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U.S. Arctic plans could serve as a wake-up call for Canada

Hector Castillo watches daily operations while communicating with the command hut at the Applied Physics Lab Ice Station as the Seawolf-class attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) prepares to submerge under the ice during ICEX 2011.

U.S. Navy/U.S. Navy

The Pentagon wants to know what's happening in the Arctic; there's an app for that.

Well not yet, but Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants one in a hurry. In a call for proposals this week, it said it plans to pick, deploy and test two systems this summer.

"Remote sensing may offer affordable advantages over traditional methods of monitoring the region – aircraft, satellites or manned ships and submarines – due to the great distances in the Arctic," the agency said in a call for bids. The U.S. military wants "new technologies to monitor the Arctic both above and below the ice, providing year-round situational awareness without the need for forward-basing or human presence."

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Nothing nefarious about that. Except that slicing up the Arctic as retreating ice heralds a 21st-century resources rush and shipping boom at the top of the world is shaping up as a race for riches and control.

The United States already knows more about what's happening in the Arctic – including the vast swath Canada dubiously lays claim to – than any other nation.

U.S. nuclear submarines have been prowling the Arctic for more than half a century, U.S. satellites deliver real-time information on ship and ice movements, and an extensive, still-secret, string of sensitive listening tracks everyone else's ships and submarines.

"The Arctic region is poised for greater regional significance as polar ice retreats in coming decades. Ship traffic likely will increase during summer months, and commercial activity focused on the sea floor is expected to grow," said DARPA. Its vision is for a vast, integrated network of sensors watching, listening and reporting from both above and below the ice to generate a real-time, dynamic picture of all Arctic activity.

"It seems that the U.S. is preparing for a more militarized Arctic without actually sending its troops and ships there, let alone its mothballed icebreakers," wrote Mia Bennett on the website of Foreign Policy Association, a U.S. non-profit organization.

"Unmanned detection systems, robots, and distributed remote sensing are preferred over expensive manned platforms and bases. Whereas Canada is busy building its High Arctic Research Station and Nanisivik Naval Base and Russia is investing in new types of equipment for civilians and soldiers to use up north, the U.S. is investing in more futuristic remote surveillance technologies."

The little-noticed call for concepts, from DARPA, the Pentagon agency created after Russia's Sputnik embarrassed Washington, should serve as a wake-up call to other Arctic nations.

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Cutting-edge technology is what DARPA does. Remember those clumsy driverless trucks failing to negotiate an open desert course in 2004, despite a $1-million prize? Three years later, in a much-tough urban environment, the winners pocketed $2-million. Unmanned vehicles will soon be in use on battlefields.

DARPA funding will drive similar breakthroughs in remote Arctic sensing.

Given that the United States already has a huge lead in "aircraft, satellites or manned ships and submarines" the coming revolution in remote sensing will leave other Arctic players even further behind.

As a point of comparison, none of Canada's four submarines (even when they are seaworthy and not one of them is) is capable of under-ice operation. And Canada's surveillance of foreign shipping in Arctic waters, the record is spotty. For instance, Canada's military high command first became aware that a Chinese icebreaker was in Canadian waters when residents in Tuktoyaktuk noticed the hulking Xue Lon, or Snow Dragon, offshore one morning.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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