Friday, September 11, 2015

CFS Alert growing in importance?

This L.A. Times report on intelligence-gathering in the Arctic (Brian Bennett & W.J. Hennigan, "U.S. builds up Arctic spy network as Russia and China increase presence," Los Angeles Times, 7 September 2015) suggests that Canadian Forces Station Alert is growing in importance as concern about the region increases:
As China and Russia boost their military presence in the resource-rich far north, U.S. intelligence agencies are scrambling to study potential threats in the Arctic for the first time since the Cold War, a sign of the region's growing strategic importance.

Over the last 14 months, most of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies have assigned analysts to work full time on the Arctic. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently convened a "strategy board" to bring the analysts together to share their findings.

In addition to relying on U.S. spy satellites orbiting overhead and Navy sensors deep in the frigid waters, the analysts process raw intelligence from a recently overhauled Canadian listening post near the North Pole and a Norwegian surveillance ship called the Marjata, which is now being upgraded at a U.S. Navy shipyard in southern Virginia.


To help keep watch, Canada has refurbished a listening post called CFS Alert at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, about 500 miles from the North Pole. It was once part of the Distant Early Warning line, a system of radar stations that watched for incoming Russian bombers or missiles.

"It was thought to be a relic of the Cold War," said Rob Huebert, a professor in Arctic affairs at the University of Calgary. "Now it is a critical element of an intelligence system that monitors a part of the world that few have access to."

About 100 intelligence officers stationed at CFS Alert, which stands for Canadian Forces Station, try to intercept Russian aircraft and submarine communications and other signals intelligence. Canada shares the take with U.S. intelligence agencies.
It's hard to know how seriously to take all this.

Unless Bennett and Hennigan have scooped us all on the goings on at Alert, the actual number of military and civilian personnel at Alert is only around 77, of whom just 5 to 10 work in operations. And the latter personnel are only there as technicians to keep the equipment running. Communicator Research personnel have not been routinely deployed to Alert for some 18 years, and there are no "intelligence officers" there. All of the processing and analysis work is done remotely from CFS Leitrim, in Ottawa, as it has been since completion of the "remoting" project in 1997.

Alert also has never been a part of the DEW Line (or the North Warning System for that matter). But it does provide SIGINT-based tip-offs about Russian training flights in the Arctic to NORAD. Colonel Steven Moritsugu, the Commander of the Canadian Forces Information Operations Group (CFIOG), recently acknowledged Alert's contribution to NORAD in testimony to the House of Commons National Defence Committee:
The signals intelligence capability, which is provided by what we call our uniquely advantageous location at Canadian Forces Station Alert, contributes to the defence of North America by providing an important intelligence input to the Canadian Armed Forces and to our binational North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. ...

Our main reason for having the station there would be the defence of Canada, the defence of the homeland, and the defence of North America.

Our primary sharing is with NORAD.
I'm not sure what the L.A. Times means by a "recent overhaul" of the station either, although there does seem to have been a minor increase in the number of personnel posted at Alert in recent years. The number of people at the station bottomed out at around 53 in 2008 following an effort to cut costs and civilianize a lot of the workforce; the current total, as noted above, is around 77 (although the RCAF's Alert web page, which hasn't been updated for some time, still says 55, plus 4 Environment Canada employees).

The explanation for the increase could be as simple as fluctuations in the number of temporary personnel present at the station for specific research projects. Underwater acoustic monitoring research has long been conducted at Alert, for example, and Col. Moritsugu's reluctance to talk about that subject in his recent testimony suggests that such activities may still be underway.

What there doesn't seem to have been in recent years is a significant increase in the signals intelligence activities at the station.

That said, there is little doubt that interest in the kinds of SIGINT that Alert can produce will have grown in recent years.

The changes underway in Arctic intelligence-gathering may not be quite as dramatic as suggested in this article, or in James Bamford's similar piece in May ("Frozen Assets," Foreign Policy, 11 May 2015), but we can pretty safely conclude that the Canadian government won't be shutting the place down any time soon.

Update 2 February 2016:

Still just 79 personnel at the station: Matthew Fisher, "Canada’s ‘frozen chosen’ at top of the world have been in the dark since Oct 14," National Post, 1 February 2016


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