Now that the defence of northern sovereignty is being treated by Ottawa with the seriousness it deserves, Canadian defence planners should have another look at one of the free world’s most cost-efficient surveillance machines: the airborne warning and control system, better known as AWACS.
While nuclear-powered submarines may soon maintain sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, and the updated radar chain now under construction across the top of the country will spot most incoming planes and missiles, the only way to guarantee that we really know what’s happening in our North is to use these U.S.-made flying radar and command stations.
Unlike other forms of surveillance, the $200-million planes, made by the Boeing Company of Seattle, can cope with interference from the aurora borealis. They can also detect aircraft capable of underflying or otherwise sneaking around stationary radar installations.
Without most Canadians being aware of it, our airmen already crew these intricate flying platforms, operating under NATO command out of Geilenkirchen, West Germany, and under Norad auspices out of Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Since about 250 Canadian servicemen are involved on a rotating basis in these training exercises, we would have relatively little trouble manning the aircraft, should we decide to acquire them. (The Soviet Union has its own AWACS, known as MOSS, which are really converted Tupolev-126s.)
At the moment, 57 AWACS are already in service, 34 with the U.S. air force, 18 with NATO and five in Saudi Arabia, with more on order for all three of these fleets. The French have ordered three and have an option for two more, and Japan is doing operational studies before deciding on the number of units it will need—probably seven. During last year’s rumble between Libya and Chad, the American air force landed a couple of AWACS in Egypt. Their presence is supposed to have deterred Moammar Gadhafi’s airborne manoeuvres, especially the air raids against Chad.
The example that intrigues Canadian defence planners is the United Kingdom, which recently purchased six AWACS and has an option on two
more. To get the $1.9-billion order, Boeing agreed to spend at least 130 per cent of the cost of that purchase on aerospace projects in Britain. If Ottawa were to buy AWACS, large subcontracts would presumably go to the de Havilland Aircraft of Canada plant that Boeing owns at Downsview, Ont. But other subcontractors would have to share the job, especially Canadair, which is well-equipped to handle larger aircraft.
According to Ron B. Smith, who is in charge of marketing AWACS for Boeing, Canada would need to maintain three AWACS in the air (and have one spare) for efficient arctic surveillance. “You could keep each one flying 12 or even 18 hours at a time, patrolling and investigating any special situations that come up,” he told me. “The aircraft are designed to fly about 65 hours a month, but we have been averaging 85 or 90 hours and in straight search mode have flown them 200 hours.”
There is no comparison with the territory that can be surveyed from a radar scope 100 feet up the mast of an icebreaker moving perhaps 30 miles a day, though that will be the only alternative sovereignty enforcer in the high Arctic once the $320-million Polar 8 is completed. AWACS cruise at an altitude of 40,000 feet, moving at more than 400 miles per hour. Taking into account the earth’s curvature, they can survey a radius of about 240 miles at a time. That translates into more than 180,000 square miles for each separate sweep—in excess of 1.5 million square miles per 12-hour mission.
What that means in European terms, for example, is that in one mission one AWACS can survey an area covering all of France, both Germanys, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland and parts of Czechoslovakia and Italy. The airplane is not armed, but it can co-ordinate vector gunfire from other sources, as well as guide missiles and jet fighters to appropriate targets. In Canada’s case, the flying radar stations would certainly be used with the squadrons of CF-18s currently being deployed to five far-northern airbases. In fact, the AWACS can be fitted to carry extra tanks in their wings to refuel CF-18s in flight, doubling their effective range.
Airborne surveillance dates back to the hot-air balloons used for observation during the Napoleonic Wars. With AWACS, the observer is a sophisticated 30-foot-wide saucer-shaped sensor called a rotodome, mounted on the plane’s cabin in front of the tail assembly. The current technology is so fast and so complicated that the aircraft’s operators, seated behind as many as 14 separate consoles, can track more than 600 targets at the same time, and the data being fed through the rotodome can be used in many military and civilian applications.
To remain in the state of constant alert required for effective surveillance of the Canadian North, the AWACS would probably have to be stationed in Frobisher Bay, N.W.T., Cold Lake, Alta., Whitehorse, Y.T., Goose Bay, Nfld., and perhaps North Bay, Ont. But the AWACS fleet would also require a southern headquarters, and if Defence Minister Perrin Beatty is looking for a way to sell the idea to his cabinet colleagues, what better incentive than to station the new flying radar stations on the semi-abandoned runways of Mirabel?
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