Canadian military should turn to private sector for space surveillance tech, MPs told

A Canadian part-time military volunteer drives over the frozen sea past an abandoned landing craft off Cornwallis Island, Nunavut on April 9, 2006. (David Ljunggren/Reuters - image credit)
A Canadian part-time military volunteer drives over the frozen sea past an abandoned landing craft off Cornwallis Island, Nunavut on April 9, 2006. (David Ljunggren/Reuters - image credit)

The Canadian military could have modern satellite coverage in the Arctic a decade earlier than envisioned if the federal government is willing to follow the example of other countries and embrace commercial options in space, a House of Commons committee heard Monday.

Mike Greenley, chief executive officer of MDA Canada, told committee members Canada has fallen behind the rest of the globe from "a military space capability perspective" and is not effectively working with companies in the aerospace sector.

"As a result, our relevance in a rapidly changing geopolitical world is declining, and along with it, our ability to protect and defend Canadians," said Greenley, whose company is the largest in the country in the space sector, with over $1 billion in sales annually.

One of the urgent problems facing defence officials is the country's rapidly aging chain of government-owned RADARSAT Constellation satellites.

The federal auditor general warned in late 2022 that those satellites could outrun their useful lifespan by 2026 and their replacement — known as the Defence Enhanced Surveillance from Space Project (DESSP) — is years away from getting off the ground.

The Liberal government promised dedicated military surveillance satellites in its 2017 defence policy and repeated the pledge in its latest strategy document — but the defence department's project status summary shows the multi-billion dollar program is not set for launch until "beyond 2035."

Greenley said the United States and the United Kingdom have taken an approach of building only the space hardware they absolutely need, while buying the rest from the private sector.

Canada needs to start doing the same to avoid long delays in deploying critical military capabilities, he said.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

"Canada needs communications in the North, Canada has identified procurement spend to purchase space capability for communications in the North circa 2038," Greenley said.

"Meanwhile, Telesat will launch a global communication capability with satellites built by MDA Space in 2027. If we had a conversation today, it could potentially be configured to deliver military communications in the Arctic a decade faster as a commercial service — a decade faster."

The Commons defence committee is conducting a study of how the changing geopolitical and military dynamics on earth are being reflected in outer space.

Reports suggest Russia planning to put a nuke in orbit 

Of particular concern are reports that Russia is planning to put in orbit a nuclear weapon designed to destroy satellites.

A top U.S. State Department official told a Washington-based think-tank audience last week that the Biden administration is worried about one particular program, which Moscow claims is simply a scientific program to test electronics.

"The United States is extremely concerned that Russia may be considering the incorporation of nuclear weapons into its counter-space programs, based on information deemed credible," said Mallory Stewart, who is the assistant secretary of arms control, deterrence and stability.

Maxime Popov/AFP/Getty Images
Maxime Popov/AFP/Getty Images

She spoke on Friday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

"The United States has been aware of Russia's pursuit of this sort of capability dating back years, but only recently have we been able to make a more precise assessment of their progress," said Stewart.

She went on to say that the capability is not active and has not been deployed, but nevertheless "Russia's pursuit of this capability is deeply troubling.

"There's no imminent threat."

Stewart's remarks were echoed recently by Brig.-Gen. Mike Adamson, the commander of the recently established 3rd Canadian Space Division.

He said the reports are troubling and the Canadian military is working with the American Space Force and Space Command to understand the technology and its implications.

"We don't believe at the moment that there's any imminent threat," Adamson told the Commons defence committee last week.

"It's probably worth stating as well [that] international law prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in space. So this would be a direct violation of that and certainly counter to accepted norms of behaviour that we would expect from any spacefaring nation."

For the past seven years, the Canadian military has been looking for ways to protect its satellites from being shot down or disabled.

Prior to the threat of a nuclear device in space (which could severely disrupt and even destroy a number of satellites), western militaries had been focusing their attention on ground-based rockets being developed by Russia and China to pick off key communications and command devices in orbit.