Satellites key to Canada’s Arctic surveillance strategy

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The Canadian government is bolstering its defense and surveillance capabilities in the Arctic with a focus on using space assets and new technology.

Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand said the 2022 federal government budget, released April 7, contains 252 million Canadian dollars ($199 million) to start research on modernizing the joint Canada-U.S. North Warning system in the Arctic. In addition, that money will be used for research into long-range communications and over-the-horizon radar systems for the northern region.

Anand had previously indicated that more announcements on new Arctic-related projects are still to come. In an April 4 appearance before the Canadian Senate’s defense committee, Anand noted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and concern about Russian activities in the Arctic are behind the new funding.

“The current defense and security climate also has underscored that we need to do more to bolster our defenses in Canada and North America at large,” she said. “To that end, in the coming months, we will be bringing forward a robust package of investments to bolster our continental defense in close co-operation with the United States.”

In a March 29 meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Anand pointed out that modernization of the capabilities of the North American Aerospace Defense Command is a key priority for the Canadian government. Much of that modernization will center on upgrading the North Warning System or NWS.

The NWS was constructed between 1986 and 1992, and consists of a series of long and short-range air defense radar sites. Forty-seven of the 50 sites are located across the Canadian Arctic.

Canadian and U.S. defense officials still have to work out the specifics of the modernization, but the estimated cost of such a project is expected to be around $10 billion.

“You’re looking at a multi-year endeavor here, obviously working hand in hand with our allies to prioritize and land on specific plans,” Canadian Department of National Defence deputy minister Bill Matthews told the senators.

However, in an Aug. 21, 2021 agreement, Canada and the U.S. set out priority areas for investment. These include situational awareness, particularly for the Arctic and maritime approaches to the continent. That would see the replacement of the North Warning System with more advanced technological solutions as soon as possible, including next-generation over-the-horizon radar systems, the two nations pointed out in a statement issued at the time. Also included were sensors both for the seafloor and in space. “The existing North Warning System is to be maintained until appropriate replacement capabilities are in place, “ the two countries noted.

Also to be examined is a modernized command and control system that would include robust and resilient communications for remote locations in support of NORAD missions.

In addition, members of Canada’s defense and aerospace industry were briefed by Canadian defense department officials on April 7 about some of the space initiatives that will move forward in the future.

One of the key programs is the Enhanced Satellite Communications Project – Polar (ESCP-P). That will involve a satellite to provide reliable and secure communications access for the Arctic.

Initial work on the project, which will provide narrowband and wideband communications capabilities, is expected start next year, according to the briefing provided to industry by Cam Stoltz, director of space requirements at the Department of National Defence.

The budget still has to be set, but the defense department has estimated it could be up to 4.9 billion Canadian dollars.

At one point, the Canadian government was looking at putting into orbit a constellation of satellites to provide communications for the Arctic and gather weather data from the region. That project proved too daunting and was canceled in 2016. Instead, Canada decided to focus just on communications capabilities, the result being ESCP-P. Other nations have also expressed interest in working with Canada on ESCP-P, including New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, the U.S. and France.

The system is expected to be operating starting in 2034 and will be interoperable with the U.S. Department of Defense and NATO.

Work will also begin next year on the Defence Enhanced Surveillance from Space Project (DESSP). That space system will provide surveillance of Canada’s Arctic and its maritime approaches as it is designed to be an upgrade of the defense capabilities now provided by the RADARSAT Constellation Mission.

The RADARSAT Constellation Mission, launched in 2019, uses three radar-imaging satellites to conduct maritime and Arctic surveillance. The RCM is also equipped with an Automatic Identification System (AIS), allowing for detection and tracking of ships.

The Department of National Defence has consulted with industry on DESSP and, in November 2021, received feedback from companies on what technology could be available for the project in the future. It will now be up to defense officials to determine how to proceed.

However, the initial operating capability of the DESSP is envisioned in 2033, Stoltz explained to industry officials.

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.