Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. This essay is based on a recent article in Polar Record, the journal of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge.
More than half-a-century ago, the unique challenges of the Arctic led Canada to become the third country in space. Alouette 1 was designed to study a region in the upper atmosphere called the ionosphere, in order to understand why Arctic radio communications are disrupted by solar storms. Built in Ottawa, the satellite was launched from Vandenberg, Calif., in 1962.
Although Alouette 1 was turned off after a decade of scientific service, it remains in orbit today, a piece of space history – Canadian history – in the sky.
In 1972, Canada took another step into the history books when it launched the world’s first domestic communications satellite into geostationary orbit so that the CBC could broadcast television from sea to sea to sea. Anik A1 was built by Ottawa-based Telesat.
Fast forward to last summer, when the same company launched Telstar 19 VANTAGE. This geostationary satellite is connecting schools and businesses in Nunavut with the world, providing a five-fold increase in broadband connectivity to the Canadian Arctic. Now, Telesat is planning a constellation of 298 satellites in low Earth orbit, 40 times closer to Nunavut. The proximity of these satellites – just 1,000 kilometres above the Earth – will eliminate small delays in the reception and transmission of signals. On Wednesday, the Canadian government announced it will invest $85-million in the project.
Satellites also play a major role in Arctic security, including, counterintuitively, by promoting co-operation between Russia and NATO states. Across the Arctic, hunters, prospectors and adventurers carry handheld devices that send emergency signals to a network of specially equipped satellites. The beacons take the “search” out of search and rescue, saving lives and money. Yet, satellite-based search and rescue exists only because of a remarkable exercise in Cold War co-operation. In 1979, Canada, France, the United States and the Soviet Union created COSPAS-SARSAT, which pools the capabilities of dozens of satellites and ground stations. The first rescue took place in northern British Columbia in 1982, just weeks after the first satellite in the system, COSPAS-1, was launched by the Soviet Union.
Cold War co-operation extended to other Arctic challenges, not all of which involved space. When polar bear populations plummeted due to big-game hunters accessing a new technology – helicopters – Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the 1973 Polar Bear Treaty, which prohibits the use of aircraft for hunting. The numbers of bears rebounded, saving a species with iconic status in all five of these Arctic countries.
The United States and the Soviet Union led the negotiation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, with Canadian diplomat J. Alan Beesley chairing the drafting committee. This global treaty empowers Arctic countries to prevent pollution in ice-covered waters, while giving them exclusive rights over any resources located on the Arctic Ocean’s extensive continental shelves.
Two months ago, Canada submitted a raft of scientific data about the Arctic Ocean seabed to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the body of scientists charged with determining the limits of coastal state rights under the 1982 Convention.
In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev identified the Arctic as an ideal starting place for Cold War de-escalation. The Soviet leader’s overture prompted a process of institution building that led, nine years later, to the creation of the Arctic Council, now the central governance mechanism for the circumpolar Arctic, at a diplomatic conference held in Ottawa.
After the Cold War ended, Russia opened transpolar air routes to foreign airlines, providing significant time and fuel savings for many long-haul flights. Anyone who flies from Central Canada to Asia, or from Western Canada to Europe, benefits from this co-operation. Joint exercises between the militaries of Arctic states became commonplace. One such exercise – Vigilant Eagle – saw Russian, U.S. and Canadian fighter jets responding to mock hijackings of commercial aircraft in international airspace.
Space-specific co-operation was also extensive. In 1975, the Apollo-Soyuz Project culminated in a docking between American and Soviet spacecraft and a famous handshake in space. Three years later, after a Soviet nuclear-powered spy satellite – Cosmos 954 – scattered more than 50 kilograms of Uranium-235 across Canada’s Arctic during an uncontrolled re-entry, the Soviet Union paid half the cost of the cleanup.
Later, Russia joined the International Space Station (ISS). As a leading space power, it had technology and experience to share – especially in long-duration space flights. After the space-shuttle program was shut down in 2011, Western countries began paying for astronauts to be transported to the ISS with Soyuz spacecraft.
The Russian annexation of Crimea in March, 2014, jolted relations with NATO, except, remarkably, in the Arctic and space.
Naval commanders on opposite sides of the Russia-Norway boundary in the Barents Sea, located near Russia’s largest naval facilities, continued sharing information about ship movements to avoid misunderstandings and accidents.
After a South Korean fishing trawler sank on the Russian side of the Bering Sea in December, 2014, Russian officials requested assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard, which immediately sent two ships and an aircraft. The next year, the Arctic countries created the Arctic Coast Guard Forum to “advance operational issues of common interest in the Arctic, such as search and rescue, emergency response and icebreaking.” They also concluded a fisheries treaty for the international waters in the central part of the Arctic Ocean. Co-operation in satellite-based search and rescue has also continued. It could well be a Russian satellite that picks up the next distress signal from the Canadian Arctic, and if so, it will be passed onto the Canadian Armed Forces immediately. And just last month, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques returned from the ISS in a Soyuz capsule.
What explains all this Arctic and space co-operation? Remoteness and extreme conditions clearly play a role, by making any activity dangerous and expensive and thus creating incentives for burden-sharing.
Russia called on the U.S. Coast Guard because lives were at stake and American ships and aircraft were close by. The countries that contribute satellites and ground stations to COSPAS-SARSAT obtain greater coverage and therefore faster notifications of distress signals than they could ever obtain on their own, given the high costs of building and launching satellites.
All the countries involved in the ISS benefit scientifically and commercially from having a laboratory in microgravity. And the cost of building and operating such a large, multifunctional and long-lasting station would be prohibitive for any single country, including the United States.
The same factors help to explain why countries have never prepared seriously for armed conflict in the Arctic or space, despite the importance of these regions for modern militaries.
During the Cold War, American and Soviet bombers circled over the Arctic Ocean, waiting for the signal to fly deep into the other country to drop their nuclear bombs. Nuclear-missile submarines conducted parallel operations under the sea ice, and radar systems and acoustic sensors were built to surveil all of this activity. But neither side was preparing to fight a war in the Arctic; the region was an avenue for transporting weapons to targets further south.
After the Cold War, Russia ceased the bomber flights, closed most of its Arctic runways and allowed its northern fleet to atrophy. In recent years, it has resumed some flights, reopened some runways and built some new submarines. But most of these measures have been confined to the increasingly ice-free waters along Russia’s northern coast, where more resource development and shipping is taking place.
In Canada, only 200 full-time military personnel are based in the northern territories that make up 40 per cent of our landmass. In Alaska, the basing of military personnel and equipment is focused on the Russian Far East, North Korea and China, not the Arctic Ocean. The United States does not have a single deep-water port along its Arctic coastline, and not because of any lack of funding for its navy.
In space, hundreds of satellites support military communications, surveillance, situational awareness and targeting. F-35 jets and armed drones cannot operate to their full capabilities without space-based broadband. GPS was developed for military purposes and is a key component of precision-guided missiles and bombs.
But the only weapons ever placed in space were for testing anti-satellite capabilities during the Cold War. It is unclear whether any of these spacecraft – designed to crash into other satellites, capture them or nudge them off course – are deployed in space today, and no country has ever used such a weapon against a foreign satellite.
Remoteness and extreme conditions make it difficult and expensive to design weapons for the Arctic or space. The same is true of the training, equipping and deploying of troops. The former head of the Canadian military, General Walter Natynczyk, complained that it cost more to deploy a soldier to the Arctic than to Afghanistan.
It is unlikely that troops will ever be deployed in space, notwithstanding U.S. President Donald Trump’s fantasies about a “Space Force.” Humans can exist there only within complex and expensive life-support systems, leaving remotely operated and AI systems as much more attractive options.
The maintenance of peace in the Arctic and space is also facilitated by the ease with which military movements in these regions can be monitored, either from space, or because space is so transparent to Earth-based observation. Even amateur astronomers are able to identify the presence and orbits of military satellites.
Last month, Canada completed its most important defence procurement in decades, when the three satellites that make up RADARSAT Constellation were launched into a polar orbit. The satellites, collectively costing more than $1-billion, are equipped with synthetic aperture radar that can provide high-resolution images of the Earth’s surface through darkness and clouds.
RADARSAT Constellation provides near-constant coverage of Canada’s landmass and maritime zones for tracking ships, measuring sea ice and guiding disaster relief. Canada does not need to worry about Russian ships sneaking into the Canadian Arctic because we would spot them long before they arrived.
There are still factors that could tip the Arctic or space into competition and conflict, including climate change, rogue states and an uninformed and impulsive U.S. President. But professional diplomats understand that these regions are special, that their extreme conditions almost demand co-operation. Within the legal office at the U.S. State Department, a single lawyer is given responsibility over all Arctic and space issues. He or she is referred to – with humour as well as insight – as the lawyer for cold, dark and dangerous places.