Surveillance of Canadian territory in the High Arctic is problematic at the best of times. This is especially true of the Northwest Passage. The various issues are well understood: lack of infrastructure (while environmental sensitivity restricts the building of future infrastructure); navigational difficulties imposed by both weather and the high latitude; the lack of northern- deployed forces (other than Canadian Rangers) and long transit times from southern bases.
When one considers these issues, it appears desirable that Canada find a way to ‘leverage’ a low-cost solution into a high surveillance return. What we need is a checkpoint – someplace where a persistent surveillance effort can serve as a ‘tripwire’ for other assets. If suspicious targets were detected quickly, a more detailed examination could be made by patrol aircraft from the National Aerial Surveillance Program (NASP) or Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), or by any appropriate Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) ships which are operating in the region.
Eyes in the Skies – Finding chokepoints in our Northwest Passage to assert Sovereignty Fortunately, a location for our surveillance tripwire exists. At Resolute Bay, Nunavut, site of the Canadian Armed Forces’ Arctic Training Centre, we find infrastructure and a choke-point in the Northwest Passage. All shipping using the Northwest Passage must sail through the waters off Resolute Bay. All that remains to be found is a sensor suite that can monitor the Passage. This may pose a problem due to the fact the channel between Cornwallis Island, on which Resolute Bay is located, and Somerset Island is approximately 65 km (40 miles) wide.
Ships in the shipping channel can easily be over the radar horizon from Resolute. To achieve a radar horizon of 40 nautical miles (74 km) we would need to mount that radar on a tower of just over 1000 feet (300 m). Building a 1000-foot tower in the Arctic, capable of withstanding Arctic environmental conditions, would not be easy … or cheap. And pity those brave souls who would face the herculean and terrifying task of servicing the radar once it was mounted!
“Up, Up [but not] Away”? Inflatable Aerostats as potential Arctic Surveillance ‘Platforms’ Enter the aerostat, a form of non-rigid, inflatable, tethered airship. Similar to the blimps of old, the aerostat is a more refined descendant. Gone are the days of fragile gasbags filled with hydrogen, just waiting to be destroyed. Gone too are the limitations of purely visual observations. The modern aerostat can lift a surveillance radar to 10,000 feet (3 km) or higher and keep it there for as much as 30 days. Modern aerostat surveillance systems have become more common since the 1980s, with major defence contractors such as Raytheon and IAI/Elta offering turnkey systems.
IAI has sold a number of systems, including recent sales to India, where they will be used to monitor India’s border with Pakistan. Raytheon’s JLENS system  offers a second aerostat fitted with a fire control radar – which greatly extends the detection and engagement range of air defence units. JLENS employs a strategic class 74M aerostat manufactured by TCOM LP in North Carolina. Of greater significance to Canada is another TCOM aerostat, the 71M.
The TCOM 71M can be fitted with a wide variety of sensors, and can operate at altitudes of up to 4,572 metres (15,000 ft) for up to 30 days. Were the 71M aerostat to be mated with the AN/APS-508 radar set from the CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft, that system could ‘see’ out to 370 km – the maximum detection range for that radar. That 370 km range, against a large surface target, combined with Resolute Bay’s location would mean continuous coverage of any surface contact for a staggering 740 km. A 740 km coverage range means that, even for a ship transiting the Northwest Passage at a dangerously fast 20 knots (37 km/h), a ‘target’ vessel remains under surveillance for 20 hours.
Calling in Back-Up: Radar surveillance by Aerostat with confirmation by manned aircraft
Flying at cruising speed, an RCAF CP-140 Aurora aircraft can be overhead at Resolute Bay less than 5 hours after its launch from CFB Comox. The chances of any ‘target’ ship escaping detection, and subsequent aerial identification and monitoring by a CP-140, are virtually nil.
Each of our three hypothetical aerostat installations on the Northwest Passage would have a circular radar coverage out to 370 km. Each aerostat will have a total coverage area of 430,000 square kilometres giving a combined total coverage of around 1.29 million square kilometres.
 JLENS stands for Joint Land attack cruise missile defense Elevated Netted Sensor system
 Canada’s smaller, tactical TCOM 28M RAID (Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment) systems were operational in Afghanistan for ground surveillance use (along with Eagle Eye towers).
Inside an enormous hangar that once launched World War II Navy blimps, TCOM, L.P. manufactures and assembles airships and the lofty aerostats that are used for air defense systems and surveillance around the world. A key to the Elizabeth City, N.C. operation is an inventory of fine-tuned machines—and the technicians who keep them running.
Bradley Perkins and Rick Anderson are electronics technicians who work in TCOM’s sealer maintenance shop. They keep in top working order the machines that seal the seams of the lighter-than-air aerostats.
Aerostats are unmanned, tethered balloons filled with helium to keep them aloft. Outfitted with radar and communications systems, the aerostats made at TCOM are now a critical part of air defense systems used in Kuwait, Israel, India and Iraq.
“Any interruption in the aerostats’ operation could compromise the mission, ” said TCOM Site Operations Manager Charles Knauss. “Completely flexible, aerostats have no internal structure, so sealing together the laminate material that contains the helium is integral to their success.”
That’s where Perkins and Anderson come in.
Working from TCOM’s sealer maintenance shop, their job is to replace and maintain the head and feet on the industrial-sized heat sealer machines. Using 480 volts of electricity, the hand-sized head and the shoe-sized foot clamp together to heat and seal the seams along the gigantic aerostats that range in size from 17 to 74 meters. That’s a machine you want to have in top shape when you’re constructing a balloon intended for air defense overseas.
“When this machine goes down, production goes down,” explained Anderson. “We need to make sure the machines are maintained properly for this function.”
In addition to maintaining the heat sealer machines, Perkins and Anderson keep a battery of mechanical devices in working order—the inspection equipment, on which workers examine the thin aerostat laminate for flaws; the plotter cutter machines that cut the material according to design; and the blowers used to inflate the deflate the aerostats in testing.
Every 60 days, they run a top-to-bottom inspection of all 34 machines—checking connections, bearings, pins, and cables, in addition to changing all the filters.
“We deal with expensive equipment, and there’s a long lead time to get it replaced,” said Perkins. “One little slip-up can cause havoc.”
Putting it together
As long as he can remember, Perkins has enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together. With a keen interest in electronics, he took as many related courses as he could when he was a student at Gates County High School, including computer language classes and math. After graduation, he enrolled in the two-year computer engineering program at College of the Albemarle (COA). That’s where he learned about TCOM through the college’s co-op program that places students with on-the-job learning experiences.
For Perkins, it was a good fit—and a smart career move. When he graduated with an associate’s degree in 2005, he went to work full-time with TCOM.
“The co-op program gave me the chance to learn more about what TCOM does and really apply what I’d learned in the classroom,” he explained.
Anderson will complete the same COA program this year. After he works the first shift at TCOM, he goes home to hit the books through the college’s distance learning courses, conducted online. His background as an ASE-certified mechanic has helped.
“I started working on cars because I owned a 1988 Ford Escort and needed to keep it up. I’m self-taught,” Anderson said. “And I’ve always been fascinated with computers, wanting to know what’s inside that box and all that goes on.”
Perkins’ and Anderson’s pride in their jobs shows as they go about their work at TCOM. In a spacious manufacturing room next to their shop, material for a 74-meter aerostat is stretched out along the length of the floor. It will take workers up to three months to construct it. Anderson is busy switching out parts on one of the heat sealer machines, while Perkins checks other devices in the room that will be instrumental in the successful completion of the balloon.
“We’re kind of like the behind-the-scenes backbone of the company. You might not notice us when things are running smoothly. But once a machine isn’t functioning or breaks down, we’re the ones that get the call,” said Perkins. “What we do here is important.”
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