OPERATION NEVUS MAINTAINS THE CONNECTION WITH CANADA'S MOST NORTHERLY STATION : CFS ALERT
By Beth Brown
Each year, just when summer is starting to look like an option in most of Canada, a team of forces personnel head as far north as they possibly can — short of going all the way to the pole.
Operation NEVUS takes place annually in and around Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert, located on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, 817 kilometres from the geographic North Pole. The month-long operation provides essential preventive and corrective maintenance to the High Arctic Data Communications System (HADCS).
The autonomous system provides secure communication between CFS Alert and Ottawa. It was built in 1982 because Alert is too far North to link to communications satellites orbiting over the Equator. The system enables standard communications and broadband capability, because the world doesn’t work without Internet or cell reception these days, but logistically it’s very complicated to provide those services at 82 degrees latitude.
CFS Alert was initially established in 1950 as a weather station, a service now under the jurisdiction of Environment Canada. It is named for the British ship HMS Alert, which overwintered in 1875 in a small bay some 10 kilometres east of where Alert is today. The station’s Inuktitut motto is “Inuit Nunangata Ungata,” meaning “Beyond the Inuit land.” The motto shows how, historically, not even the native peoples are known to have lived so far north. Currently, the closest Inuit settlement is Grise Fjord, located about 725 kilometres to the south of CFS Alert.
Yves Gauthier, technical lead for Operation NEVUS, responded via email from his remote location. He called the HADCS the “information highway of northern Ellesmere Island.” The system is used in support of all Canadian Armed Forces northern operations, like Operations NANOOK and QIMMIQ, as well as for communications with the bi-national defence organization North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), and thus contributes to continental defence. While on operation, all secure data is encrypted.
The HADCS is used in search and rescue missions by detecting and locating radio signals from distressed vessels and aircraft. Not only does it provide communications to the CAF, DND, Environment Canada and NAV Canada while they work at CFS Alert and Eureka, but the system also allows military members to keep in touch with their families at home.
HADCS is comprised in part by six unmanned and remote operated line-of-sight microwave repeaters, linking the nearly 500-kilometre stretch between CFS Alert and the Eureka research station on Ellesmere Island. They are essentially “in the middle of nowhere,” says Gauthier.
The sites — each with names for the phonetic alphabet, like Whiskey, Yankee, Victor — feature two massive satellite dishes, fixed to a base very akin to scaffolding. The sites operate off of generator power in the dark of winter and solar power during the summer, when daylight is virtually 24 hours a day. Two C-band satellite links connect Eureka to Ottawa. Gauthier says equipment used on the system has to meet stringent reliability, temperature and low power consumption tests. Even after that, redundancies are built in to the system so it can be trusted year-round.
Op NEVUS maintenance can technically be done throughout the year, but the primary repairs and upkeep always happen in June, since flying to service a failing link in February, when it’s not only minus 50 degrees but also pitch black, isn’t on any technician’s bucket list.
Operation NEVUS fits into a series of sovereignty operations conducted by Joint Task Force North in the High Arctic annually. During NEVUS, technicians travel between CFS Alert and Fort Eureka by helicopter. Major Meagan McGrath, Commanding Officer for the Op NEVUS 2016 Task Force, says, “The North being such a big area, that’s one of the best ways to move people quickly and efficiently to their work site.” The terrain around Alert and Eureka is also full of hills and valleys, so moving across it is challenging. Rotary wing aircraft are used to access the microwave repeaters and fixed wing to deliver technicians to the terminal satellite sites.
The extensive air component included three CH-146 Griffons, a CC-130J Hercules, CC-177 Globemaster, CH-147 Chinook, and one CC-138 Twin Otter. While the operation falls under Canadian Joint Operations Command and Joint Task Force North, CFS Alert is considered a unit under 8 Wing Trenton.
The name NEVUS might not sound familiar, but it’s not a new project. The annual maintenance operation has been mandated since the HADC system was built, but was previously known as Operation HURRICANE. The title was changed to NEMESIS in 2009 to match its northern operational counterparts, like NANOOK, NUNALIVUT, NUNAKPUT, and later to its current title, NEVUS.
McGrath says the mission exceeded its primary objectives, and was even able to complete boundaries surveying around CFS Alert and Fort Eureka. “We flew around and looked at old sites and were able to do some environmental reconnaissance.”
The teams also performed maintenance to infrastructure at Eureka. “It’s a corrective and preventative maintenance effort not only for the High Arctic Data Communications System, but secondary to that is just to ensure that the facilities to get people to those sites are in place as well.” While Alert is manned year-round, Fort Eureka is only used for about three months while military members are there to provide maintenance to the communications system. So, a little extra attention after a polar winter is usually in order. “The conditions on the Arctic definitely do make it necessary to do maintenance each year,” says McGrath. Also, in the Arctic, just setting up for the operation is a lengthy process. “You want to make sure it is properly opened and properly closed so that the camp will have that longevity.”
This year’s operation had “clear skies and relatively warm temperatures,” says McGrath. Even up to 13 degrees, which is impressive for CFS Alert in the spring, since the station only gets around 28 frost-free days each year.