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A high-flying, long-endurance pilotless drone – dubbed the Polar Hawk – might fill Canada's gaping hole in its ability to monitor what's going on in the Arctic.

With a rapidly receding summer ice cap igniting a new rush to find, stake and exploit Arctic resources, and with ship traffic projected to rise dramatically through the Northwest Passage, there's new urgency to concerns about the surveillance gap.

Currently Canada's military presence in the Arctic consists of an occasional patrol by one of Canada's aging Aurora aircraft and brief deployments of a pair of CF-18 warplanes to Inuvik. And none of Canada's warships or submarines can operate in or under the ice.

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That deficiency in Canada's ability to maintain a surveillance presence in the Arctic is fundamental to the assertion of its sovereignty. Now Northrup Grumman, the U.S. military giant, thinks it has a novel answer – albeit it an expensive one.

It has proposed selling to Canada three, unarmed long-range and long-endurance Polar Hawks – a modified versions of the Global Hawk already used by the U.S. military for spy and surveillance missions.

Capable of 30-hour flights, a trio of Polar Hawks could provide a constant summer surveillance presence over the Canadian Arctic, operating out of a single base, such as Labrador's Goose Bay, according to Northrop Grumman.

They could also provide coastal patrol in the Atlantic and Pacific, monitor forest fires and floods, and provide scientific and environmental sensing.

What can and can't Polar Hawks do?

No more Tally Ho photos of Canadian warplanes closing on aging Russian Bear long-range bombers. While good for propaganda purposes and much loved by fighter pilots, the reality is that 21st-century sovereignty patrols aren't really about challenging Cold War manned bombers.

The unarmed, pre-programmed Polar Hawks won't – and can't. In fact, they are designed to fly 10 kilometres up, way above commercial jets and the high winds that make smaller drones problematic to use in the Arctic. Any intercepts will still be done by Canada's next fleet of warplanes, F-35s or something else.

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Operating at high latitudes, close to the North Pole, presents special problems in terms of navigation, communication and data transmission. Global Hawks usually rely on data links to satellites orbiting over the equator but they can't be sighted easily above the Arctic Circle because of the curvature of the globe.

Although NASA has flown its modified Global Hawks within 500 kilometres of the North Pole on ice surveys, additional communications links using low-orbiting Iridium satellites will be needed for Polar Hawks.

Northrop Grumman believes those links will make high-latitude risks manageable and, it claims, a Polar Hawk that loses all its communication links will still complete the pre-programmed mission and return to base, all without any human intervention.

Among the biggest hurdles: Canada's military doesn't even have a stated requirement for high-flying drones, let alone a budget. And some air force generals, most of them former fighter pilots, still regard pilot-less planes with disdain although that prejudice is disappearing the United States as drones prove their worth.

What would they cost?

Northrop Grumman won't reveal the cost, claiming only that its 20-year proposal to provide, support and maintain a trio of Polar Hawks is comparable to other platforms, meaning new manned surveillance and patrol aircraft.

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Still a look at what NATO, Germany and others are paying for small fleets of modified Global Hawks suggests the bill to Canada would be roughly $1.6-billion to buy and operate three Polar Hawks for two decades.

That's a huge expense for a relatively small military like Canada's with no experience in operating high-altitude, long-endurance spy planes, either manned or unmanned. A single crash – and a U.S. Navy version of a Global Hawk went down in Maryland last month – would have a massive impact on the whole program.

Northrup Grumman has teamed with Canadian aerospace and defence support provider L-3 MAS, which has a long history with the Canadian air force, to make a turn-key unsolicited bid to Ottawa.

Northrup Grumman would provide the Polar Hawks and the ground communications stations with L-3 MAS providing maintenance and support.

Because the Polar Hawks are covered by U.S. security and defence limitations, all missions would need to be commanded by a Canadian air force officer, although the actual military role might be minimal.

What civilian and military missions would be possible?

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Although the Polar Hawk is primarily a military asset – and Northrop Grumman notes it could usefully have played a reconnaissance role over Libya during last summer's air war alongside U.S. Global Hawks – the program is also being sold for its non-military versatility.

While Polar Hawks could find Russian or Chinese icebreakers poking around the edges of Canada's contested Arctic claims, their sophisticated sensor packages could also measure ice area and thickness, detect oil spills, perhaps even count muskox and polar bears.

Details of the sensor packages, radar, high-resolution still and video cameras in both visible light and infrared, are classified. But it is evident from publicly available images that high-flying drones can detect and track individuals.

That sort of surveillance can be done through heavy clouds and during the long Arctic night in winter and delivered by streaming video and data links as well as stored onboard for later analysis.

In Canada, other government departments including Fisheries, the Environment, Energy and Northern Affairs might seek data collected by Polar Hawks.

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