Rangers get enhanced status in new defence policy

Northern communities could see benefits as emphasis shifts to home turf



The North is heading for a military “transformation” that will put more satellites and planes in the air, and more Canadian Rangers on the ground, according to the region’s top commander.

Col. Normand Couturier, the head of Canadian Forces Northern Area, has been beaming with optimism since the country’s military headquarters in Ottawa released the country’s defence policy last week.

The document, released on April 19, outlines how the country’s armed forces will tailor more of their future spending to Canada’s local defence needs, rather than international missions.

While short on new spending announcements, the 32-page policy statement has military decision-makers buzzing about a coming expansion to the armed forces throughout the North.

“My view is we can only stand to benefit,” said Couturier, who coordinates the Army, Navy and Air Force for the North, from Yellowknife.

“Everything I’ve proposed… seems to be a part of this statement.”

The document makes several promises to increase military activity and capability in the North.

Couturier said he takes the most comfort in the document’s references to boosting surveillance throughout Canada.

Right now, CFNA headquarters mainly rely on Canadian Rangers to report any strange occurrences throughout the North, such as a submarine showing up near a community. Their reports supplement periodic satellite and aerial surveys.

Couturier said this system will undergo major changes, now that the new policy calls on military brass to “enhance” their surveillance of Arctic land and water, mostly using new technology.

Couturier believes Ottawa will boost his training and staffing budgets, to complement any technology improvements.

Couturier said he still needed to ask the military’s chief of defence staff, Gen. Rick Hillier, about what the Navy would be “expanding.”

However, he’s confident that Hillier will have specific commitments.

“He is going to transform the military to make sure we are more relevant, more responsive, and more effective,” Couturier said.

In the air, Hillier has made clear he wants more unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs, to keep an eye on the remote corners of Canada.

Plus, the Air Force plans to boost its reconnaissance abilities in the North by upgrading its Aurora long-range patrol aircraft. CFNA staff said this will involve new sensor technology to improve their image-gathering capabilities.

However, the military has also renewed its focus on getting more pictures by satellite.

CFNA is planning to gather real-time satellite imagery through a pilot project called Polar Epsilon. This will allow the military to piggyback on a new commercial space program, designed to provide surveillance of the North. It’s expected to start trial sessions this year.

“This will give us a full picture of what’s happening up here,” Couturier said.

Military critics said northern communities should take advantage of the increased interest in their region.

Prof. Rob Huebert, manager of the University of Calgary’s centre for military studies, said the military should be offering extra services, if they’re going to increase their presence near the communities.

Huebert said territories like Nunavut could demand the armed forces stop over in communities with ships to break up troublesome sea ice, or help out with search and rescues while they’re in the region.

“That way, everybody gains,” Huebert said. “Satellite surveillance could be even used by hunters… asking for ice conditions.”

Huebert said northern communities should also be encouraged that the policy highlighted the Canadian Ranger program multiple times, in a way he’s never seen before.

“It’s saying that the Rangers are important,” Huebert said. “It elevates their status. I think it sends a positive signal that they’re going to receive consideration as future funds are made available.”

The policy says CFNA will improve the Canadian Rangers program, by purchasing better communications equipment, such as satellite phones.

Military brass have promised to establish seven more Ranger patrols in the coming years, mostly in the Northwest Territories. Nunavut already has a patrol in each community.

Gen. Hillier said at a recent press conference that the military would follow the promises set out in the policy, regardless of whether there’s a federal election.

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