The Northern Watch project is to eventually install high-tech sensors to continuously monitor traffic at a crucial choke point through the strategic sea lane in all weather — both above and below the water surface.
Officials acknowledge Arctic conditions have put the project years behind schedule and tripled the original cost.
"We reapproved the project with a new baseline and we'll be going until 2015," said Gary Geling, director of science and technology at Defence Research and Development Canada.
"There were a number of early estimates made. Once we had the actual summer in 2008 at Gascoyne Inlet, we actually found out that we've significantly under-estimated what it is we're going to have to do to make this run."
When complete, Northern Watch is to use an array of listening and watching devices to spot who's sailing what through a narrow point on the Barrow Strait between Ellesmere and Devon islands through which all vessels transiting the passage have to go.
Those transits are increasing. Transport Canada says 15 tankers cruised the Northwest Passage in 2011.
One Northern Watch sensor array is to snake deep underwater 11 kilometres out to sea to listen for ships and submarines. It will use a pipe installed in the 1960s when Canada first considered listening devices in the region. Early underwater cables were destroyed by ice, so a pipe leading from shore was installed to protect them.
Other sensors are to track automatic broadcasts now mandatory on large ships and planes that identify a vessel and give some information on its cargo.
A radar intercept system is to detect navigational radar. A particularly precise, Canadian-designed radar is to spot small boats or icebergs.
Finally, an optical system is to use laser and infrared imagers to peer across the icy waters to the far shore in weather both fair and foggy. More open water in the passage as sea ice disappears is creating more fog on the Barrow Strait, said Geling.
"There's more open water now and we're trying to characterize the local effects."
A weather station is to complete the project.
Eventually, the devices will be left unmanned and are to beam data to an overhead satellite to be relayed to offices in Halifax. They are intended to work all year, 24 hours a day, and provide a level of detail on who's in the Arctic that is unmatched by other sources such as the Radarsat satellite.
"From space, it's going to be very hard to identify the name on the side of a ship," said Geling.
The Arctic has already offered a few surprises.
Winds in the area have turned out to be both higher and longer-lasting than expected. Plans for locating the sensors had to be changed when crews realized they couldn't safely get equipment up a hill.
That has both delayed the project and increased its costs. As well, government belt-tightening from 2008 to 2010 put the program behind.
Originally planned to be operational this summer, Northern Watch won't undergo its final tests until 2014. And its budget has bloomed from the original $6 million to a total of $18 million.
"When we looked at the overall costs, they did increase," Geling acknowledged.
Similar concerns have dogged other Arctic plans announced by the Harper government. A naval refueling facility at Nanisivik on the northern tip of Baffin Island was radically scaled back over budget concerns.
Critics have suggested Northern Watch has been made redundant by NORAD agreements that oblige Canada and the U.S. to share surveillance information.
But Geling said the U.S. isn't collecting the type of information Canada needs.
"Northern Watch is focused on the Canadian problem, this entry point. The U.S. has other operational concerns. They're not as concerned about what happens inside Canadian waters."
A team from Defence Research and Development Canada is to be at Gascoyne Inlet this August.