01/17/2012 01:19 EST | Updated 03/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Joint military satellite agreement signed by Canada

Canada is joining the U.S. and Australia in a 10-satellite project to provide secure communications for the Canadian Forces, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Tuesday.

MacKay and Associate Minister of Defence Julian Fantino made the announcement in Ottawa as officials were due to sign the memorandum of understanding in Washington, D.C.

In the past, Canada has used commercial satellite systems, MacKay said. Buying into the existing wideband global communications system will give the Canadian Forces "rapid and secure frequencies used exclusively for government communications," he said.

Canada will have access to the satellite system right away.

"Satellites enable military to rapidly communicate with military personnel, with our allies around the globe. They also allow us to forecast weather, better protect civilian life through the targeted strikes, control uninhabited aerial vehicles, and give real-time analysis of events as they are unfolding on the battlefield," MacKay said.

"Rapid and secure satellite communications between our headquarters and between deployed forces are now a crucial part of mission success."

The Mercury Global project started in 2007.

Canada is putting $337.3 million into the project, which will go toward building the ninth satellite in the system. A 10th satellite is also coming, with the entire constellation scheduled to be in operation in 2017.

Fantino said Boeing, the company that builds the satellites, is obliged to return $240 million in industrial regional benefits to Canada, meaning Boeing will invest $240 million in the Canadian economy.

NDP and Liberal MPs had criticized plans to buy into the satellite program while the government was still negotiating the deal. The opposition MPs said the process was secretive and that it was too much money to spend when so many Canadians are struggling financially.

Paul Meyer, a former Canadian diplomat with expertise in international security, says the requirement for secure and capable satellite communication isn't surprising.

"With increasing sophistication of military uses, you have demands for greater bandwidth, more data to be transmitted … and the importance, of course, it be over a secure channel," Meyer said.

But he warns satellite systems often have cost overruns, which have been a chronic problem with the U.S. military. Depending on the agreement, "the sort of things you want to avoid is not meeting your deadlines or cost overruns," Meyer said.