly exclusive environment in which only a few players could operate. That’s not the case any more – which means preserving and protecting access to space is everybody’s business. We need to do our part.

The second is to maximize and capitalize on unique Canadian technologies. We have a very rich history in space technology – not only here at DND, but in the Canadian Space Agency and Canadian industry – we want to make the most of that.

The third is to protect the global commons and critical space infrastructure, including the links that enable them. Our goal is to provide uninterrupted space-enabled capabilities for all Canadians, both military and civilians. A great deal of what we do in our everyday lives is enabled by space. If you’re trying to find your way to the nearest Timmy’s, you’re connecting to GPS satellites. The global financial system also relies on those same satellites.

Q: How important is surveillance of space to Canadian interests, and who are Canada’s global partners?

Well, space situational awareness is the foundation of all that we do, and there’s a global preoccupation with space because there is so much potential. You can’t operate from space without knowing what’s going on in space. We know of and track some 22,000 objects larger than 10 cm in orbit. These objects could have catastrophic effects if they were to collide with a satellite. This is not only a military, but a global preoccupation. This was the impetus behind Sapphire, our first operational military satellite, which works with our global partners to prevent collisions.

The Five Eyes community, which includes Canada, the U.S., the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, is one of our key partnerships, but it really extends to all space-faring nations for the purposes of space situational awareness. It’s in everyone’s interest to avoid collisions, and you can’t – or shouldn’t – do anything else without that awareness.

Once you’ve built that situational awareness piece, you need to communicate. We live in an information-rich world. The appetite for it is very high, and space allows us to move information very quickly over vast expanses, both within our own interests and with those of our allies. It’s not just about voice any more, either, it’s about data as well. Modern sensors are increasingly capable – and to move that data, you need very big ‘pipes’. This was the motivation behind our Mercury Global project. We, along with several of our allies, joined the Wideband Global SATCOM system, which will become a 10-satellite constellation that will allow us to move voice and data communications anywhere, anytime.

We also have the Protected Military Satellite Communications program, which will allow us to operate securely in a high-jamming environment, whether we’re talking about full conflict or a more local one with high jamming activity.

Q: How do space programs enhance the safety and prosperity of Canadians?

In terms of protecting Canadians, we have space-based SAR (search and rescue). Under the MEOSAR project (Medium Earth Orbit Search and Rescue) we will see a constellation of repeaters launched on American GPS satellites. This is an immensely important contribution that we like to say will really take the ‘search’ out of search and rescue. Using this system, we will be able to localize a signal within minutes, which places us firmly within the golden hour of first response. Speaking from an overall perspective, our international satellite search and rescue system has saved more than 30,000 lives, so it’s been tremendously successful.

Importantly, weather does not affect picking up the MEOSAR signals, which come from the portable devices that hikers or sailors can buy and carry (they’re quite similar to aircraft emergency beacons). If you get into trouble, you activate it and it sends a signal to the satellite, which is then relayed to the rescue coordination centre.

If you don’t have the device or don’t activate a signal, we won’t know you’re lost, however, some maritime versions include a sort of salt-water activation key, so that if you’re working offshore and you hit the water, it will automatically activate.

Another aspect of protecting Canadians is in maintaining access to the global navigation satellite system. Many systems, including the global financial system, rely on GPS timing signals, as do all of our ­navigation systems, both for civilian and military activities. It’s important to all of us – and it’s really one of the key components linking the national and trans-national grids together.

We also want to capitalize on Canadian know-how in space – and the RADAR­SAT satellites really demonstrate this. RADARSAT-1 was the first commercial satellite system to map the globe by radar. It was scheduled for a seven year mission but, following Canadian tradition, was still operating 18 years after it was first launched. RADARSAT-2 has picked up its work now, and is really doing extraordinary work for the Government of Canada. And there will be an exponential increase when the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) comes online. We’re talking about a system of three tandem satellites that will provide a minimum of daily coverage within the Canadian area of interest, and up to four times per day in the Arctic. While our focus is on Canada, RCM’s orbits will give us global awareness as well.

Canadian scientists have done very well in developing and maximizing the capabilities of synthetic aperture radar and the exploitation of that radar data. Our scientists keep getting better at producing new algorithms, at finding new ways to use that data. We started out by tracking the movement of ice floes, and we learned from that how to track ships. The ability to identify, track, and eventually prosecute vessels operating without authorization on our coasts will be extraordinary. And you need only look at the CSA robotic work of the Canadarm and Dextre on the International Space Station to see that we’re leaders in robotics as well.

The final point I would like to make is about the need to collaborate – to leverage everyone’s strengths and key capabilities. It’s from collaboration that we can develop a truly comprehensive understanding of the global commons. Sharing space situational awareness data is critical. The uncontrolled re-entry of the Russian spacecraft, Phobus-Grunt, was an excellent example – nations shared data from their observations that allowed us to determine where and when it was going to re-enter. If that data had shown it was going to re-enter near a populated area, we were well-placed to provide warning.

Areas of Interest for the PCW mission located in the Arctic region of the earth.

We live in a high-paced, information-driven world. From the financial sector to telemedicine to cellular phones, you can see how space touches all of our lives every single day. Operating in space used to be a luxury. Now it’s everyone’s business. If you spread the costs for maintaining access across global business sectors, it suddenly becomes very affordable. Nearly everything we do, ultimately, is about managing and protecting access to space in a smart and affordable way.

Q: As noted on the CSA web site, a large part of Canadian Arctic territory has no reliable access to telecommunication. A new DND project called ‘Polar Communications and Weather’ could change all that. Will Canada partner with any other countries or groups to help fund such a game-changing effort?

To address the gaps in communications and weather observation coverage over the Arctic, the emphasis of the PCW initiative revolved around a collaborative effort between the CSA, DND and Environment Canada.

Speaking on behalf of the Canadian Armed Forces, we are very interested in PCW, but there would likely be interest from the U.S. or other partners. It’s still too early to say for sure. We’ll find out how real that potential interest is after the Request for Information responses are in. But the communications and weather pieces in the Arctic are very interesting to a lot of people.

Many departments have an interest in the North. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, obviously. Transport Canada for the maritime domain awareness piece. Certainly Environment Canada, for weather. Because PCW is a communications medium, there’s potentially something for Health Canada there. I’m not a scientist, but to me, moving data efficiently is a real advantage.  Anyone who needs to communicate in the North might be interested – it is truly a whole-of-government effort. Just as everybody relies on space in one way or another, we are playing our role.
Q: What is the difference between RADARSAT and PCW in terms of the Arctic domain?

Simply put, RADARSAT does surveillance not communications. Something like 80% of Arctic time is subject to weather effects and a synthetic aperture radar system operates with or without cloud cover. It provides domain awareness, or what some call ‘earth observation’. It lets us see what’s happening on the ground or at sea. However, the realities of RADARSAT’s orbit geometry mean that large parts of the High Arctic are not covered consistently by ­geostationary satellites, making accurate weather observation and forecasting of the North impossible. Considering that the Arctic has a significant effect on weather patterns, there is a need for improved meteorological data of the Far North.

Elliptical orbits will provide “persistent” coverage.

The premise behind PCW is a system of two satellites operating in Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO) that will be able to provide continuous broadband communications services. It will also monitor arctic weather and climate change (at optimal ­resolutions) across the entire Arctic.

The beauty of space is its duality; for me, RADARSAT synthetic aperture radar helps me see ships, but it can also be used to track ice floes, or oil polluters, or monitor Arctic sea ice thaw. The same mission can serve multiple purposes. For the Canadian Armed Forces, the PCW key is communications – it will let us talk to units, to planes, to ships deployed in our Arctic area of operations. Other partners, such as Environment Canada, will have other requirements from PCW.

Q: Although clearly this new capability will be a complete game-changer in the North, PCW will be a hugely expensive undertaking. Is DND considering a leasing model or a capital procurement model for such a satellite system?

An RFI was sent to Industry in November [responses are due 13 January 2013]. We’ll look at any and every business model in those responses, and consider the options that make the most sense. It would be unwise of us not to. We need to make all of our projects as affordable and sustainable as possible. Tight budgets put more of an impetus on us to find the smart option, and that’s a good thing for us and for all Canadians.

Chris MacLean is the Editor-in-Chief of FrontLine Defence magazine.
© FrontLine Defence 2013