|Did Canada punish Russia for 2008 Georgia invasion by moving satellite?|
|October 18, 2011|
By Peter Rakobowchuk, The Canadian Press
MONTREAL - Canada attempted to sanction Russia for its 2008 invasion of Georgia by switching to India for the launch of SAPPHIRE, this country's first military satellite, a top military expert says.
James Fergusson, a University of Manitoba expert on defence and security, was commenting on a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from Ottawa.
The cable, dated Oct. 6, 2008, classified as secret but posted on the website Wikileaks, was written under the headline: "Canada considering space launch alternatives due to Russia's invasion of Georgia."
Russian tanks had rolled across the border into Georgia in August 2008 to aid separatists in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Fergusson says there were concerns in the West and among the NATO allies about the conflict.
"This was an attempt to signal displeasure over Russian actions and, given the economic situation, this is money for the Russian space industry," he said in an interview.
It's estimated that the satellite's launch cost is about $4.5 million. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, also handles commercial satellite launches.
The cable says Department of National Defence managers of Project SAPPHIRE had planned to launch the satellite into orbit using a Russian spacecraft "in late 2009 or early 2010."
It quotes Phillip Baines, a senior adviser with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, saying that, "due to the Russian invasion of Georgia, Canada was interested in looking elsewhere for launch services."
SAPPHIRE is now scheduled to be launched in early 2012 — from several thousand kilometres away.
The cable also says the Canadian official wanted to know if the U.S., "intends to broaden its bilateral safeguards to permit satellite launches from India."
The DFAIT adviser pointed out that India had not signed the international Non-Proliferation Treaty limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.
Baines was doing his job and raising a warning flag to Canada's most powerful, closest ally, Fergusson says.
"We're turning to India to launch a military satellite (and) this may look like an inconsistency in policy," he said.
The Canadian Press sought comment from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade but did not receive a response as to why India — and not Russia — was chosen as the launch partner.
The switch to India may have been a one-shot deal, said Fergusson, the director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.
"We have no formal policy to prohibit Russia from launching the few satellites we ever launch," he added.
On the other hand, Fergusson also suggests that India's non-signature of the treaty no longer appears to be an issue.
"My hunch is that the outcome of all this is that the current government has said this is not a problem and we're going ahead."
The political-studies professor says the United States was also thinking about its own strategic relationship with India because military satellites wind up operating within the American space surveillance network.
As part of the U.S. space surveillance network, SAPPHIRE will provide the Canadian military "with the means to protect Canadian security and sovereignty interests in and through space," said an emailed statement from the Department of National Defence.
Kevin Shortt, the head of the Canadian Space Society, gets upset when politics plays a role in deciding which country should launch Canadian satellites.
After numerous delays, SAPPHIRE is now tentatively due to be launched on an Indian rocket in March 2012, along with NEOSSat, another Canadian satellite.
NEOSSat will be used to monitor satellites and other objects in near-Earth orbit, like asteroids, which could pose a threat to the planet.
MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates won the contract to build SAPPHIRE in October 2007.
Shortt doubts politics was a key factor in the decision to allow India to launch Sapphire, instead of Russia.
He says the bottom line is that India was able to provide a cheaper launcher and the decision had more to do with economics than with the invasion of Georgia.
"This is based on some discussions I have been privy to which involved members of the Canadian Space Agency and DND," he said.
But Shortt also complains that Canada has a tough time trying to get its satellites launched by India because it is sometimes bumped to the bottom of the list.
"It always becomes a matter of, if a higher-paying customer comes along, or a larger payload or whatever, there's a juggling that goes on and Canada isn't at the top of the priority list," Shortt said.
"When you start adding in things like the political playing field, non-proliferation agreements and this kind of stuff, you ... dwindle it down even further," he said.
Shortt adds that the whole episode — including the concern about Russia and Georgia, and fear of being demoted on India's priority list — illustrates why Canada should have its own launch capabilities.
A Canadian Forces official says the launch of SAPPHIRE has been delayed because the rocket's primary payload is not yet ready.
The delay might also stem from a more basic logistical snafu: one of the rockets India uses to launch commercial satellites went out of control and was lost in April 2010.
That's the factor cited by David Cooper — the chief executive of Microsat Systems Canada Inc., which won a $12-million contract to build NEOSSat.
He says the 2010 accident held up other launches by the commercial wing of the Indian Space Research Organization, because the space agency wanted to do a thorough investigation.
"Consequently, there was a long backlog of polar launches that got held up," Cooper said in an interview.
"It's a fact of life in the satellite business that these things happen (and) the price of losing a launch is huge in terms of the rocket and the payload.
MSCI was contracted to build NEOSSat for the Canadian Space Agency and Cooper says India was picked as its launcher because it offered the best price.
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