Russia set to conduct surveillance flyover to inspect Canada’s military, industrial infrastructure

26 Jun

Source:National Post


AFP/Getty Images

The Russians are conducting what has quietly become their annual flyover of key Canadian sites this week, revealing the two countries’ regular surveillance of one another at a time when a spy scandal and Arctic sovereignty have markedly strained relations.

Russia has routinely exercised a 10-year-old treaty right to fly over Canada and inspect the country’s military infrastructure, industrial complexes, cities and transportation hubs, according to a National Defence spokesman. He said it is the only one out of 34 countries to fly over Canadian soil under the Open Skies treaty.

The upcoming flight is novel in its timing, too: It is Russia’s first information-gathering flight since a Canadian intelligence officer was arrested under suspicion of espionage, allegedly for the Russians, back in January. Capt. Matt Zalot, a National Defence spokesman, said this week’s Russian flyover was planned long before that, back in the fall.

The inspection comes just days after Canada flew over Russia aboard a Hungarian aircraft, and it highlights the frequent surveillance that goes on between the two countries.

Little known even to some experts in the defence community, Canada has invoked the treaty to fly over Russia four times annually since 2004 — that is roughly 30 inspections in eight years.

There is a treaty, but we have to be very, very, very cautious not to forget past espionage cases

Houchang Hassan-Yari, a Royal Military College of Canada political science professor, said while the two countries are operating under the treaty, Ottawa should be vigilant when Russia’s Tupolev aircraft flies over Canada some time between Tuesday and Thursday.

“There is a treaty, but we have to be very, very, very cautious not to forget past espionage cases,” Mr. Hassan-Yari said. “We should not forget that the relationship between Russia and Canada was not necessarily friendly even 20 years ago, so who knows what will happen in the next 20 years.”

Canadian military personnel will “escort” the Russians for the sake of security and compliance, National Defence officials said.

The treaty gives Canada the explicit right to send at least two flight monitors and one interpreter aboard the unarmed Russian aircraft, which will use onboard imagery systems to “observe and verify objects of interest or concern,” the statement says.

“[Flyovers] are part of the game,” said Peter St. John, a University of Manitoba professor who specializes in security issues. “There is a lot of [tit-for-tat] that goes on … It just might not typically be public knowledge.”

According to one of Russia’s largest news agencies, the Russian Air Force is looking to buy two aircraft specifically equipped for aerial inspections such as those over Canada. The aircraft, which was showcased at an international air show in Moscow last summer, is slated for completion this year and will carry more sophisticated reconnaissance systems, the agency reported.

There is a lot of [tit-for-tat] that goes on … It just might not typically be public knowledge

The Treaty on Open Skies was the brainchild of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower back in 1955, and was signed two years after the fall of the Berlin wall in a bid to shore confidence among the NATO and Warsaw Pact signatories. The Soviets initially rejected the treaty amid concerns it would be abused for espionage.

“This is essentially flipping the Cold War legacy on its head and saying, ‘We’re not actually afraid of letting each other’s aircraft do these sorts of flyovers,’” said Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia political science professor and author of Who Owns the Arctic?

In 2010, Canadian Forces fighter jets intercepted Russian bombers flying just outside the Canadian Arctic.

Russia’s first Open Skies flyover of Canada was in 2004, when inspectors flew between Winnipeg and Ottawa at the low altitude of 2,500 metres. Three years later, more than two dozen Russian officers left from Trenton, Ont., to fly over military bases, cities, transportation hubs and factories.

While the Russians use a Turpolev civilian aircraft, Canada uses a CC-130 Hercules equipped with a specialized SAMSON sensor “pod” — essentially a converted fuel tank modified to carry sensors. Under the treaty, which officially came into force in 2002, Canada has flown over several states, including Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Russia, and Ukraine.

“The inspections are about mutual confidence-building,” echoed John Thompson, a security expert at the Mackenzie Institute. “It says, ‘They’re not doing anything we don’t want them to do, and we’re not doing anything they don’t want us to do.’ ”

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Posted by on June 26, 2012 in Canada


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