Canada's Radarsat: High-Tech Satellites for Peace or for War?

By Ron Shirtliff | 2008-04-01 12:00:00

Radarsat I and II are two great eyes in the sky and they are Canadian; at least, Canadian taxpayers paid for them. They were built by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), the same people who built the famous Canadarm. They are proudly promoted by the Canadian Space Agency as being Canada's great contribution to the peaceful use of space for the surveillance of the surface of the earth. We are told that they are meant to assist us in keeping track of global warming, and assist in marine surveillance, search and rescue, disaster management, hydrology, mapping, geology, agriculture, and forestry. All of this is true.

These Canadian satellites use special radar technology that enables them to see through cloud cover, and to see as well at night as during the day. Radarsat I, launched in 1995, could identify objects as small as 10 metres on land or water, and its more technologically advanced, Radarsat II, launched in December of last year, can track objects of three metres, the size of a small boat or an automobile. Once in final orbit, it will be 800 kilometres above the Earth's surface and pass over the Canadian Arctic and the South Pole three times a day.

The Canadian Space Agency emphasizes the peaceful uses of these eyes in the sky but this promotion may be partially a ruse. These ingenious machines have the ability to serve many civil purposes, but they also have the ability to act as spies in the sky, and more ominously, to act as a very precise gun sight for missiles launched from air or land, or from space. Much of their use depends on who gets the data that they send back to earth.

Richard Sanders of the Ottawa-based Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade <> writes:

"What this public relations puff piece from the CSA neglects to mention is that RADARSAT (I and II) is also a billion dollar present from Canadian taxpayers to the US military. In fact, RADARSAT is likely the Canadian government's single-most important technological contribution to US institutions dedicated to gathering intelligence and waging war.

"U.S. government departments are in fact among the biggest and most appreciative beneficiaries of this publicly-funded, but now privately-controlled Canadian space technology."

Satellites are expensive to design, to build, and to launch into orbit.

The Canadian Space Agency, contributed $430 million of public money to the Radarsat II project, while MDA added $92 million and built the satellite. But who exactly owns and controls the use of these marvelous machines?

Part of the Canadian contract stipulates that once it is in orbit, the satellite is owned by MDA, which will pay the $15 million annual operating expenses. Federal government departments will be able to access information from the satellite at no cost. MDA is free to generate revenues by selling the data they collect to commercial interests in other nations. There is no restriction known to prevent them selling the data to the American military.

However, Sanders reports that for twelve years now, in exchange for NASA's launch of RADARSAT I, the US government has controlled 15% of the observation time. US government agencies also have free access to all RADARSAT data over six months old.

The satellite is said to be controlled from the main command centre of the Canadian Space Agency in Longueuil, Quebec, and also is able to receive commands from a secondary centre in Saskatoon.

However, Sanders credibly documents reports of the direct military use of data from "civil" satellites. Most significantly, the U.S. military's "family" of at least five portable ground stations, called "Eagle Vision," are specifically designed to use ´Commercial' satellites like RADARSAT I and II. Eagle Vision is "a cornerstone of the [US] military's commercial imagery exploitation" reports SIGNAL Magazine, March 2001. It allows the US military to directly downlink ´commercial' data to deployed soldiers that are engaged in battle.

The issues get more complicated to understand in the light of recent developments. The CBC reported in November 2007 that Canada planned to have Radarsat II launched by NASA, but the USA refused on the grounds that a new high-tech Canadian radar satellite could be a threat to US national security. This forward leap in technology is said to unnerve US officials. "Anything below five metres [accuracy of imaging] causes concern to the US intelligence community," the CBC quotes Hughes Gilbert, director of strategic development for the Canadian Space Agency.

Denied an American launch, Canada turned to Russia, and Radarsat II was launched in Kazahkstan Friday, December 14, 2007. Now that the satellite is in orbit and the property of MDA, we have reports of the pending sale of the space division of MDA, the operator of our ´Canadian' satellites, to an American military contractor, Alliant Techsystems (ATK), who produce cluster bombs, depleted uranium rounds and landmines. In protest, at least two of the Canadian designers have resigned, noting that they did not wish to support the American military. Opposition parties may oppose the sale.

Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks, commented:

"The next time the Canadarm lifts a large European module out of the space shuttle's cargo bay, the word "Canada," along with a Canadian flag, will still be visible to the cameras. But it will be in name only - because one of our most famous and prestigious Canadian icons is being handed over to an American company.

"Along with it goes our latest and most sophisticated satellite, Radarsat-2, which was launched barely a month ago. Both are going to a US military contractor. But there is something unsettling about technology paid for by Canadian tax dollars and developed for peaceful purposes that now has the potential to be used for military purposes.

"There's even a strange irony to the sale of Radarsat-2 to a military organization. Our satellite, designed to monitor the polar ice caps and track forest infestations and other changing landscapes, was originally scheduled to fly on a US military rocket. But the launch was delayed because of concerns expressed by the Pentagon over Canada owning a space-based radar instrument with a resolution of 3 metres that could capture images of any part of the world, day or night, regardless of weather.

"So the Canadian Space Agency had to switch to a Russian rocket to place the satellite in orbit last December. Now, under the control of ATK, Radarsat could be used as a spy satellite by the same US military that opposed it."

And Marc Garneau, astronaut and former head of the CSA, comments to CBC News: "The announced sale of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.'s satellite and space businesses to a U.S. company raises questions about Canada's future role in space and whether the country can maintain a satellite program of its own. The sale raises the delicate issue of whether Canada wants its eye on the Arctic run by a foreign company."

There is more to this complicated story, including accusations that the Canadian Parliament passed legislation relating to the control of Radarsat without actually being allowed to see the text of the relevant document. COAT has published the following summary:

"Despite concerted efforts by the NDP and BQ, the contractual agreements between the government and MDA-which formalized the privatization of RADARSAT-1 and -2-have not even been made available for cursory examination by MPs.

"Secrecy also shrouds an annex to a Canada-US treaty that was signed in 2000 by then-Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Michael Byers, a UBC professor who teaches global politics and international law, testified to Parliament's Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committee in 2005 that this secret annex ´could enable the US to demand RADARSAT-2 be used to take images in preparation for a military intervention to which Canada was opposed....[and] in preparation for a war that was illegal under international law.'

"Even so, ....Bill C-25 (the so-called 'RADARSAT Bill') was eventually passed into law by a majority in the Commons."

What are we to do? Technically, the fact may be that the US Military, and others, are able to ´steal' data from any civil satellite, just as they can, and do, record all of our international phone calls, the Canadians for the Americans and visa-versa, to avoid the legal niceties of eavesdropping on one's own citizens. We should, however, use what means we can to find out what secret agreements, if any, exist for the voluntary sharing of data, and whether there are agreements that give the US Military or others control of what data is collected by our satellites, built and paid for by Canadians. We, and Maher Arar, know what consequences can arise from the absence of transparency in relations between national security services.

Ron Shirtliff is an associate editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008

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