For Sale: Arctic Sovereignty?

How losing a Canadian satellite to the US would be like losing our eyes on the North

How losing a Canadian satellite to the US would be like losing our eyes on the North
Image provided by Macdonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.

Stephen Harper boldly claims to be “passionately committed to protecting and defending” the North. “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it,” he says. “Make no mistake; this government intends to use it.”

The prime minister certainly talks the talk. He’s challenged US Ambassador David Wilkins over the status of the Northwest Passage, and promised a deepwater port, a cold weather training centre, and up to eight ice-strengthened patrol vessels for the Canadian Forces. He’s even promised a $720-million icebreaker for the Canadian coast guard. Just the same, it’s easy to publicly berate a foreign emissary for electoral purposes; the port and buildings for the training centre already exist, and the shipbuilding contracts are not yet signed. Perhaps a clearer indication of Harper’s commitment to Arctic sovereignty lies in the government’s dealings with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. of Richmond, BC.

In January, mda announced the sale of its space program to Alliant Techsystems (atk), a massive US arms manufacturer. The deal can be blocked, and in April the government, facing mounting opposition, issued an “initial rejection” letter saying that the sale would not be a “net benefit” to Canada. By Canadian law atk was granted thirty days to amend its offer. If the sale ultimately goes through, it will include the newly launched Radarsat-2 remote sensing satellite. Designed specifically with the Arctic in mind, it generates images of remarkably high definition, even at night and through clouds, and is the perfect tool for tracking ships and mapping sea ice, especially during the long, dark polar winter.

From 800 kilometres above the earth’s surface, Radarsat-2 can discern hydro lines, ocean currents, and even—rumour has it—the wakes of submerged submarines. With Arctic sea ice quickly disappearing, the Northwest Passage opening, and the arrival of foreign cargo ships just a question of time, losing Radarsat-2 would be like losing our eyes on the North. Roughly 40 percent of Canada is located in the Arctic, and this country boasts the world’s longest coastline—most of it in the North. The ability to detect and track ships from space, and measure ice thickness, is an essential complement to having the equipment and personnel to reach and board foreign vessels if necessary, and to chart the ongoing Arctic melt.

Radarsat-2 was developed through a public-private partnership between mda and the Canadian Space Agency, with taxpayers contributing $445 million (about 85 percent) of the total cost. It was a sweet deal for the company, and president and ceo Daniel Friedmann predicted that Radarsat-2 would, over its seven-year projected lifespan, generate up to $1 billion in revenue for mda. But the anticipated benefits for Canada were also significant. The government obtained the right to Radarsat-2 imagery of a value equivalent to its financial contribution, and, more important, acquired “shutter control”—the ability to restrict the kinds of images downloaded from the satellite for reasons of national security—as well as “priority access” in cases of emergency, such as forest fires, oil spills, or suspect vessels entering Canada’s North.

This shutter control and priority access are now at stake. If mda’s space program is sold to atk, the US will most likely replace Canada as the licensing authority for Radarsat-2. Ottawa will lose the ability to control the satellite and commandeer it in emergencies, which could enable it to be used in ways that might well contradict our interests. Suppose the US sends a ship into the Northwest Passage without Canada’s consent. Or that it attacks Iran in the absence of UN authorization or a truly imminent threat. In both instances, Radarsat-2 imagery would facilitate American law-breaking. (atk says it will abide by all existing contracts.)

Even if Canada were to remain the licensing authority and notionally retain control, this could break down after the satellite was sold. Suppose Canada wanted priority access for Arctic sovereignty purposes just as a crisis was developing between the US and Russia. The Pentagon would likely want all of the satellite’s airtime, and atk might well acquiesce. After all, the US government is already atk’s principal customer, buying vast quantities of small arms ammunition, land mines, cluster bombs, and depleted uranium shells, as well as rocket engines for nuclear missiles and missile defence interceptors from the company.

A chief argument for selling Radarsat-2 is that some control over the satellite has already been ceded to the US. Radarsat-2 was supposed to have been launched by nasa in 2001, in return for a specified amount of free data. But that plan was axed after Washington expressed concern that hostile countries or groups might purchase fine images of US facilities and military forces. This, along with various technical problems, caused the launch date to slip from 2001 to 2003, and then to 2005. Radarsat-2 was finally sent into orbit on December 14, 2007—on a Russian-made Soyuz rocket that blasted off from Kazakhstan.

Early on, the Canadian government sought to address US concerns by negotiating a bilateral treaty. The pact, signed by then Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy and US secretary of state Madeleine Albright in 2000, imposed restraints on the use of the satellite, with the details being deemed “commercially confidential” and confined to an unpublished annex, or side agreement. In 2005, when Members of Parliament were asked to adopt legislation enabling the licensing of Radarsat-2, they were not allowed to see the annex. Conservative MP Ted Menzies asked, “Does the minister have the power to trump this annex in the treaty? They claim the minister has shutter control, but they won’t tell us if the annex trumps the minister.”

One can speculate as to the contents of the annex. Washington undoubtedly obtained control over any images of US military facilities and real or potential theatres of operation, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. It may also have secured the power to conscript Radarsat-2 in support of its intelligence and military operations more generally, thus negating Canada’s right of priority access. When I put this last speculation to Axworthy in March 2005, it elicited a wry smile.

Radarsat-2 was always destined to do at least some work for foreign militaries. MacDonald Dettwiler began marketing the satellite’s defence capabilities almost immediately after the Chrétien government privatized the construction process in 1998. Six years later, it announced a deal with the US Air Force to facilitate “in-theatre support for the war fighter.” Today the US military and government’s demand for remote sensing data has become almost insatiable. Existing American spy satellites are growing old, and attempts to build a new generation of them have failed—most spectacularly late last year, when a newly launched satellite began tumbling toward earth and was shot down by a missile defence interceptor—all during a period when the US military is heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at least preparing for action against Iran.

The economic opportunity of selling its space division was not lost on mda. It began actively courting suitors last April, then held off concluding the deal with atk until just three days after Radarsat-2 was successfully launched—thus increasing its value. The agreement was announced in January, and unless it is blocked or amended a cool $1.3 billion will change hands. As for atk, it openly predicts that the purchase will generate $500 million in revenue during the first year alone. It also hopes to obtain lucrative contracts to build new spy satellites for the US government, using technology designed and funded by Canadians, primarily for peaceful ends.

Canada has always been a world leader in the non-military use of space. In 1962, we became the third country to reach the final frontier with a satellite, Alouette-I, designed to study the upper atmosphere. In 1972, we built the world’s first national communications satellite, Anik A1, enabling the cbc to transmit to the North. In the field of remote sensing, most countries focused their efforts on powerful cameras; Canadian scientists developed synthetic aperture radar instead. For thirteen years now, Radarsat-1, the less powerful predecessor of Radarsat-2, has served as an essential instrument for map-making, natural resource management, and ice navigation. When I sailed through the Northwest Passage on the Canadian coast guard icebreaker Amundsen in October 2006, the captain used Radarsat-1 imagery to plot our course. Radarsat-1 is owned and operated by the Canadian Space Agency, and in 2004 the data and images it produced were sold to 600 customers worldwide.

In hindsight, one could question the use of a public-private partnership to build Radarsat-2, as it opened up a greater possibility of sale. But there’s little doubt that the government was motivated in part by the desire to promote Canadian science and thus maintain and create thousands of well-paid jobs. Just before the satellite’s launch, mda correctly—if cynically—asserted that “the Radarsat-2 program underscores Canada’s strength and leadership in the development, operation and marketing of advanced Earth Observation technologies and applications.”

Every country with a serious space program directs government money toward its domestic space industry on the basis that some public goods—such as national defence—will not be provided by the market alone. But now that Radarsat-2 has been launched, the Canadian industry lacks any major follow-on projects, with the Conservative government seemingly unwilling to uphold earlier Liberal commitments to fund a new generation of Radarsats. Indeed, this apparent unwillingness may have contributed to mda’s decision to sell Radarsat-2.

World-leading scientists who chose to work for mda because of the peaceful aspects of its work are now leaving the industry. “As soon as I heard the announcement, I knew I couldn’t work for them [mda] anymore,” Paul Cottle, a thirty-one-year-old American engineer, told the cbc. “Part of the reason I came to Canada was to avoid having my tax dollars go to support companies like atk.” Maintaining a healthy Canadian space industry isn’t just good for Canada; it’s good for the world, providing a place where expertise can be developed and nurtured outside the US-led effort to militarize space.

Radarsat-2 is also quintessentially Canadian, because it was meant to monitor our vast northern spaces and thus support our sovereignty there. To illustrate the point, imagine that the construction of the newly promised $720-million icebreaker were modelled on Radarsat-2. A public-private partnership would be established with a Canadian-owned company, with the government covering 85 percent of the cost, in return for a specified period of time when the Canadian coast guard would have priority access to the vessel. The company would own the icebreaker and be allowed—indeed, encouraged—to create jobs and stimulate economic activity in Canada by chartering the vessel to other users when it was not required by the coast guard. Other users might include cargo ships requiring icebreaker escorts through the Northwest Passage. Everyone would be happy. Canada would obtain a major tool for sovereignty assertion. The company would receive necessary financial support in return for providing a public good, and the opportunity to garner profits through private contracts. Commercial shipping companies from around the world would benefit, promoting trade and general prosperity.

Now, imagine that within weeks of the icebreaker’s launch the Canadian company announced the vessel’s sale to a US company specializing in Antarctic operations. A controversy would erupt—and rightly so. Would the icebreaker still be registered in Canada? Would it still be available for priority use by the Canadian coast guard, given that it might not maintain Canadian registry? To what degree would Canada’s new sovereignty assertion capabilities be lost, or at least compromised?

Does anyone think that the sale of the icebreaker would be allowed to proceed? No, yet the parallel between this hypothetical scenario and the proposed sale of Radarsat-2 is very close indeed.

There are two pieces of legislation the Canadian government could use to block the sale of Radarsat-2. Under the Investment Canada Act, the minister of industry, science and technology must decide whether the transfer of ownership is of “net benefit” to Canada. Last October, two months before the launch, Industry Minister Jim Prentice stood beside Radarsat-2 and said, “This satellite will help us vigorously protect our Arctic sovereignty as international interest in the region increases.” But the Investment Canada Act sets out a series of purely economic factors for the net benefit determination—a situation that prompted Prentice, when faced with the possibility that Chinese state-owned companies might invest in the Alberta tar sands, to suggest that the government might adopt an explicit national security test. More recently, however, he indicated to the House of Commons Industry Committee that he could consider non-economic factors, and would consult with “affected provinces and other federal government departments and agencies” before approving the Radarsat-2 sale.

During that consultation, Prentice probably discovered that an explicit non-economic test already exists under the 2005 Remote Sensing Space Systems Act. While he said in April that the sale failed the net benefit test, according to this legislation, which was adopted specifically for Radarsat-2, any transfer of the licence must be approved by the minister of foreign affairs and international trade. In making this decision, the minister, currently Maxime Bernier, “shall have regard to national security [and] the defence of Canada.”

Still, it’s inconceivable that either Prentice or Bernier would make such an important final decision unilaterally. On Radarsat-2, as with so many other issues, the buck stops elsewhere. To Prime Minister Harper’s probable surprise and consternation, his own credibility is suddenly on the line—and not just on Arctic sovereignty. Does “passionately committed” mean anything? Was “make no mistake” just a cynical string of words?

Michael Byers