James Fergusson: Up in the air, North of 60
by James Fergusson
February 6, 2013
What follows is the third of five excerpts from a newly released e-book, The Canadian Forces in 2025: Problems and Prospects. The publication was commissioned by the Strategic Studies Working Group — a partnership between the Canadian International Council and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. In today’s installment, James Fergusson looks at our Air-Force presence in the Arctic.
The federal government has tasked the Canadian Forces with monitoring, controlling and enforcing Canadian laws and regulations over its Arctic territory and adjacent waters. In so doing, the government, through its 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy and National Shipbuilding Strategy, has focused particular attention on the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).
The RCN and Coast Guard will play a major role in enforcing national laws and regulations on fishing, the environment, shipping and smuggling. However, the major burden will fall on the Royal Canadian Air Force; and this carries significant implications for its future.
Today, the RCAF is a “southern,” overseas Air Force that goes North only when necessary. Only four Twin Otter aircraft are permanently deployed to the North, at Yellowknife, with Joint Task Force North Headquarters. They undertake a variety of missions, including search and rescue (SAR).
A small number of CF-18 fighters, deployed at Cold Lake and Bagotville, and assigned to NORAD, are dedicated to the air-sovereignty mission. Their primary use continues to be to intercept Russian bombers on training missions as they approach Canadian air space. Four forward operating locations (FOLs), co-located with civilian airports in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet were developed in the 1980s for the dispersal of CF-18s to the North. In addition, the Aurora surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft undertake regular Arctic patrols.
To monitor Canadian and North American air space in the North, the North Warning System (NWS) replaced NORAD’s Distant Early Warning radar line in the 1980s. It primarily consists of automated unmanned radars stretching across the Canadian Arctic, south of the Northwest Passage. Finally, the RCAF operates Canadian Forces Station Alert on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. The station performs a signals intelligence function and supports SAR.
It is projected that over the next decade there will be an exponential increase in shipping and resource exploitation activity in the Arctic. If so, the RCAF will be required to monitor Canada’s Arctic on a daily basis. More activity also means an increase in search and rescue demands. As such, the RCAF will have no choice but to shift resources to the North on a permanent basis.
To meet this demand, the existing FOLs likely will become permanent bases for forward deployed surveillance and reconnaissance and SAR aircraft. The Aurora, or possibly future unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), will play a vital role in monitoring traffic over this expansive area. Though UAVs can be operated from bases in the south through satellite links, they will still need to be maintained at their bases in the North.
Being cued by the planned wide-area, space-based surveillance radar constellation, these aircraft will provide tracking of shipping and fishing vessels, the identification of targets of interest, and direction of RCN or Coast Guard vessels for interception purposes. Permanently deployed SAR aircraft and helicopters will be necessary to provide rapid response to accidents in the North. In addition, helicopters also will potentially provide a rapid response interception capability.
There is also a slight possibility that the CF-18 or its replacement will need to be permanently deployed to the North. However, the likelihood that significant military threats will emerge in the Arctic is very low, especially as a function of the harsh environment.
Finally, the North Warning System will likely be expanded northward as part of its future modernization, with all the attendant costs of building new sites.
Currently, the RCAF is developing a northern plan to meet future demand. Regardless of the details, the costs will be significant. Building and staffing permanent bases will be expensive, although some costs may be offset by other government departments and agencies in response to increased civilian demand.
As for capabilities, there will be no need to acquire a dedicated Arctic aircraft: The current and planned inventory of multi-role aircraft will be able to meet this requirement. That will reduce some costs. However, aircraft and personnel deployed to the North on a permanent basis will impact the ability of the RCAF to meet its other demands.
Costs related to the retention and recruitment of personnel also will be significant. Canadians may have an emotional attachment to the North, but this does not necessarily mean that RCAF personnel and their families will look forward to being posted there for several years.
In order to meet these costs, the key issue for the RCAF is whether government will be willing to provide the necessary funding. If not, the RCAF will be strained to the breaking point, which will cascade throughout the organization as it confronts other significant investment demands on its equipment and personnel.
James Fergusson is a Research Fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.