Protecting the Home Front
Canada is a country of formidable geographical proportions. It is the largest country in the Western Hemisphere and the total area of its land mass on the globe is second only to Russia’s. Canada also has the longest coastline in the world, with accessible shores on three oceans. In a country of this size, military aircraft are a necessary and often critical resource in ensuring that Canadians are protected from external and internal threats and criminal activity.
Comprising 40% of Canada’s land mass, the north has a vast potential reserve of fossil fuels, an abundance of minerals, gold, and diamonds, and the potential for dramatically shorter shipping routes, as the ice cap melts in the face of global warming. This once inaccessible land is now drawing increasing international attention.
The Arctic Circle passes over the land of eight nations: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States. As the Arctic ice shrinks, Canada’s internal waters are becoming more navigable throughout the year. The federal government has committed to a long-term presence in its Arctic region to vigorously assert and protect Arctic sovereignty. Canada’s Air Force plays a significant role in this strategy.
Also as a consequence of the increase in traffic, and the escalating exploration of natural resources, there is a potentially greater threat from criminal activity, illegal entry of people and goods, human and drug smuggling, foreign military activities, and even terrorism.
Canada’s military has operated in the North since the days of the volunteer Yukon Field Force, established in 1898. In 1970, a permanent military command was established in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Today, military responsibility for the North falls under Canada Command, which was created in 2006. Canada COM is responsible for all routine and contingency Canadian Forces operations in Canada and continental North America and oversees a military presence that comprises Canadian Forces’ Army, Navy and Air assets and personnel.
Air Force activity within the North involves full participation in sovereignty ops, communications unit exercises, deployments to northern airfields of Canadian and NORAD-assigned fighter and support aircraft, and Northern Operations Readiness Patrol flights by Canada’s CP140 Aurora strategic maritime surveillance aircraft. The Air Force is responsible to Canada COM for national search and rescue (SAR) and for this purpose the country is divided into three regions: eastern, central and western Canada. The central region, headquartered in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but operating out of Trenton Ontario, provides search and rescue coverage for most of the North.
The Air Force has had an ongoing and vital presence in the North, providing aerial reconnaissance, surveillance, and deterrence as well as support to operations and search and rescue since the 1930s.
These days, regular northern patrols are conducted by CP140 Aurora aircraft. These versatile aircraft help safeguard Canada’s waters from threats such as illegal fishing, immigration, drug trafficking, pollution, and violations of Canadian territorial sovereignty. There are plans to augment these patrols with satellite-based systems and unmanned aerial vehicles in the future.
An Air Force squadron of Canadian-designed and produced CC138 Twin Otters is located in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. In addition to any assigned search and rescue missions, these aircraft conduct airlift, utility and liaison flights in the Yukon, North West Territories and Nunavut. The Twin Otters of 440 Transport Squadron operate in some of the harshest weather conditions on the planet and have the capability to conduct “off-airport” operations on skis in the winter and on tundra tires in the summer.
In conjunction with North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the Air Force also maintains four Forward Operating Locations (FOLs) where it can pre-deploy fighter aircraft in response to, or anticipation of, security requirements in the north. The FOLs are located in Inuvik and Yellowknife, Northwest Territory, and in Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. They provide all the necessary infrastructure and supplies to support Canada’s CF18s and other NORAD aircraft in these remote and isolated locations.
Aircraft are often the only lifeline in and out of the many isolated communities in the North. Air Force aircraft, such as the CC130 Hercules, CC138 Twin Otter, CC150 Polaris, and CH146 Griffon helicopter provide a vital resupply service for northern military installations. Many of these aircraft also support Northern search and rescue response and offer a potential response to a major air disaster. The CC177 Globemaster is now also flying support missions in the North.
Established in 1958 to monitor and defend North American airspace, the Canadian NORAD Region, headquartered in Winnipeg, maintains significant infrastructure throughout the North.
NORAD also maintains the North Warning System, a series of long- and short-range radars along the entire Arctic coast of North America. Tied in with other NORAD radars, the system forms a radar “buffer zone” 4,800 kilometres long and 320 kilometres wide that stretches from Alaska, across Canada, to Greenland, allowing NORAD to detect approaching airborne activity.
Several times each year, the Canadian NORAD Region conducts operations and training at various FOLs, sometimes in partnership with one or both of the Alaskan and Continental U.S. NORAD Regions. Canada also participates with the United States in the NORAD initiative Operation Noble Eagle, an ongoing operation in defence of North America that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Search and Rescue
Canada’s responsibility for aeronautical and maritime search and rescue (SAR) extends over 15 million square kilometres of land and sea – an area one-and-a-half times that of Canada’s landmass or of continental Europe. The SAR area extends from the U.S. border to the North Pole, and from approximately 600 nautical miles (1,111 km) west of Vancouver Island in the Pacific Ocean to 900 nautical miles (1,667 km) east of Newfoundland in the Atlantic. The Air Force provides immediate response to Canadians in distress through its SAR network, and works closely with other government and non-governmental agencies to respond to incidents.
Air Force SAR Resources
The majority of the 1,100 annual Canadian Forces SAR taskings involve Air Force response. The primary rotary aircraft used by the Air Force to respond to SARs are the CH149 Cormorant and CH146 Griffon helicopters. These aircraft offer swift response times, hover and hoist capabilities, and dedicated SAR personnel. CC115 Buffalo, CP140 Aurora and CC130 Hercules fixed wing SAR aircraft also provide search capabilities.
In addition to these primary SAR aircraft, additional CH146 Griffon helicopters from Cold Lake, Alberta; Bagotville, Quebec; and Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, can be tasked as additional SAR resources.
The CP140 Aurora can act as an “on-scene controller” and can deploy an air-droppable survival kit to help mariners survive in marine distress cases, and the CH124 Sea King helicopter is also hoist-capable for rescues both at sea and on land. The CC138 Twin Otters from 440 Transport Squadron can also be tasked to provide further SAR resources in the North.
Air Force SAR Personnel
Each Air Force aircraft deployed on a SAR mission includes search and rescue technicians (SAR techs). These individuals are highly trained specialists who provide on-scene medical attention and rescue for aviators, mariners and others in distress in remote or hard-to-reach areas.
Trained in advanced trauma life-support, land and sea survival, specialized rescue techniques – including Arctic rescue – parachuting, diving, mountain climbing and rappelling, these men and women have saved thousands of lives nationwide.
Air Force Exercises and Operations in Canada
To assert Canadian sovereignty in the North, and to ensure the Air Force is ready to operate effectively in response to the needs of Canadians, it participates in a number of military operations and exercises each year under the command of Joint Task Force North (JTFN), which is part of Canada COM.
Recurring Northern operations include the Op Nunalivut series, which are enhanced Canadian Ranger sovereignty patrols; the Nunakput series, conducted in the Western Arctic that contributes to Canadian sovereignty in our Arctic waters in the Beaufort Sea; and the Nanook series, which are joint, inter-agency sovereignty operations conducted in the Eastern Arctic that also include drug interdiction and oil spill scenarios.
Exercise Maple Flag
For the past 30 years, Canada’s Air Force has conducted a highly realistic and comprehensive advanced air combat exercise at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta. This event, now known as Exercise Maple Flag, began in 1977 and has been held annually since 1987. Currently it is a six-week exercise, broken into three self-contained, two-week periods.
The main focus of the exercise has been directed toward Air Force fighter operations and supporting airframes. While maintaining this focus, Maple Flag now also integrates with Army exercises such as Maple Guardian, providing a joint multi-national training opportunity.
The Air Force Tactical Training Centre (AFTTC), located at 4 Wing, directs and hosts Maple Flag. Its fundamental mandate is to provide realistic training to participants in order to simulate the critical lessons presumed to be amassed by operational aircrew during the first 10 combat missions in a hostile environment.
Currently, the exercise simulates a United Nations coalition effort. It seeks to wholly encompass all tactical airframes in a modern simulated air combat environment, thus ensuring its relevance to modern threat and tactical scenarios.
During the exercise period, weather permitting, twice a day, morning and afternoon, dozens of different types of aircraft from a number of participating countries are simultaneously launched into the designated training area. These include fighter, rotary wing and transport, aircraft. The exercise also includes an independent observer’s program (IOP) that affords an opportunity for units from all over the world to see first hand what is transpiring during an exercise. These observers are assigned to experienced Maple Flag staff members, who serve as escorts for several days throughout the exercise. To date, the IOP has hosted contingents from Spain, Chile, Brazil, Greece, and India, along with representatives from many other nations.
Exercise Maple Flag has hosted as many as 2,000 visitors and up to 150 aircraft for each exercise period. The aircraft participating have included fighters, transports, tankers, airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), and suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) electronic warfare (EW) assets, employed in launches of 90 to 95 aircraft for each mission. It remains dedicated to providing unsurpassed facilities to foster the ability to train an Air Expeditionary Force (AEF).
Other Domestic Activity
Canada’s Air Force also responds to requests from the U.S. government under the provisions of the Civil Assistance Plan to assist with search and rescue efforts and provide relief in the wake of hurricanes and other natural disasters.
It also provides annual support to the RCMP’s drug eradication programme under a memorandum of understanding (MOU). The RCMP requests support from the Air Force when it does not have the equipment and resources necessary to cover the terrain and locate, identify and eradicate drug-growing sites. These domestic counter drug operations began in 1989 and have resulted in significant seizures and destruction of marijuana plants in Canada. Since 2002 when the collection of statistics began, more than 800,000 marijuana plants have been eradicated.
The Air Force has also been supporting multinational efforts to stop illicit drugs from entering North America. This contribution involves interdicting drug trafficking in the Caribbean Basin and East Pacific. Canada’s Auroras offer powerful surveillance capabilities that can help law enforcement authorities locate, track, and intercept illegal drug activities. Other international participants in this program include: the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain, and France.
CP140 Aurora aircraft also are tasked to Canada Command’s Operation Driftnet through Joint Task Force Pacific to support Fisheries and Oceans Canada‘s international efforts to stop illegal drift netting. During the CP140 patrols, Canadian and U.S. fishery officers identify and record evidence of vessels using high seas driftnets, which are illegal in the North Pacific Ocean and highly destructive to Pacific salmon and other marine resources, such as tuna, shrimp marine mammals, and seabirds. When vessels are sighted using driftnet gear or engaging in other illegal fishing activity, they are reported to the U.S. Coast Guard or other cooperating agencies.
Air Force Response to Domestic Flood Relief
Canada’s Air Force has also responded to requests for assistance from provincial authorities to evacuate residents from flooded areas in different parts of the country. This has happened a number of times in the past decade in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. In April 2008, the First Nations communities of Kashechewan, Fort Albany, and Attiwapiskat, Ontario experienced heavy spring flooding. Using a combination of fixed and rotary wing aircraft, more than 1,000 people were airlifted to Moosenee, Kapuskasing, Hearst, Stratford, Sault Ste. Marie, and Thunder Bay.
Although Canada is a land of daunting geographical statistics, a climate that often varies to extremes, and a rugged and challenging physical environment, Canadians can be confident that their Air Force stands ready to support to ensure sovereignty activity and to conduct search and rescue operations anywhere on land or over the seas off our coastlines.
Richard E. Gower is a communication advisor with Air Force Public Affairs at National Defence Headquarters, Ottawa.
© FrontLine Defence 2009