Persistence of Vision – The Key to Asserting National Sovereignty

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 [1] 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

To assert Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, radar coverage would need to be more comprehensive. Two additional locations for aerostats suggest  themselves. One is on another choke-point on the Passage – Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island. The other on the western approach to the broad entrance to the Passage – Tuktoyaktuk near Amundsen Gulf.
The use of aerostats may seem ambitious but the Canadian Forces has experience. [2] Then there are economic considerations. RCAF NorPat (Northern Patrols) have been infrequent due to the costs of flying the CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft up from their southern bases. Operating costs for a TCOM 71M aerostat are reported as less than 20% of  that for a fixed-wing surveillance aircraft and require half  the manpower of aircraft capable of  doing the same job. [3]  But savings are possible in ‘manned’ aerial response too. NASP patrol aircraft are based at  Inuvik (near Tuktoyaktuk) and plans were announced to expand NASP. That promise could  be fulfilled by basing new NASP aircraft at Iqaluit near the eastern approaches to the Passage. The CP-140s can be held for solely military response.

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.

The on-site facilities required for 71M aerostats are comparatively simple. The scale of the TCOM 71M is greater than  Canadian Armed Forces  personnel are used to. Then again, the CAF  had  no  aerostat experience at all  before deploying  tactical airships into Afghanistan. Operating a 71M  is no different than other tethered lighter-than-air  craft. Likewise, operating these radar  would be very familiar to the CAF  –  the AN/APS-508 having been used by the Aurora patrol aircraft for years. Training and parts for this Telephonics radar set are well established.
If Canada is to claim the Northwest Passage, we must be able to conduct robust surveillance and control of our waterways. An aerostat allows for such persistent surveillance, with more detailed monitoring as required. Manned aerial patrols add credibility to our territorial claims but, by using commercially-based NASP aircraft, this need not be excessively expensive. [4] This combination of tethered aerostats and manned surveillance aircraft represents a greatly increased oversight of  Canada’s Northwest Passage.  Perhaps it is time to  ‘use it  or  lose it’.

[1] JLENS stands for Joint Land attack cruise missile defense Elevated Netted Sensor system

[2] 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).

[3] The savings claim comes from Raytheon. Actual economy will depend upon aircraft type. According to the Parliamentary Budget Office, Aurora cost per flying hour is $19,750.00. That translates into nearly $200K for each flight to the North and back to the southern base.