Published by Senator Colin Kenny on 03 July 2012
Sea defence has been crucial to most nations' sovereignty for centuries; air defence for little over half a century. So it seems a bit strange that Canada's current air defences are so sophisticated while our sea defences are so primitive.
I acknowledge that useful surveillance work is being done on our coasts and southern waterways by a handful of very dedicated people from various branches of Canada's defence community. But the technology being provided them to do their jobs is antiquated compared to what the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) uses to defend Canada's air space.
NORAD technology provides a clear, real-time picture of what's up in our skies, as well as what may be coming at us by air in hours or minutes. We're not nearly as alert on monitoring our coasts.
Isn't aerial assault a much more ominous threat than coastal assault? Maybe. But the trick to military recognizance is finding holes in the enemy's defences and sniffing out vulnerable spots where nobody expects an attack. That's how General Wolfe surprised General Montcalm.
Canada isn't at war with Russia or China or any other nation right now, but you never know how things will shake down in coming decades. It shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone that the Russians are clearly interested in checking out vulnerabilities on our coastlines.
You will recall that Sub-Lieutenant Jeffrey Paul Delisle, employed at the top secret Royal Canadian Navy Trinity intelligence centre near Halifax Harbour, was charged in January with passing confidential information to foreign interests. Within a week Canadian authorities had expelled four employees working at the Russian embassy in Ottawa. You need not wonder why.
Trinity, on the Atlantic, and Athena, located in Esquimalt, B.C. on the Pacific - are supposed to fuse intelligence required for coastal defence, collecting information in co-ordination with U.S. authorities and Canada's other allies. But neither Trinity nor Athena has a complete, real-time picture of our territorial waters.
If Canada is going to track submarines and get to suspicious surface ships before they get to us, we will need a complex matrix of realtime images emanating from satellites, drones, and manned surveillance aircraft combined with tougher regulations on which ships must carry transponders to alert us as they approach our shores. That matrix is not in place.
Canada is behind in developing effective satellite coverage. The head of the Canadian aeronautical firm Mac-Donald Dettwiler has said he's laying off key staff because Ottawa has dragged its feet on a contract for the development of next-generation surveillance satellites. We're losing highly skilled, very mobile workers who are key to Canada's industrial future. Not to mention the fact we need those satellites now.
But satellites alone aren't enough. Their surveillance paths are often too narrow and fuzzy at the edges. Furthermore, submarines know the timing of their surveillance sweeps, so they avoid surfacing.
Canada currently complements satellite imagery with Aurora aircraft flights, but those flights are expensive and cutbacks to surveillance missions have in some cases turned surveillance into a just-pretend exercise. For instance, Canada tries to exert its sovereignty in the Arctic with only one or two Aurora flights a year. Why bother?
Canada should be busily investing in a squadron of drones to oversee our coasts. Our current drones have limited flight times and fly too low to be used anywhere commercial airliners are flying - in busy commercial flight areas on both coasts it is important to keep drones well above 30,000 feet to stay out of the way of commercial traffic.
There are drones available that fly above 50,000 feet, with loiter times of more than 20 hours, but there have been no signals from Ottawa that they will be purchased anytime soon. We should be considering whether to arm the drones so we can stop ships in their tracks, but that's an academic question at the moment.
We're muddling along with a patchwork approach to defending our coasts. We should be buying the kind of advanced equipment we use to defend our skies, but we're not. We should be pushing for better international regulations on transponders that will incrementally require them on smaller vessels - right now they are only required on ships of 300 tonnes or more. No news on that.
Unless a nation understands what threats confront it, that nation cannot put the people, equipment and systems in place to defend against those threats.
Right now, on our coasts, those threats are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The government - despite all its blustering about defending our sovereignty - can't seem to be bothered to provide what is needed to make the pieces fit together. And that is puzzling.