Keep RADARSAT-2 in Canada
Last week, Industry Minister Jim Prentice announced that he would take 30 extra days to consider whether to approve the proposed sale of the space division of B.C.-based MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates (MDA) to Alliant Techsystems of Minnesota.
It was the right move. Foreign investment is generally a good thing, but not in this instance.
The sale includes RADARSAT-2, a newly launched remote sensing satellite designed specifically with Arctic sovereignty in mind. Generating imagery of remarkably high definition even at night and through clouds, RADARSAT-2 is the perfect tool for tracking ships and mapping sea-ice.
With the Northwest Passage opening, losing RADARSAT-2 would be like losing our eyes. Forty per cent of Canada is located in the Arctic. Detecting and tracking ships and measuring the thickness of any remaining ice is an essential complement to having the means necessary to reach and board suspect vessels.
RADARSAT-2 was developed through a public-private partnership between MDA and the Canadian Space Agency, with taxpayers contributing $445-million or about 85% of the total cost. In return, Canada obtained RADARSAT-2 imagery and “shutter control” — the ability to restrict the kinds of images being downloaded from the satellite for reasons of national security or foreign policy — as well as “priority access” in emergencies.
This shutter control and priority access is now at stake. Once the satellite is sold to Alliant Techsystems, Ottawa will lose the ability to control the satellite and commandeer it in emergencies. And the equipment could then be used in ways that contradict our interests: suppose that the United States sends a ship into the Northwest Passage without Canada’s consent, relying on RADARSAT-2 imagery and, perhaps, denying us access to it?
Then there is the issue of retaining a Canadian space industry. Canada has always been a world leader in space. In the field of complex Earth-observation satellites, most countries focused their efforts on powerful cameras; Canadian scientists instead developed synthetic aperture radar through the RADARSAT program. Canada now leads the world in this technology, but we will lose our lead — and the ability to build even more advanced satellites — if the proposed sale goes ahead. In this sense, RADARSAT-2 is the modern day equivalent of the Avro Arrow.
Every country with a serious space program directs government money toward its domestic space industry on the basis that some public good, such as national defence, will not be provided by the market alone. But now that RADARSAT-2 has been launched, the Canadian industry lacks any major follow-on projects — and Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is hesitating about funding the next generation of RADARSATS.
The same government has also failed to seek exemptions to the United States’ International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) which have impeded the Canadian space industry’s access to the lucrative U.S. market. In other words, government inaction has contributed to MDA’s decision to sell RADARSAT-2.
Instead of equivocating, the government should block the sale of MDA’s space division and partner with the company in developing the technology further. Instead of giving up when we’re ahead, we should do what it takes to stay at the cutting edge.
Under the Investment Canada Act, the industry minister can block a sale that is not of “net benefit” to Canada. The act sets out a series of economic and industrial factors to be used by government to measure the impact the sale of a company or resource may have. But nothing precludes the consideration of noneconomic factors, such as national security.
Mr. Prentice will remember how, as recently as October, he stood beside RADARSAT-2 and said: “This satellite will help us vigorously protect our Arctic sovereignty as international interest in the region increases.”
He was absolutely right. What could be more important to Canada’s national security than our ability to monitor all of this vast country, especially in emergencies? What foreign investment could be of net benefit to Canada than selling our eyes?
Scott Brison is the Liberal critic for industry, science and technology and co-chair of the Liberal party election platform committee; Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.