Satellites could fix F-35 radio woes in High Arctic

A potential solution to the F-35's northern communication woes has been grinding its way through the federal bureaucracy for three years but has yet to receive the green light.

2008 Canadian Space Agency proposal still in consultation stage

A Canadian Space Agency proposal from 2008 to place pair of satellites over the High Arctic would help solve the radio and satellite communications problems new F-35s may have in the Arctic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO- Lockheed Martin

A potential solution to the F-35's northern communication woes has been grinding its way through the federal bureaucracy for three years but has yet to receive the green light.

The Canadian Space Agency has been studying polar communications and determined in September 2008 that a pair of satellites over the High Arctic would vastly improve not only aircraft communication, but broadband access and climate change weather forecasting.

A decision on whether to build the satellites as part of the Polar Communications and Weather project is unclear because the agency, in partnership with National Defence and Environment Canada, is still consulting on the socio-economic impact.

Software which allows the F-35 stealth fighter to communicate in the Arctic won't be installed on its operating system until at least 2019 — at least three years after Canada takes possession of its first plane.

There has been no long-term commitment to the project, sources both inside and outside of government said Monday. The pair of satellites would cost $600 million to put in orbit above the North Pole by 2017.

The air force is working on potential fixes, including the addition of a communications suite currently used on the aging CF-18s.

One of the most important unknowns for software developers at U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin, the F-35 manufacturer, is what satellites will be available to allow the jets to communicate through in the coming years.

The uncertainty over communications prompted New Democrats and Liberals to claim the jet is still a long way from being ready for prime time.

"There is no logical or reasonable explanation for the government's inflexibility on the F-35s," said NDP MP Matthew Kellway, a member of the House of Commons defence committee.

"We now learn they don't even work in the North. Will the Conservative now admit that a $150 million per piece is a bit expensive for a plane that doesn't even work?"

The purchase price of the highly-advanced jet was the subject of debate during last spring's federal election and the Conservative government continues to insist the cost per aircraft will in the neighbourhood of $75 million.

Both Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said opposition accusations were "totally false" and that the Defence Department was working on solutions.

"This aircraft will have state-of-the-art communications," MacKay told the Commons. "We won't take receipt of this aircraft for another five years and we're working closely with partners within the consortium to see that it has all of the operational capability for the 21st Century."

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae used the controversy to once again demand the Harper government put the F-35 contract out to tender.

The Polar Communications and Weather satellites are being developed in concert with Richmond, B.C-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), which received the initial contract to study the concept polar satellites. The space agency only issued a request to study the economic impact of the project last month.

"These new Canadian capabilities are particularly important because of increasing Arctic exploration, the requirement to protect Canada's vast northern natural resources and for Canadian sovereignty in times of changing climate, political and economical conditions," said the Sept. 21 request for proposal.

Neither the company nor the space agency was available to answer questions Monday.