Mythbuster: "Arctic patrols"

Captain Buster was about to take his CF-18 fighter back to base.  Several boring hours of flying over the Canadian tundra had left his aircraft at near bingo fuel.  His stomach started to rumble as he started to contemplate what was for dinner at the mess hall that night.  "Maybe that cute logistics officer would be there again tonight" he thought with a smile.

"PING!"  His thoughts were rudely interrupted as a blip appeared on the very edge of his radar screen.  

"Unidentified bogey detected coming in from the north!"  Blared the excited voice of his wingman through the headset.  Captain Buster wished he could go back in time thirty seconds and preemptively turn down the volume.  

"Calm down, Newbie..."  Answered Buster.  "It's probably nothing.  Just in case, lets check it out before we run out of gas."  He did not want his wingman to know it, but this one just did not feel right.  The hairs on the back of his neck stood erect as he took his aircraft into a gentle turn.  Just to be safe, Captain Buster double checked his weapon systems.  The knowledge he was packing four AMRAAMs and two Sidewinders helped put his nerves at ease.

A few minutes later, the dot on his radar was much larger.  In the distance, just coming over the horizon, Captain Buster could see a shimmering glint of aluminum shining in the cold arctic sun.  He took a deep breath and keyed up his helmet mounted microphone.

"Unidentified aircraft bearing one-six-zero, you are entering Canadian airspace.  Please identify yourself and state your intent."  

No answer.

Captain Buster keyed up his microphone again and gave his voice as much authority as he could muster.


Buster and his wingmen were now close enough to get a clear visual on the interloper.  There was no mistaking the lanky metallic fuselage and wings of a Russian Tupolev Tu-95 bomber.  


Captain Buster and his wingman brought their CF-18s alongside the slower Russian bomber.  A leisurely roll to the side was enough to expose the CF-18s' AMRAAMs and let the bomber pilot know that they meant business.  

"Canadian See-Eff eighteens...  This is Russian Tu-95...  We were...  Uh...  Conducting environmental studies when...  Uh... Our navigation system temporarily malfunctioned.  It is working now, we are reversing course and returning home."

The bomber clumsily turned back north, over the north pole towards Russia.

"Looks like Ivan was up to something...  Eh, Newbie?  Let's get back for some chow.  I'm hungry."

"Git off mah lawn!"
"Arctic patrols."

The term brings images of Canadian fighter aircraft diligently flying over Canada's northern reaches, scanning the skies for foreign interlopers that might do us harm.  Only through this tireless searching are they able to intercept the nefarious Russian bombers that threaten to penetrate our borders.

Er...  No.

Canadian fighter jets do not constantly fly all over the tundra looking for trouble.  The simple fact is that there is way too much airspace to cover with a measly force of 78 aircraft.  Using the small radar found in a fighter aircraft to scan Canadian airspace would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.  It is simply not practical.  Not only that, but the costs and safety concerns would be astronomical if we constantly sent multi-million dollar aircraft over some of the worlds harshest landscapes.

Fighter aircraft scouring the airspace looking for potential invaders would be akin to paramedics knocking on doors and asking if people inside are sick or hurt.  Not only is it inefficient, but it could potentially rob lead to resources being far away from where they are needed most.

Not to worry however.  Foreign bombers do not have the freedom to fly over Canadian territory with impunity.  Canada's northern airspace is well populated by large radar installations that make up the North Warning System.  These unmanned installations provide overlapping coverage to monitor anything happening over Canada's northern airspace.

Older readers (and Rush fans) might know this system better as Distant Early Warning or the Dew Line.

Unmanned?  Why, couldn't they find anyone who wanted to work here?

The North Warning System monitors what is known as the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).  Any aircraft flying in this zone needs to file a flight plan before hand.

Since we are at peacetime, there is no reason for Canadian fighter aircraft to patrol this region on a daily basis.  So how are Canadian CF-18s capable of intercepting Russian bombers that fly uncomfortably close?

While Canadian fighter jets may not continuously patrol the arctic reaches, they do operate from the RCAF's Forward Operating Locations (FOLs) from time-to-time.  These allow for a presence up north, without dedicating the resources needed for a full airbase.

CF-18s are not always present at these FOLs, but they will conduct "training exercises" from them on a rotating basis.  At any given time, there may be CF-18 operating from one, all, or none of the FOLs.  These are the fighters that are scrambled to intercept any would be incursion.  The lack of fighters in an area probably results in a less dramatic radio query to the offending aircraft.

It should be noted that these well-publicized interceptions do not actually happen over sovereign Canadian air space.  A nation's airspace extends 22 kilometers past its coastline, with many of these "interceptions" happening at around 75 kilometers.

There really is little to fear from these incursions.  If a Russian bomber truly had a hostile intent, it would have to venture hundreds of kilometers into Canadian airspace in order to reach a target of strategic importance (likely the North Warning System itself).  Densely populated areas are even further.  Flying an unwelcome bomber that far into a nation's airspace would likely be construed as an act of war.

Tu-160 Blackjack (like a B-1, but bigger and faster)
If Russia truly had malicious intent, it would likely be using its top-of-the-line Tu-160 "Blackjack" bombers, not outdated Tu-95 "Bears".  The Tu-160 has almost the same range as the Tu-95, but has a smaller RCS, carries a heavier bomb load, and is much, much faster (Mach 2).

Russian Bear incursions into Canadian airspace are most likely performed as a method of intelligence collection.  By probing Canadian airspace, the Russian military gets a good "feel" for our radar detection ranges and time to intercept.  Canada is not alone in this regard.

There is also a variant of the Tu-95 (the Tu-142) which acts as a maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platform much like Canada's own CP-140 Aurora.  The Tu-142MR (another variant) assists communications with Russian ballistic submarines.

Remembering that most of the arctic circle is ice-covered ocean, it is easy to surmise what may be hiding under that ice.  Nuclear attack submarines (Russian, American, and others) could reside down there undetected, were it not for Canada's actual arctic patrol aircraft.

CP-140 (the "P" is for "Patrol") Aurora
It is not as sleek as a CF-18, nor as fast, nor as glamorous.  It is, however, much better suited to flying over large areas for prolonged periods of time.  It is also packed with surveillance equipment that includes everything from hand-held camera to a device that can detect minute changes in the earth's magnetic field.  While the airframe may be 30 years-old, the surveillance equipment it carries has been thoroughly updated over the years.  If there is anything going on or under the surface, there is a good chance the Aurora can find it.

The CF-18, on the other hand, is as good at detecting submarines as the CP-140 is at dogfights.

While flying over the arctic in a cramped fighter cockpit for hours on end would be a test of endurance in and of itself, the Aurora's pressurized cabin is quite spacious.  It includes a head (bathroom), a galley, and a rest area.  Longer flights include additional crew members so that the crew can work in shifts.

For those worried about safety, the Aurora has a spotless safety record and has the benefit of not two, but four engines.  As we all know, the more engines an aircraft has, the safer it is...  Right?

Let us save that discussion for next week.


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