04/02/2014 Richard de Silva – Defence IQ
The Canadian government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is prioritising sovereignty as the top focus for its Arctic strategy, according to a public statement made this year at the World Economic Forum. It is also looking to strengthen regulations of the oil-and-gas and mining sectors and ocean shippers in the region.
To achieve this, a robust surveillance and communications network is a must but, with budgets as tight as they are, there remains anxiety over the ability to meet full expectations. In efforts to lower long-term costs and provide the widest coverage available, Canadians are looking to the stars. The RADARSAT Constellation Mission, an initiative to cover surveillance requirements from national defence through to environmental protection, continues to receive strong backing ahead of its completion deadline of 2018.
As one of Canada’s most sophisticated satellites, RADARSAT-2 offers a next-generation synthetic aperture radar (SAR) earth observation satellite. Launched in December 2007, it provides all-weather, day-and-night coverage of the entire globe to support fishing, shipping, oil and gas exploration, offshore drilling, mapping and ocean research. To date, it has become an essential resource for protecting Canada’s territories, including its interests in the Arctic, a region that has a notorious lack of surveillance infrastructure compared to much of the other corners of the world.
There are some recent concerns that the success of RADARSAT-2 is proving to be a headache for the Canadian government. According to a November 2012 admission by the Department of National Defence (DND), estimates by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) have indicated that the government’s “data allocation will expire by August 2017” due to the exponential growth of the demand for information in maritime domain awareness, a statement that has since been contradicted by sources at the CSA.
Federal departments had initially agreed to an allotment of $445 million worth of data in exchange for financial contribution to building the satellite, which is owned and operated by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. of British Columbia. The company is open to selling more credits but budget approval is always an uphill struggle and other international organisations are also demanding a share.
Canada’s case for space
Canadian space assets are already used extensively in support of both domestic and expeditionary maritime domain awareness operations. Space-derived data, especially RADARSAT-2 and space-based collection from the automatic identification system (AIS) – including its integration into the terrestrial AIS and the occasional use of commercial electro-optical imagery – are all key components of Canada’s maritime domain awareness programme. It is therefore an undeniably integrated approach.
In essence, radars detect the majority of the targets within the country’s area of interest and the AIS is a key to identifying the targets detected. As an example, there are approximately 7,000 ships criss-crossing between Gibraltar and Halifax. If those trying to view the big picture were to use radar exclusively, they would not be able to discern which of those 7,000 targets are actually of a security concern. By overlaying the AIS on top of that, analysts are able to identify vessels. The problematic targets then can be the subject of additional scrutiny through the input of intelligence sources or civil agencies.
Of course, a ship may have a technical issue with its AIS which would prevent identification, so near real-time vessel detection is achieved through strategically placed satellite ground infrastructure and special radar processors that allow for the very rapid generation of ship detection reports.
While the Armed Forces are naturally concerned most with sovereignty issues, the same capabilities can be used to support whole of government missions, including safety and navigation resource monitoring, pollution control and so on. In particular, ice monitoring is a critical necessity for the safety of navigation.
Enhancing satellite value
Next to demand, the amount of SAR data that RADARSAT-2 collects per orbit has increased in recent years. Since the surveillance satellite programme first began, programme managers have anticipated this trend and have focussed efforts on automation. Analysts working in the maritime domain awareness area can collect and download within the Canadian AOR in an almost real-time fashion. The SAR processor and the software that it runs through to automatically detect ships first determines the characteristics of that ship and then converts it into an OTH-Gold track message that can be sent on to a recognised maritime picture command and control system. From the beginning of that process to the end, the system can guarantee to its end users, the Canadian Navy, that they will receive data within 30 minutes. On the vast majority of occasions, the time is less than 15 minutes and even running as little as 8 minutes.
The process is as efficient and as quick as one can get to using a common radar to see a ship in the ocean and then populating it on a radar plot. The upside of the OTH-Gold messages is that with each track, instead of being a 150 megabit image, offers a 30 kilobit OTH-Gold track, which includes an image chip so the Navy has some idea of what the ship looks like. This track can be easily moved through normal communications or even emailed to ships not connected to the command and control system, as demonstrated during a recent RIMPAC exercise. The dissemination of data can therefore be done in a flexible way, but the key remains in an automation process that boasts a very low error rate. Currently, the Canadian system has an error rate far less than 10 per cent.
Meeting the launch date
According to the CSA and DND, the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) “remains on target for a 2018 launch”. The paradigm shift compared to earlier methods lies in the deployment of three satellites, but with a constellation designed to be scalable up to six, should future requirements demand. In this way, the capabilities of the system are distributed across several satellites, increasing revisit, and introducing a more robust, flexible system that can be maintained at lower cost and launched into orbit using smaller, less expensive launch vehicles. RCM will provide complete coverage of Canada's land and oceans at least once a day, as well as daily access to 95 per cent of the world to Canadian and International users.
“In the majority of our area of interest, we will get ship reports at least every 12 hours and, in the strategically important Arctic, we will get the ship reports every eight hours,” says Colonel Andre Dupuis, Director of Space Requirements at the DND.
“That's all the way out to 2,000 nautical miles and that is, frankly, unheard of in the maritime domain awareness world, where your entire AOR can get a refresh to provide commanders and decision-makers with a real understanding of what the maritime environment looks like from a security and defence perspective.
“It will completely revolutionise how allied navies look at monitoring the open ocean.”
RCM developments will mean that 50 per cent of radar coverage is available to support expeditionary operations, be they in the Arctic or in the South China Sea, which will monitor ship traffic for both cooperative vessels using AIS or uncooperative targets. Everything that Canada is undertaking in the field of maritime domain awareness, particularly in its use of space assets, can be enacted at the unclassified side. Thus, a huge capability will emerge to allow for easily consumable information sharing between partners, allies, governments and private organisations.