Originally Published on Canadian American Strategic Review March 2015
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 chokepoint 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).
 With NASP aircraft based in the Arctic, the RCAF’s Northern Sovereignty Patrols using the large CP-140 Auroras can be targeted, responding to need rather than random intervals