The following article first appeared in the first issue of our new magazine Space Quarterly on September 1, 2011. With the opening today of the First Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa we thought it appropriate to publish this article online. The next issue of Space Quarterly will be published December 1. Subscribe to the digital or print edition for more in-depth coverage of the Canadian space systems sector.
Thinking Big: Canada’s RADARSAT Constellation by James Fergusson
The decision to develop and deploy a constellation of three radar satellites (RADARSAT) in polar orbit reflects the longstanding Canadian approach to space, rather than a significant attempt to establish Canada as a leading space-faring nation. This is not to detract from the importance and value of the program to expanding Canada’s space capabilities, and meeting its space requirements in the future. However, in thinking small, rather than big, the nation, government departments and agencies, and Canadian industry and technology are missing a major opportunity to go from the margins of space onto centre stage.
Thinking big about a global RADARSAT constellation, Canadian built and operated, entails a major shift in Canadian thinking about space. It requires the government to recognize that space is a key component of Canada’s larger national agenda in the inter-related areas of technological innovation, global economic competiveness, and international influence. In so doing, national leadership is required to generate a comprehensive national strategy, breakdown the silos of responsibility for space represented by the various government departments and agencies, especially the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Department of National Defence (DND), and concentrate spending on a major initiative, rather than diffusing it across multiple programs driven by the individual interests of the departments involved.
The RADARSAT constellation project is the product of roughly two decades of CSA investment in synthetic aperture radar technology for space application. RADARSAT I was launched in 1995, and was for all intents and purposes a highly successful technology demonstrator. It remains in service today, many years past its expected operational life on orbit. Its follow-on, RADARSAT II, was launched in 2007. Both were developed in cooperation with Canadian industry, under the lead of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), the prime contractor. MDA is also the prime contractor for the constellation, and responsible for operating, or flying the satellites, which will remain a government owned system.
Beyond the CSA-MDA/industry links, an extensive range of other government departments, agencies, and foreign public and private actors have been users of RADARSAT imagery under a variety of contractual arrangements. In particular, National Defence, under Project Polar Epsilon, has developed and deployed two ground stations, on the East and West coasts, for the direct reception of imagery from RADARSAT II. Consideration has also been given to a third ground station in the Canadian North for the added imagery provided by the constellation, with its first satellite expected to be launched in the 2016 timeframe.
Polar Epsilon is designed to provide the Canadian Forces, under the lead of Canada Command, enhanced wide-area surveillance, or situational awareness of the Canadian North in direct support of Canadian Forces (CF) operations. Alongside Polar Epsilon, National Defence also funded an experimental ground moving target indicator (GMTI) on RADARSAT II. There are no plans, however, to include GMTI on the constellation satellites. Whether this decision reflects problems with the experiment (the results are classified), cost considerations, lack of internal DND support, differences of view between CSA and DND, or some combination therein is difficult to estimate.
Not surprising, the three iterations of RADARSAT, from RADARSAT to the planned constellation, reflect significant commonality in development and use. It may be a stretch to label the RADARSAT program as the CSA and Canadian space technology flagship, especially in relation to the CANADARM program of the U.S. space shuttle and International Space Station (ISS), not least of all because it has not been identified as such by CSA officials. RADARSAT has also co-existed with variety of scientific research projects in areas such as communications and weather monitoring in cooperation with Canada’s space industry, alongside the astronaut program. Nonetheless, the recent temporary top-up to the CSA budget over the past several years, in the context of significant cutbacks about to begin across all government departments, may signal some level of ‘flagship’ thinking at higher levels.
Regardless, spreading limited investments across a range of research areas relative to industrial and regional political considerations has long been a hallmark of federal government industrial development. Historically, thus is most clearly manifested in the longstanding concept of industrial and regional benefits (IRBs); the hallmark of defence procurement in which prime contractors (usually U.S. companies) compete on the basis of their ability to spread the work across Canadian industry and around the country.
Of course, the spread of limited CSA research and development (R&D) dollars across numerous programs is not solely the function of the federal IRB mentality. It also reflects competing internal scientific and engineering perspectives and visions. This is especially evident with regard to the astronaut program; presented as a major contribution to the Shuttle and ISS, and designed to raise CSA’s public profile as a means to enhance funding from the federal government (largely unsuccessfully).
The approach also reflects the longstanding Canadian ‘niche’ mentality, usually associated with the evolution of the Canadian defence industry since World War II. Unable economically to support or sustain a fully integrated industry, and with a favourable access to, and relations with the U.S., Canadian firms evolved into specialized production ‘niches’ at the second tier in support of first tier, U.S. prime contractors. The net result is an unconscious mentality that Canada is second tier; a major supporter and contributor to the big player and leader (U.S.), but not a big player or prime itself.
The diffusion of research and development dollars is mirrored by the diffusion of interest, investment, and responsibility across the federal government. CSA may legally possess the national space R&D mandate, but as a child of Industry Canada, with the same Minister, it competes with a range of other intra-departmental interests relative to the vagaries of the national R&D agenda. The other major departmental investor, DND, cooperates in arguably an uncomfortable relationship with CSA, reflecting their different mandates per se, along with DND’s own internal dynamic of competing interests amongst the services. The other departments are largely engaged as ‘end-users’, happy to access the product of CSA investment, while seeking to limit their own investments as best as possible. On top of all reside the federal inter-departmental committee, whose mandate may be to coordinate national space investments and activities, but has largely been of little relevance at best, and a blocking agent at worst.
A final key element of the Canadian approach is the manner in which RADARSAT and the constellation is functionally portrayed. There are two elements here. The first is geographic. Here, RADARSAT and the constellation are geographically concentrated on Canada itself and its utility for the Arctic sovereignty mission in particular. This is obviously consistent with the priority the government has assigned to the North/Arctic, as evident with the release of its Arctic Strategy and the Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS). Indeed, the Arctic emphasis largely created the political conditions for the constellation project to proceed. That CSA, DND and others have responded to this national priority is not surprising. In emphasizing national utility, however, the broader global utility of a RADARSAT constellation is downgraded. A three satellite constellation is the result; the sufficient number to provide at least full coverage of the North every day, but insufficient to provide full global coverage on the same basis.
Second, the CSA, reflecting its mandate, concentrates upon the ‘peaceful uses’ of RADARSAT imagery with a national concentration. This includes surveillance of Canada and its adjacent waters, including ice, wind, pollution, resource, ecosystem and ship monitoring. Its only non-Canadian reference is to a global capacity to monitor the state of critical infrastructure within 24 hours. DND does recognize, or more accurately note, the utility of the enhanced surveillance capabilities for overseas operations, but like CSA, concentrates upon the national mission, as evident in the decision to move Polar Epsilon beneath Canada Command. Exactly how valuable, relative to other earth observation systems, RADARSAT II and the three satellite constellation are to Canadian expeditionary operations is ignored.
The RADARSAT program, and the constellation in particular, possesses all the elements for Canada to take the leading international role in radar earth observation. From its onset decades ago, Canada was one of the technological leaders in the development of synthetic aperture radar for earth observation. While other nations, such as Germany and Israel, have developed similar technology, Canada will become the first to deploy a constellation, albeit a limited one. An expanded vision of a truly global constellation holds the promise of significant commercial, civil science, and military related benefits for Canadian industry, CSA and Canada’s place in space. Such a vision would propel Canada into the first rank of space-faring nations.
From the industrial side, the government has already taken a significant step in this direction. The 2008 decision to block the sale of MDA’s space division to Aliant Techsystems created a Canadian national space champion, whether this was truly understood by the government or not. In so doing, it represented a significant break from the past ‘niche’ mentality. The danger, however, is that the decision also creates a dangerous dependency, potentially undermining the competiveness of the firm in the global marketplace. The government cannot politically afford to let MDA fail, as evident in the $109 million contract extension awarded right after the decision to block the sale.
For the time being, the constellation provides MDA with assurances about its future. The question is what will follow, and here the government faces four, albeit inter-related choices in the RADASAT world, notwithstanding other possible areas of space investment. It can limit future investment to maintain the constellation relative to the life span of each satellite. It can incrementally seek to expand the constellation. It can enable the company to seek opportunities on the international market for RADARSAT technology, and seek agreements with nations to integrate their capabilities into the constellation to create a global capability. Finally, the government can consciously move to create its own global constellation, and generate value through the global sale of imagery to a range of potential clients.
The later choice represents the ‘thinking big’ option, and its benefits and costs to Canadian industry and the economy would need to be carefully examined relative to the other choices available. It would no doubt be a gamble, and the traditional Canadian approach has been to avoid ‘gambling.’ Nonetheless, ‘thinking big’ would establish Canada as the international leader in all weather, day and night earth observation. It would propel Canada into the front ranks of space-faring nations, generating influence opportunities across the spectrum of space activity.
The decision to create a global constellation would also have immense value in the defence and security world in support of the Canadian Forces and allied operations overseas. It would also alter the conditions underpinning Canada’s relationship with the U.S, from one of providing parts of U.S. systems, whether through the CANADARM contribution to the shuttle and the ISS, or the DND funded space-based space surveillance satellite contribution to the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN).
This brief analysis has only touched the surface of Canada’s longstanding approach to space, and the case for ‘thinking big’ and creating a global RADARSAT constellation as the ‘flagship’ of the nation in space. As it stands, Canada has approached space incrementally in response to a variety of political and economic factors emanating from home and abroad. Successive government’s have lacked any national vision, as evident in the absence of a national space strategy, which in turn as promoted ‘space silos’.
Breaking from the past requires a national commitment and understanding of the significance of space across all facets of Canadian life. No nation, even the U.S. as the leading space power, can afford to develop capabilities across the spectrum of space activity. Every nation faces significant investment choices, and arguably a need to concentrate its investments, rather than diffuse them across the spectrum. The RADARSAT constellation provides the opportunity for Canada to concentrate its limited investments and become a leading space-faring nation.
Dr. James Fergusson is the Director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, a Professor in the department of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba, and a Research Fello with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.