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Better eyes for coast watchers

Vancouver Sun Editorial - September 27, 2013

The people who defend our coasts have to watch 27,200 kilometres of shoreline, and we should give them more tools to keep out enemies and criminals.

At CFB Esquimalt, the staff of the Athena intelligence centre gather information from many sources to get a picture of who is out there and what they are doing. Unfortunately, the picture is fuzzy.

Sen. Colin Kenny, who visited Victoria last week and has long had an interest in security and defence, has been campaigning to make the picture clearer.

"There are an awful lot of ships off our coast. The problem is how to separate the sheep from the goats," Kenny said.

Norad, the North American Aerospace Defence command, has sophisticated technology that gives it an upto-the-minute picture of every aircraft flying into North America. On the sea, Canada's watchers don't have the same ability.

Kenny has been pushing for one improvement that wouldn't cost the government anything. Ships over 300 tonnes are required to carry Automatic Identification System transponders. Designed as a safety measure, AIS broadcasts the ship's identity, course, speed and other information to surrounding vessels and shore stations to avoid collisions.

Coast guard staff who control vessel traffic in areas such as Juan de Fuca Strait use AIS to keep track of ships in busy sea lanes. The watchers, seeing unusual course changes or other behaviour, know the identity of the vessel and are able to track it better. Anyone who is interested in ships can do the same on several public websites.

Kenny wants to see the use of transponders expanded. With a year's notice, the minimum ship size could be cut in half, to 150 tonnes. The following year, it could be halved again - continuing until transponders are required on all craft big enough to be of concern.

A 45-foot pleasure boat could easily carry drugs or even, Kenny suggests as a worst-case scenario, a nuclear bomb.

Transponders cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and would be purchased by the boat owner, as marine VHF radios are. The 300-tonne limit is set by international agreements, but if the government can't persuade other nations to agree to lowering it, Canada could place the tighter restrictions on vessels in its own waters.

AIS is only one measure to improve our view of the vessels off the coast. The others are considerably more expensive.

More than $700 million is already committed for three RADARSAT Constellation satellites, which will be launched in 2018. They will fly in a north-south orbit, so they will be able to watch our land and oceans more reliably than can satellites that fly around the equator.

In addition to maritime surveillance, the satellites can be used for disaster management and tracking changes in the environment.

Augmenting the view from satellites could be drones, the remotely controlled aircraft that are being used more frequently for both military and civilian purposes. Kenny envisions drones that could fly to the north pole and back in a day, cruising above the altitude used by commercial jetliners.

Good intelligence analysis depends on accurate, current information. The dedicated people who watch our coast need the tools to gather that information.