Accessibility and geopolitical interest are rapidly increasing in the Arctic region. This increased interest has created a demand for more surveillance.
How can the Arctic region obtain the situational awareness needed in this vast and remote environment?
We’ve had a talk with the Senior Vice President of Surveillance and Mission Systems at Terma, Thomas Blom, and Managing Director of Naval Team Denmark (formerly head of the Royal Danish Navy), Nils Wang about the Arctic surveillance challenges and how to solve them.
With a focus on operational requirements, we are zooming in on the Arctic region around Greenland and the very icy and harsh environment alongside the water between the United States and Europe going south of Greenland to Iceland and the Faroe Islands.
Logistics and Communication Challenges in the Arctic Region
Surveillance equipment and technology are met with a variety of different challenges for those in charge. Developing, manufacturing, and transporting surveillance equipment for the Arctic is unlike for anywhere else in the world.
Just the logistics of getting there is a challenge, as traveling from Iceland to the northeastern tip of Greenland is a distance comparable to the distance from Northern Jutland to the Strait of Gibraltar.
And there is no gas station on the way.
This means you need long-range capabilities that are self-sustained. Furthermore, the area of the Arctic is both huge and deserted with no people and no infrastructure. It is not straight forward to get radars and sensors to work. Energy is an issue, along with cold temperatures and wind.
A big issue in gaining adequate levels of surveillance is that communication satellites don't work up north, as they go around the equator. The further north you go, the lower the satellite would be on the horizon, and at 78 degrees north they are no longer visible because of the land in front of them:
“Things like satellites, that we are used to working in Denmark, […] doesn't work when you go high up north, because you cannot see the satellites anymore,” says Thomas Blom.
To fix this issue, you would have to mitigate it by sending satellites into a polar orbit. This is both a more technically challenging task and, as there are only very few people, companies, and nations up there, it quickly becomes very expensive.
This combination of the vast geographic distances, a harsh arctic environment and the increased activity places demands for new and innovative surveillance equipment and communicative radio-based solutions.
Obtaining Adequate Situational Awareness
Despite the challenges, world nations with a relation to the Arctic need to focus their attention on solutions for adequate situational awareness - surveillance to keep their territory safe.
To identify irregularities, you need to have surveillance and active resources. The surveillance establishes the intelligence needed to interfere if something is going on that you do not allow.
But what level of situational awareness is good enough? Instead of focusing on the adequate level, the focus is on the process towards more and more surveillance. This starts off by focusing on surface surveillance and, later, the focus will shift to air and space as well.
The ultimate surveillance would include surveillance below the surface as well:
“The most difficult part is below the surface as it requires expensive, sophisticated equipment, sonars – obviously you would be interested in seeing if there are any strategic nuclear submarines operating below the ice or at the surface in Greenland,” Thomas Blom
But Why Spend Resources on Satellites?
One area of interest is search and rescue (SAR) missions. The fact that the Arctic is a largely deserted area that has less ships to come to aid if an accident happens, and a lack of adequate ways of communicating, makes rescue missions very difficult.
This means that surveillance not only focuses on warships, but also search and rescue missions, tracking illegal fishing boats, and securing the vast natural resources that are of great importance for the Greenlandic economy. By using satellites sensitive to radar and radio waves in the surveillance setup, you will be able to detect activity on the Arctic waters:
“These are things you can register from space and slowly build a picture of what we have of [radar wave] emissions. It can also be communication emissions that you monitor, and you can actually track the position it comes from and then correlate it with your friendly picture,” Thomas Blom explains. In this sense, friendly vessels are those who willingly broadcast who they are, their position, and their purpose.
To obtain such a situational picture entail sorting through vast amounts of data. No human would be capable of solving this challenge, so the call is out for new technologies.
The Future Involves AI
Emerging technologies infused with artificial intelligence and machine learning are part of new surveillance technologies.
AI is the tool to connect all the dots and create one common situational picture of the Arctic’s surroundings. You need to get this information from satellites, radars, and from surveillance aircraft and ships.
The progression to AI based surveillance is suspected to happen within the next two or three years, as Denmark will be investing significantly over the next couple of years in additional types of sensors and satellites.
This is great news for a small nation like Denmark, as it is important to use our sparse resources in the Arctic efficiently. One way is by utilizing the Danish Navy ships to sail out and identify what is going on in areas of interest. With AI and machine learning, Denmark will be able to uphold that kind of needed capability in the area.
AI infused intelligence systems make Denmark capable of performing the adequate surveillance work with a reasonable number of ships. Without AI, these ships would be pointless and would not know the areas to investigate.
Development in the past 10-20 years has had a significant influence on the technology in AI and surveillance technology. For instance, the cost of sending a surveillance satellite into space, sorting the data with AI, and building Earth-based receiving stations is now possible for a small nation like Denmark. By combining different types of sensors with AI and deploying drones to extend the reach of the vessels, two or three ships along both sides of Greenland would be sufficient to obtain adequate situational awareness.
As of today, Terma is investing significantly in artificial intelligence to sort through massive amounts of data quickly to locate outliers and potential threats:
“The sensors are getting better and better, but the communication technology, especially in Greenland, does not hold up with that. So, you need to move the intelligence from the ground, where it's been traditionally, up in the smaller satellites, and we are actually doing that,” Thomas Blom
At Terma, we are looking forward to taking part in this ongoing process of keeping the Greenlandic boarders safe through intelligent surveillance technology.
If you want to read more about the topic or get some background information, read this article: “The Arctic: New Circumstances Bring New Challenges” or listen to our podcast episode on the matter here: Arctic: Future Demands for Arctic Stability