Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Ottawa buys Arctic hangar next to NORAD base after Chinese, Russian interest

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Two Hercules aircraft sit beside a hangar at the Inuvik airport. The airport is the closest in Canada to the most westerly point of the Canadian Air Defence Identification Zone in the Arctic.Supplied

The federal government has paid $8.6-million to acquire a privately owned aircraft hangar adjacent to a NORAD air base in the Arctic community of Inuvik, a strategic piece of continental air-defence infrastructure and satellite ground stations that has attracted interest from China and Russia.

Inuvik in recent years has come under heightened national-security scrutiny, with Ottawa growing concerned about possible foreign espionage efforts there, according to records released under access to information.

Canada’s top soldier General Wayne Eyre has warned that Canada’s “tenuous hold” on its Arctic territories will come under increasing challenge in the decades ahead as China and Russia expand their presence in the region.

In the fall of 2022, investigators with the Canadian Armed Forces national counterintelligence unit visited Inuvik as part of what the military calls Project Sandcastle, asking questions about visits by Russian and Chinese visitors who showed an interest in the Forward Operating Location Inuvik, as well as the numerous satellite ground stations and remote sensing arrays.

Forward operating locations in the north feature a fighter aircraft hangar to support the defence of North America under North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).

As The Globe and Mail reported last year, the United States had been prodding Canada to purchase the hangar after Chinese buyers showed interest in it. Ottawa had initially resisted American pressure. The government had previously leased the hangar to shelter military aircraft, but argued it no longer had need of it.

The Department of National Defence declined to divulge much detail about Project Sandcastle, citing operational secrecy. Defence spokesman Alex Tétreault said its activities were ”in support of the Canadian Armed Forces’ security mandate.”

The purchased hangar sits beside NORAD’s forward operating location in the Western Arctic. It is located several kilometres from two satellite download sites, one belonging to National Resources Canada and the other owned by Norway’s Kongsberg Satellite Services.

The NORAD forward operating location, which is at Inuvik Airport, has hangar space for up to six fighter aircraft, and was activated for service in 1994. The airport is the only one in Canada with a paved runway that lies north of the Arctic Circle.

Records on the Canadian Forces national counterintelligence unit visit to Inuvik were obtained through an access to information request by researcher Kristjan P. Hjalmarson.

The documents note that a hacking incident in 2022 occurred where data related to Canadian Armed Forces fuel requirements for Forward Operating Location Inuvik “were compromised.” The records do not say who was determined to be responsible for the cyberincident.

A source with direct knowledge told The Globe that two Chinese diplomats from the embassy in Ottawa had travelled to Inuvik in 2018. While there they looked at the hangar and the NORAD base as well as the two satellite download facilities. They were caught on video cameras that were later shared with Canadian military intelligence and the RCMP. No immediate action was taken by Canadian authorities as the country went into COVID-19 lockdown.

The Globe is not identifying the source because they are not authorized to discuss these matters publicly.

The RCMP, in a follow-up investigation, later identified the two diplomats as being members of the People’s Liberation Army who had been accredited to the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, the source said. The RCMP showed pictures of the two diplomats to people in the community as part of their probe, according to the source.

National Defence’s Mr. Tétreault declined to discuss the presence of the two counterintelligence officers, saying the “information related to particular intelligence operations” cannot be released.

However, Mr. Tétreault said the Canadian military is deeply concerned about Chinese and Russia activity in the Arctic.

“China seeks to become a polar great power by 2030 and it is demonstrating an intent to play a larger role in the region,” he said in a statement. “The steady growth of its navy, including its conventional and nuclear-powered submarine fleet, will support this ambition.”

As for Russia, Mr. Tétreault said Moscow is investing in modern new bases and infrastructure in the high north with sophisticated fighter jets, missiles, warships, nuclear submarines and icebreakers “much larger than those of other Arctic powers.”

“We are seeing more Russian activity in our air approaches, and a growing number of dual-purpose research vessels and surveillance platforms collecting data about the Canadian North that is, by Chinese law, made available to China’s military,” he added.

Inuvik, the hub of Canada’s western Arctic, lies on a channel of the Mackenzie River Delta 97 kilometres from the Beaufort Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean.

Inuvik’s airport is the closest in Canada to the most westerly point of the Canadian Air Defence Identification Zone in the Arctic, a band of airspace north of the country’s main land mass. Canada, like all countries, tries to identify and control any aircraft that enter its air defence identification zone.

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