Ottawa buys Arctic hangar next to NORAD base after interest from China and Russia

Ottawa buys Arctic hangar next to NORAD base after interest from China and Russia
Ottawa buys Arctic hangar next to NORAD base after interest from China and Russia

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Two Hercules aircraft sit next to a hangar at Inuvik Airport. The airport is the closest in Canada to the westernmost point of the Canadian Air Defence Identification Zone in the Arctic.Delivered

The federal government has paid $8.6 million to purchase a privately owned aircraft hangar next to a NORAD air base in the Arctic region of Inuvik. It is a strategic part of the continental air defense infrastructure and satellite ground stations that has attracted interest from China and Russia.

Inuvik has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years for national security reasons, with Ottawa also concerned about possible foreign espionage activity, according to documents released as part of the information disclosure process.

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

In the fall of 2022, investigators from the Canadian Forces’ National Counterintelligence Service visited Inuvik as part of what the military calls Project Sandcastle. They asked about visits by Russian and Chinese visitors who expressed interest in the Forward Operating Location Inuvik and its many satellite ground stations and remote sensing arrays.

The forward operating locations in the north have a hangar for fighter aircraft to support the defense of North America under the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

As The Globe and Mail reported last year, the United States had pushed Canada to buy the hangar after Chinese buyers showed interest. Ottawa had initially resisted U.S. pressure. The government had previously leased the hangar to house military aircraft but argued it no longer needed it.

The Department of National Defence declined to provide many details about Project Sandcastle, citing operational secrecy. Defence spokesman Alex Tétreault said the activities were “in support of the security mandate of the Canadian Armed Forces.”

The purchased hangar is located next to NORAD’s forward operating site in the western Arctic. It is within a few kilometers of two satellite download sites, one owned by National Resources Canada and the other by Norway’s Kongsberg Satellite Services.

NORAD’s Forward Operating Site at Inuvik Airport has hangar space for up to six fighter aircraft and was opened in 1994. The airport is the only one in Canada with a paved runway north of the Arctic Circle.

Reports of the Canadian Forces National Counterintelligence Service visit to Inuvik were obtained through an access to information request by researcher Kristjan P. Hjalmarson.

The documents show that a hacking incident in 2022 “compromised” data related to the Canadian Forces’ fuel requirements for the Forward Operating Location Inuvik. The documents do not indicate who is responsible for the cyber incident.

A source with direct knowledge told The Globe that two Chinese diplomats from the embassy in Ottawa had travelled to Inuvik in 2018. There, they toured the hangar and the NORAD base, as well as the two satellite download facilities. They were captured 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 a COVID-19 lockdown.

The Globe is not naming the source because it is not authorized to discuss these matters publicly.

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

Defence minister Tétreault declined to comment on the presence of the two counterintelligence officers, saying “information relating to specific intelligence operations” cannot be released.

However, Mr Tétreault said the Canadian military is deeply concerned about China and Russia’s activities in the Arctic.

“China aims to become a polar superpower by 2030 and demonstrates its intention to play a greater 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.”

On Russia, Mr Tétreault said Moscow is investing in modern new bases and infrastructure in the Far North with advanced fighter jets, missiles, warships, nuclear submarines and icebreakers “far greater than those of other Arctic powers.”

“We are seeing increased Russian activity in our airstrikes and a growing number of dual-purpose research vessels and surveillance platforms collecting data over the Canadian north that, under Chinese law, is being made available to the Chinese military,” he added.

Inuvik, the centre of the western Canadian Arctic, is located on a channel in the Mackenzie Delta, 60 miles (97 kilometres) from the Beaufort Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean.

Inuvik Airport is the closest airport in Canada to the westernmost point of the Canadian Air Defence Identification Zone in the Arctic, a stretch of airspace north of the country’s mainland. Canada, like all countries, attempts to identify and control all aircraft entering the Air Defence Identification Zone.