Last year I wrote about the Bond Villain Lair – the BVL, or “Minister’s Regional Office” as its cover name goes – that the federal government spent $826,926.40 installing in the Hougen Centre. Officially, it is supposed to be a secure location for ministers to be briefed during their visits to the territorial capital, safe from both Chinese spies and (more importantly) eavesdropping by local federal officials in the Elijah Smith Building across the street.
It turns out that the BVL was just one aspect of a broader top-secret federal plan. Yukonomist sources (well, the Canadian Press actually) inform me that a secret Canadian military program is trying to develop stealth snowmobiles.
You can see how it all fits together. Having a safe house is no good if Chinese spies, al-Qaida terrorists and Canadian voters can accost a minister who is waiting for the elevator in the lobby of the Hougen’s Centre. After a secret tunnel to a snowmobile parkade under Arts Underground is constructed, ministers will be able to ride Canadian Army stealth snowmobiles to and from their safe house.
Not only will they not take questions from the press, but we won’t even hear them coming (although the big air force plane parked at the airport would still be a giveaway).
There was much mirth in the global press about the Canadian government spending $620,000 on stealth hybrid-electric snowmobile research. The Daily Mail and Fox News both picked up the story. It fits nicely with their “pesky beavers flood Canadian maple syrup factory” style of journalism.
Silence can be deadly, as they say. Finnish army commandos known as “Sissi” (it sounds better in Finnish) wreaked havoc on columns of snow-bound Russian infantry during the Winter War using their silent snow-travel technology: the ski. The British Special Boat Service used kayaks to paddle up rivers and plant bombs on German ships prior to D-Day.
Skiing and paddling are passe, however, as any James Bond film suggests. The Americans have low-noise helicopters to sneak up on Chinese tanks at night and drop off commandos in the Afghan hills. By the time of the Falklands War, the Special Boat Service had apparently switched from kayaks to low-noise Zodiacs.
However, you really have to try hard to come up with scenarios where stealth snowmobiles would make a big difference.
I mean military scenarios. The technology would be great for Yukon hunters vexed by the fact that our bison have learned that the throaty roar of a two-stroke engine means it is a good time to get scarce. Whitehorse greenbelt dwellers would be happy if the people sledding on the “no motorized vehicles” trails behind their houses were using silent snowmobiles. And Whitehorse’s nocturnal snowmobile thieves would find sled stealing much less stressful. They could ride silently away with their prize instead of starting the beast noisily and risking the owner appearing on the back porch wearing nothing but a bathrobe and a .30-06.
Try to think of a threat scenario where the Canadian army would require stealth snowmobiles. Russian Spetsnaz special forces who have somehow ridden their own stealth snowmobiles across the North Pole and are massing on the outskirts of an unsuspecting Old Crow? A Danish patrol building a permanent wall-tent platform on disputed Hans Island? Columbian drug runners pulling 50 kilos of coke in a skimmer behind a noisy Skandic, looking for an easy way into Canada?
The first problem is that our military is hardly present in the North, other than the Rangers. Are more than five regular soldiers based year-round in the Yukon? Even if Canada had stealth snowmobiles, noisy old Hercules transports or the army’s geriatric helicopters would have to get them near the bad guys.
Then Canadian military researchers would have to create batteries that were light and powerful enough to rival the two-stroke engine. Most of my sled trips end up with me trying to get my sled out of some powder hole. Adding a few hundred pounds of batteries, even if they work well at 40 below, won’t help.
Then there’s recharging them. Do we sneak up on the bad guys, then start our diesel generator to recharge our hybrid-electric sleds? There aren’t many plug-ins on Ellesmere Island.
Of course, the army hasn’t released all its confidential files. Maybe the technology is cheap and highly promising. Maybe they know of threat scenarios we don’t.
But the episode smacks of careless use of scarce government money. It makes you think that all you have to do is say “Arctic sovereignty” in Ottawa and people will let you spend tax dollars on whatever happens to be written on the brainstorming white board that day.
And as Ottawa spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on stealth snowmobile research, spare a thought for our under-funded northern search-and-rescue service. In 2011, for example, an incredibly brave search-and-rescue technician died rescuing two Canadians near Igloolik. He floated for five hours in the frigid Arctic Ocean waiting for one of our few rescue helicopters to reach him from its base in faraway Newfoundland.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Twitter@hallidaykeith