National Post - June 22, 2012
By Colin Kenny
The problem with being a vast country is being able to defend all that vastness. You can spend all the billions you want on defence, but
no country can properly defend its turf unless it knows what is coming at it.
Canadians don’t always know. It is true that the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) gives us a well-focused picture of what is entering Canadian air space. The picture isn’t nearly as clear on our coastlines.
Canada does have coordinated coastal defence systems feeding into Marine Security Operation Centres (MSOC) at Trinity, in Halifax, and Athena, in Esquimalt, B.C.
These centres are staffed by experts from various branches of government. They assemble information funneled to them in various ways and fuse it to produce intelligence as to what might be a threat off our coastal waters.
The problem is that while NORAD air defences give us a real-time picture of what’s coming and going in our skies at any given moment, our coastal pictures are a mix of real-time and past-time as to what’s happening on our waters. Some of what appears to be out there – employing the combination of inputs currently available – may well have changed course or not have been tracked, leaving an MSOC with an incomplete picture to analyze.
Here’s an example. On the Atlantic Coast, some of the information funneled into Trinity is provided by Provincial Airways aircraft. Their observations are obviously of use, but these aircraft aren’t flying all the time, and they can only observe what is below their flight paths. So yes, they are useful, but what they don’t observe amounts to much more than what they do observe. This is just one example of a gap in coverage. We can’t afford gaps.
Ideally, every component of an MSOC’s picture of what is going on out there would be “real time” – exactly what’s happening in the moment, like an air traffic controller’s picture of what is happening across our skies.
Why is it so important to have a real-time picture? Because Canada could be hit by missiles launched from the sea as easily as we could be hit by intercontinental ballistic missiles. Because human smuggling, drug smuggling and fisheries violations are a real problem for our society. We need a complete picture of what’s on our waters – not a fragmented one. The vast majority of vessels off our coasts are innocuous. But all you need is one dangerous anomaly.
On the threat of military attack from the sea, it is true that Canada is not at war with Russia, China, or anybody else right now. But nobody knows what conflicts loom over the horizon. All history tells us is that if your country is worth anything, at some point someone out there will try to exert force to threaten your well-being or the well-being of others that matter to you. That’s ugly, but it just keeps happening.
Why are the Russians interested in checking out vulnerabilities on Canada’s coastlines? All we know is that there is good evidence that they are. Jeffrey Paul Delisle, who worked at the Trinity MSOC, was earlier this year charged with passing confidential information to foreign interests. Coincidentally – within a week – Canadian authorities had expelled four people from the Russian embassy in Ottawa.
So other countries care about our level of vigilance. Canada needs to identify suspicious vessels before they are able to do us damage. To accomplish that, Trinity and Athena must be able to track and interpret a matrix of real-time images funneled from satellites, drones, ships at sea and manned surveillance aircraft. We don’t have that real-time matrix, which makes our defences something of a sieve.
Take satellite coverage. Satellites can’t do full-time blanket coverage because of their orbits, but they are a vital component of overall coverage. Canada has two surveillance satellites in orbit. In 2010, the federal government promised our coverage would be vastly improved, since it had decided to invest in three more next-generation Radarsat satellites to be developed by MacDonald Dettwiler, the Canadian aeronautical firm.
Production was to have begun in August. But the government has dropped the project. For a start, this means Canada will lose mobile, highly-skilled workers who we are counting on as part of this country’s technological future. But the main point is this: Canada needs those satellites to defend itself. And we need other components as well.
We now augment satellite imagery with Aurora aircraft surveillance flights, but these flights are few and far between. We send one or two of them over the Arctic every year and pretend that this translates into surveillance of our North.
Drones are the hottest commodities in the defence world these days, and the key to developing a full, real-time picture when all our other sources aren’t delivering that picture. Drones are relatively cheap, effective and they don’t risk lives. We need a number of drones on both coasts. The government is allegedly considering purchasing three of them for Arctic surveillance. Whether or not that is true, we need more than three to cover the Arctic as well as East and West coasts.
Not all types of drones now in production would will be useful for coastal surveillance. Commercial aircraft that cross all three of our coasts fly at around 30,000 feet, and we need to get well above that for surveillance duties. There are drones on the market with flying times in excess of 20 hours, and that fly above 50,000 feet. These would be very useful. But the government has shown no sign that it has plans for drone use outside the Arctic.
In addition to acquiring more sophisticated tracking equipment, Canada should be pushing to upgrade regulations on transponders, which transmit information as to a ship’s identity and location. Right now they are only required on ships of 300 tonnes or more. There should be a global push to move toward lower and lower tonnage – all the way down to one tonne, because small vessels can be just as dangerous as big vessels.
A coastal attack would shock most Canadians. But just about everybody in the world was shocked by the attack on the World Trade Towers. You can’t defend everything, all the time. But you can be a lot more prudent about your defences than recent Canadian governments have been.
The current government swaggers a lot, but when it comes right down to putting pieces of our defensive puzzle into place, the money seems to disappear.
[Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. Kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca]