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Should US defense firms build sell Arctic drone technology to Canada?

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
Photo by Matthew Smith, KNOM Radio Mission

ANALYSIS: North American Arctic nations are busy researching new developments in northern technology. As I mentioned recently, the U.S. is trying to develop a "Knight Rider" vehicle for Alaska. Now, Northrop Grumman, the American defense company, is trying to sell a modified version of its Block 30 RQ-4B Global Hawk, a type of surveillance drone, to Canada. Defense Minister Peter McKay told Aviation Week, “Without naming names, I can say that it is not just Global Hawk that we are considering.” Northrop Grumman’s so-called “Polar Hawk” drone would have several modifications made to render it suitable for operations in the Arctic. Flight Global reports that the aircraft would have an Iridium satellite-communications link to allow for command-and-control for the drone north of 70 degrees latitude. The wings and engine would also have de-icing and anti-icing capabilities, respectively.

Each Global Hawk costs $30-$50 million to purchase. Flight Global also reports that the U.S. Air Force spends $215 million each year operating and maintaining the planes. In January 2012, however, they decided to mothball the existing planes, since they believed the manned U-2 spy plane could do the same job for less money. However, the National Defense Authorization Act for 2013 (H.R. 4310), passed by the House in May 2012, would allocate enough money to keep the fleet of 18 drones operational. It now needs to pass the Senate.

Only three planes would be necessary to provide complete coverage of the Canadian Arctic, as one drone could fly “three to five passes across the length of the Northwest Passage on one sortie, depending on exactly where it is based,” said Doug Marolt, Northrop Grumman’s director of international business development. A press release from Northrop Grumman reads, “Polar Hawk’s operational features are uniquely suited to augment Canada’s existing surveillance capabilities and extend its reach to patrol large geographical areas, keeping constant vigil over the nation’s vast Arctic region from coast-to-coast in a single mission.”

This could be useful, especially if MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, the company that runs RADARSAT-2, has to lay off staff. The RADARSAT-2 satellite is critical for monitoring Canada's Arctic from outer space. Its applications include sea ice monitoring, snow pack monitoring, marine surveillance, and disaster management, and it also produces very high-resolution images with a resolution of 3 meters. MDA’s CEO, Daniel Friedmann, has stated that his company has not received promised funding for the satellite, which could jeopardize its future.

In 2008, the Canadian government blocked the sale of MDA’s space division to an American firm, stating that there would be no “net benefit” to the foreign takeover. If the sale had gone through, the American firm would likely have gained command and control of RADARSAT-2, which Michael Byers opposed in his article, “For Sale: Arctic Sovereignty?” He wrote, “Radarsat-2 is also quintessentially Canadian, because it was meant to monitor our vast northern spaces and thus support our sovereignty there.”

The ironic thing is, some people are also upset that an American defense company would sell its technology to another country – even if it happens to be Canada. Others are scratching their heads at the fact that Canada could even contemplate buying such an expensive piece of equipment when RADARSAT-2, a very capable Arctic surveillance instrument, is not even being properly funded.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.