PCW: Opening the North
Sep 15, 2013

Today, across the Canadian Arctic, huge areas have unreliable or nonexistent communications and incomplete weather forecasts because they are beyond the reach of conventional, weather and communications geosynchronous satellites. The Polar Communications and Weather mission (PCW), an initiative of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in partnership with Environment Canada and the Department of National Defence, proposes to not only bridge that gap but even offer data and communications links to the other Arctic nations: the United States, the Russian Federation, Norway and Denmark. The PCW ‘constellation’ would comprise two satellites in elliptical orbits around the poles, with one always at the ‘high’ part of its orbit above the Arctic.

Reliable satellite communications in the North will be a game changer and will influence future development in the most basic of ways… offering the connectivity we take for granted in the south. But funding has been a stumbling block and the government is looking for best options.

In early November, Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) released a Request For Information to explore technical solutions for the Polar Communications and Weather Project. PWGSC wants industry comments on “technical options, business viability, potential Project Delivery Model(s), costs, and risks for industry”, although the RFI is careful to point out the project does not yet have government approval. PWGSC may be trying to temper expectations by making it clear that “Canada may decide to proceed with the project or not”. Media reports indicate that the project costs have been estimated at up to $600 million.
Photo: MCpl Julie Bélisle, CAF Combat Camera
The CSA has been working since early 2007 to develop a package that would satisfy a variety of domestic and international customers, including Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada, Nav Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs, the Government of Nunavut and others, but the two major PCW users would be Environment Canada for weather data, and the Department of National Defence for reliable UHF communications.
As Colonel François Malo wrote in the November 2008 edition of FrontLine Defence, “An important Command capability gap is our limited ability to effectively communicate with deployed forces north of 65° in latitude.” As CSA stated the DND requirement, the department needs “a capability in the Arctic which is interoperable with and complementary to the Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) system.”

In January 2012, Canada joined Australia, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the U.S., in the WGS system, meeting strategic satellite communications requirements of the Canadian Forces over the next 20 years. “This agreement with our allies will meet the requirement for secure data and voice transmissions, which are essential to the success of modern military operations,” said then defence minister Peter MacKay.

As currently envisioned, the Polar Communications and Weather mission would not only be a ‘whole of government’ project but possibly a multinational initiative as well. After looking at different procurement options, including operation as a Major Crown Project, Ernst & Young and Public Works and Government Services Canada began looking at how public-private partnerships could compete for traditional acquisition in the delivery of similar services in a more cost-effective way.
Telesat, the Ottawa-based satellite operator is a natural company to consider for the PCW project. In a briefing, the company noted that it could offer “a commercial SatCom model based on satellites with a 15 year design life” and “a mission implemented by the private sector’ would have the benefits of: “lower risks, lower costs; firm fixed price: and, pre-determined on-going payments matched to delivery of service.”
Raytheon Canada also has specific expertise in this area, which makes it a key contributor for space and satellite requirements. Its UHF payload and unique capability aligns the company to assist with both the control of the complexities of tundra orbit and with reduction of data that is generated from the weather sensor payload. For PCW, these functions would be handled first at the satellite provider’s facility, and then at Environment Canada’s proposed new data reduction centre where the weather data would be manipulated for various customers.
Even though MacDonald, Dettwiler & Associates Ltd. (MDA) won a $691 million contract in January to build three Radarsat Constellation Mission satellites, the Canadian satellite business has the capacity to do more. At the Senate National Security and Defence Committee in November, Colonel André Dupuis, Director of Space Requirements at DG Space within National Defence said, “this is quite a solid industry on the Canadian side, including some small value-added services suppliers, hundreds of them, who are responsible for several billion dollars annually of Canadian revenue – and almost 50% of that is due to exports.”
With Department of National Defence as a potential customer and sponsor, and former Chief of Defence Staff General Walt Natynczyk as the new president of the Canadian Space Agency, the Polar Communications and Weather mission is set to take off.

Richard Bray is the Senior Writer at FrontLine Defence Magazine
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2013