Time to increase Arctic maritime domain awareness

A Canadian perspective

sky blue beach

Photo: Lane Weishaar / iStock
The Arctic is both a region of incredible natural beauty and critical strategic importance.

Col. Pierre Leblanc
Arctic Security Consultants

For too long, the Canadian Arctic has not been benefitting from the attention it deserves. Yet recent events and long-term trends call for an increased security focus to the region. The geopolitical shift caused by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the realization that China, which calls itself a near-Arctic nation, has ambitious aspirations in the Arctic and has been conducting illegal activities in Canada for decades, call for action.

When I commanded Canadian Forces Northern Area in the late 1990s, I was appalled to learn that ships entering our internal waters were not required to report their presence to the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG). In July 2010, following years of lobbying, the Canadian government made it compulsory for vessels of 300 tons and above entering Canadian waters to report to the Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone Regulations, better known as NORDREG. This measure significantly improved Canada’s awareness of who and what was entering our Arctic.

Unfortunately, Report Number 6 of the Auditor General of Canada (AGC) on the surveillance of Canadian Arctic Waters, published in November 2022, states that “Overall, the federal government has not taken the required action to address longstanding gaps affecting its surveillance of Canada’s Arctic waters.” Of specific concern, it also states at paragraph 6.23 that:

“The inability to reliably track, monitor, and identify non-emitting vessels, notably small vessels and those not complying with requirements on identification and tracking equipment.”

Large vessels, when operating responsibly, would normally emit information on their presence through the Automatic Identification System (AIS). This international system is designed to avoid collisions between ships. Fortunately, the AIS signals can be monitored from space and contribute significantly to maritime domain awareness. When vessels do not emit with their AIS—either due to lack of proper equipment or because they want to hide their presence—it is difficult, if not impossible, for Canada to maintain good domain awareness of maritime activity in its vast arctic internal waters and Exclusive Economic Zone.

If Canada is serious about improving its arctic maritime domain awareness, one of the simple and inexpensive ways to do it is to increase the number of ships that are obligated to report to NORDREG and to require them to continuously emit on AIS while in Canadian waters. As I suggested at the Canadian Maritime Advisory Council Prairie and Northern Region meeting in Québec City, on May 11, 2023:

“Amend the Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone Regulations as follows:

• That vessels of 15 tons and above be prescribed as classes of vessels for the purposes of subsections 126(1) and (3) of the act in respect of the NORDREG Zone

• That vessels over 15 tons maintain an Automatic Identification System active while operating in the NORDREG Zone” These requirements would result in significant benefits. All federal ministries with responsibilities in the Arctic would benefit from a more complete domain awareness. The vessels themselves would benefit from increased safety: in the case of an emergency, the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), which manages NORDREG, would immediately know which vessels would be the closest to provide assistance. The incidence of search-and-rescue (SAR) operations could be reduced, as well as the impact on annual community resupply. Indeed, among the tasks performed by the CCG, the SAR function has a higher priority than annual community resupply. Therefore, the annual resupply of an Inuit community risks being delayed or even canceled whenever CCG icebreakers must attend an SAR situation caused by an unprepared vessel. Any delay on the delivery increases the cost of the annual sealift resupply of arctic communities.

The Nunavut Association of Municipalities is fully supportive of the recommendation to increase the NORDREG reporting and transmitting on AIS. They are increasingly concerned with the growing number of super yachts arriving unannounced on their doorstep, entering marine protected areas, or worse: fouling their traditional harvesting area and threatening their food security.

Since the proposed changes are to the regulations, rather than to the act, the minister could simply direct these changes under its own authority. Those changes could not be challenged given that, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries are allowed to impose restrictions to manage their marine environments, provided that they are not discriminatory.

To create maritime domain awareness, there is a need for multiple sources of information, which can be cross-referenced to identify the bad players. In the case of the Arctic, this means surveillance from space and inputs from a variety of actors, including our Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS), CCG icebreakers, the Aurora long-range maritime patrol aircraft, the Canadian Rangers, Transport Canada’s National Aerial Surveillance Program, the Long-Range Identification and Tracking System, the Inuit Maritime Monitoring Program, and even concerned citizens. The multiplicity of systems provides redundancy to ensure resilience: for example, if satellites are disabled by a solar storm, Canada will not become suddenly blind.

The challenge in the vast Canadian Arctic is that surveillance is presently episodic in nature. The AOPS and CCG vessels only operate there in the summer and cover a small radius around them. The AGC report indicates that the RADARSAT Constellation, which provides space surveillance, does not have sufficient capacity, and that there will be a gap before its replacement becomes operational. It also states that similar gaps will happen in other systems over the years.

One of the ways to improve our arctic maritime domain awareness is to monitor the approaches to the Arctic Archipelago using Canadian developed high frequency surface wave radar (HFSWR). This is not a new idea. HFSWRs can detect vessels on the surface up to a range of 200 nautical miles. One of my clients, Maerospace, a Canadian company based in Waterloo, Ontario, is proposing the installation of three systems to provide persistent 24/7 coverage of the present main approaches to the Arctic Archipelago. The disappearance of the ice may call for a fourth system in time.

The ability to detect vessels approaching the archipelago using these radars would allow the authorities to deny entry, confirm whether a vessel has reported to NORDREG, and corroborate whether or not it is transmitting the required AIS signal. It is said that what you cannot measure, you cannot manage.

In addition, the report of the Senate Standing Committee on National Defence identified another serious surveillance gap on page 38: “For witnesses, the main surveillance gap in the Arctic concerns the detection of threats and underwater activities. They underscored that Canada currently has no capability to detect submarines, underwater UAVs or other types of submersible systems operating in the Arctic Ocean.”

Since our submarines cannot operate safely under the ice, one economical way to perform “the detection of threats and underwater activities” could be through the use of unstaffed underwater vehicle (UUV). Since the UUVs operate underwater, they could be deployed year-round, regardless of the ice cover. They would not have some of the disadvantages of sonar arrays on the seabed such as their vulnerability to damage from iceberg.

A combination of short- and long-range UUVs could be used to monitor the underwater approaches to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The International Submarine Engineering Explorers UUV, with a range of 300-plus kilometers, could be deployed to monitor specific choke points. The long-range UUVs, such as the HUGIN Endurance from Kongsberg, with a range of 2,200 kilometers, could be deployed from Resolute Bay or Cambridge Bay to patrol the key vulnerable passages of the Northwest Passage. The UUVs may have the ability to lie down at the bottom of those passages and silently monitor activity. They could dock into unstaffed underwater facilities to recharge their batteries, upload information, and download instructions. By moving from one underwater docking station to another, the UUVs could monitor all the approaches to the Arctic Archipelago. When needed, the UUVs would be commanded back to a maintenance facility for servicing.

The knowledge that UUVs are patrolling the waters of the archipelago would be a great deterrent. In addition, while the UUVs collect national defense data, they could simultaneously be collecting scientific data, such as water temperatures, salinity, ocean currents, and marine life (e.g., communications between whales).

The changes to NORDREG regulations, as well as the deployment of HFSWRs and UUVs, could quickly and significantly improve our arctic maritime domain awareness and deterrence. It is unfortunate that the lack of federal leadership on national defense, the reluctance to meet NATO minimum investment in defense, combined with the present government’s apparent disinterest in protecting Canadians, will make the implementation of those recommendations a challenge.

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.