Canada looks to patrol Arctic with drone
by Carola Hoyos
May 30, 2012
Northrop Grumman, the US defence contractor, is developing an ultra-modern unmanned spy aircraft to allow Canada to defend its vast Arctic territory against incursions from other countries with claims to the region, which is believed to hold the world’s last giant undiscovered oil and gas reserves.
Canada’s interest in the aircraft raises the stakes in the contest over the Arctic, where countries are using their military presence to assert their sovereignty over the resource-rich and strategically valuable terrain.
Northrop Grumman, the US’s second largest defence contractor by military sales, has joined L-3 MAS, which supplies Canada’s government with aircraft support services, to build the aircraft that will allow Canada for the first time to fully survey its Arctic territory.
At present Canada has very limited ability to assert its sovereignty over a region fiercely contested by several countries.
It sends its Aurora CP 140, a manned maritime surveillance aircraft introduced in 1980, to the Arctic a few times a year and otherwise relies on a Polar satellite that takes a very narrow picture of the territory – and thus needs three weeks to collect information on the entire area.
So far Denmark, Norway, Canada, Russia and the US, all of which lay claim to parts of the Arctic, have taken a relatively diplomatic approach, though there has been some notable flexing of military muscles. Canada felt severely threatened in 2007 when Russia sent a submarine to plant its flag 4km beneath the ice at the North Pole. At the time Stephen Harper, prime minister, responded by announcing that the Nanisivik mine, on the northern tip of the Baffin Island, would house a deepwater docking facility, adding to Canada’s military presence in the region. He added that Canada knew it had to “use or lose” the Arctic.
The Polar Hawk, a derivative of the Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, produced in the US, is able to take a picture of the entire North West passage four times in the course of one mission. The aircraft, which is robotically operated, with human oversight, can fly at 60,000ft and stay aloft for missions that usually range between 24 hours and 35 hours. The US operates a similar aircraft over its own Arctic territory.
The cost of such aircraft varies, but the US aircraft cost from $30m-$50m, with through life costs adding significantly to the price. Canada would need three such aircraft to maintain 24-hour surveillance.
As the ice caps melt, opening up more travel, trade and industry in the region, the aircraft would allow Canada to better assert its sovereignty by ensuring it knows what occurs on its terrain, from passing ships to contestable mining projects, industry analysts said.
Duke Dufresne, vice-president and general manager for Northrop Grumman’s unmanned systems business, said the deal for the Polar Hawk Aircraft was part of Canada’s First Defence Strategy. He said Polar Hawk would allow Canada to “extend its reach to patrol large geographical areas, keeping constant vigil over the nation’s vast Arctic region from coast to coast in a single mission”.
Canada has a policy to acquire drones, both for combat and surveillance. But even drones that do not carry weapons are controversial because of procurement costs and global concerns over the use of the aircraft to infringe on other countries’ sovereignty. Canada had considered buying patrol vessels to fly the flag in the Arctic but they may now no longer be needed, said Denis Stairs, senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, the think tank.
Canada’s department of national defence was not immediately available for comment.