So Will the Canadian Government Put Some Big Bucks into Modernizing NORAD’s North Warning System?

Further to this post,

US Air Force not Exactly Highlighting Cooperation with RCAF in NORAD

two very senior Canadian officers just drew attention to the NORAD issue at the CDA Institute’s Annual Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence. What will Justin Trudeau’s government do? The generals must feel fairly frustrated to go so public:

Top Canadian general calls out Russia and China for ‘antagonistic actions’

The head of the Canadian military called out Russia and China on Wednesday [Feb. 4] for their “antagonistic actions” even as he revealed that work has begun on identifying the scope and price of upgrading North America’s defences, including the North American Aerospace Defence Command [text of his speech here].

Chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance would not provide a timeline or other details on upgrading Norad, but said they have to happen “relatively quickly” as the threat posed by Russia, China and others continues to grow.

Russia and China figured prominently during the first of an annual two-day defence conference organized by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, in which numerous Canadian and allied military officers spoke before Vance provided the keynote speech.

…traditional military threats from Russia and others continue to not only exist but evolve, such as the development of new long-range, non-nuclear missiles that are difficult to detect [new cruise missiles, see the quote from the NORAD commander at the end of this post, and also hypersonics, see second “Comment”]. Hence the need to upgrade Norad.

The Norad system was originally built in the 1950s to spot Soviet nuclear missiles. The system was last upgraded in the 1980s, and officials have warned it cannot detect the new, long-range Russian weapons.

The Liberal government’s 2017 defence policy included plans to modernize Norad to defend against the threats of today and tomorrow [see after this quote], but talks with the U.S. have so far been minimal and no money has been set aside for what is expected to be a multibillion-dollar project…

Hours before Vance took to the stage, the Canadian deputy commander of Norad joined a growing chorus calling for the modernization of North American defensive systems even as he described Russia as the “greatest short-term threat” to the continent.

Lt.-Gen. Christopher Coates said a military attack by Russia is not likely in the immediate future, but it has been racing to develop a variety of non-nuclear weapons and find gaps in North America’s ability to defend against cyber, information and economic attacks.

Coates suggested Canada and the U.S. “kept our eye off the ball for a while” by not taking the threat posed by Russia seriously. The implication is that North America is now playing catch up.

While it will ultimately be up to the government to decide what Norad looks like in the future — and how much it will cost to get there — Coates said an update is required and that will cost money and effort [emphasis added].

“I think all Canadians should recognize the importance that that partnership brings to our defence and security and that we need to put a value on it,” he said.

“Of course, it’s not a blank cheque … But there’s something that’s required. There’s some level of modernization that I think would be necessary to ensure Norad does remain relevant, that we cause Russia and others, perhaps, to view North America as not a soft target.”

This is what the government’s 2017 policy paper, “Strong, Secure, Engaged” says about NORAD’s North Warning System (pp. 79-80 PDF):

Canada’s contributions to regional Arctic security form a core part of the Canada-United States defence relationship. Nowhere is this more apparent than in joint efforts to renew the North Warning System (NWS) and modernize elements of NORAD. As the security dynamics in the Arctic evolve, Canada and the United States will continue to work side by side to secure our shared northern air and maritime approaches…



109. Collaborate with the United States on the devel-opment of new technologies to improve Arctic surveillance and control, including the renewal of the North Warning System…

So when will serious negotiations with the US start? How much will the government be willing to commit? Consider this:

Defence expert slams Ottawa for ignoring North Warning System upgrade

Federal government hasn’t budgeted for NWS modernization, professor says

In a scathing article published on Jan. 14, James Fergusson, a defence expert, says the federal government is dodging the need to replace the aging North Warning System, which is near the end of its lifespan.

“A failure on Canada’s part to move forward relatively quickly could prove disastrous,” said Fergusson, the deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba [see here].

He made his remarks in a commentary published by the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a think tank [text here]

Fergusson said replacing the NWS is likely to cost roughly $11 billion, based on an unofficial estimate he’s seen.

That means, based on the current formula, that Canada’s share of the bill could amount to about $4.4 billion.

But at the same time, it appears as if the Department of National Defence has not provided for the replacement of the NWS in its spending plans for the future.

A DND document called the Defence Investment Plan lists projects like the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships project and the troubled plan to replace Canada’s fleet of F-18 fighter jets.

But it contains no reference to the North Warning System.

“The government has apparently not budgeted for NWS modernization in either its 20-year Defence Investment Plan released in 2018 or the 2019 Update of the Defence Investment Plan,” Fergusson wrote.

“Yet NWS modernization is arguably the most immediate and pressing defence requirement for North American defence, and its final costs are likely to blow a hole in the investment plan.”..

Hmm. What must the US government think about our seriousness? Consider what the US Air Force general commanding NORAD recently said to the Senate Armed Services Committee:

Norad commander says Canada, U.S. have lost Arctic military advantage over Russia

The head of the North American Aerospace Defence Command underscored the need to modernize the aging early-warning system Thursday [Feb. 13], while cautioning that the United States and Canada have lost their long-standing military advantage in the Arctic to Russia [text of his testimony here].

…U.S. Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy said Russia has been steadily expanding its military presence in the North by upgrading its long-range bombers and developing new warships capable of carrying cruise missiles.

Those weapons as well as new land-based cruise missile launchers inside Russian territory pose a new and direct threat to North America because of their range and ability to operate in the Arctic [emphasis added], the Norad commander said, representing a significant change from previous decades.

“The Arctic is no longer a fortress wall and our oceans are no longer protective moats, they are now avenues of approach for advanced conventional weapons and the platforms that carry them,” O’Shaughnessy said…

It certainly seems our generals our singing from the same hymn book. Our government?

UPDATE: See first comment on what the government may actually be up to.

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

17 thoughts on “So Will the Canadian Government Put Some Big Bucks into Modernizing NORAD’s North Warning System?”

  1. Note this about the Deputy Minister of National Defence (top public servant) and CDS Gen. Vance by Prof. Steve Saideman of Carleton University–one hopes he’s right about what the government may be doing:

    “Ottawa Conference on Defence and Security, Day 1

    …we started with an address by the Deputy Minister–Jody Thomas. She was replacing the Minister of Defence who could not make it. Thomas often has interesting things to say, but, in this capacity, it was a fairly standard intro speech with only one notable aspect–emphasis on spending more on modernization North American defence–referring to the warning systems and such in the north, essentially. She indicated that this was in the Strong Secure Engaged defence policy review document–vaguely so, maybe, but definitely not a major commitment that had been costed out–which makes it distinct from the rest of the issues in the document…

    Chief of Defence Staff Jon Vance…always gives one of the more dynamic and engaging talks at these things. There was not too much that was notable except again a reference to North American modernization that makes clear that this is a major priority–not just an entry into the Mandate letter–but a key focal point. This seems to be part of a larger effort to get this town ready for a major spending commitment. I noted at the CGAI conference a few weeks ago that the government was focusing on this, and it was even clearer yesterday…”

    See this story (with video) on the CGAI conference Prof. Saideman mentions:

    “Aging Norad warning system can’t detect Russian bombers in time, Canadian officer warns”

    Mark Collins


  2. From a CBC story, note hypersonics:

    Both Russia and China have begun to field advanced systems, including manoeuvrable cruise missiles [all are “manoeuvrable”] and, more importantly, hypersonic missiles and glide vehicles which could deliver large conventional warheads anywhere in the world within minutes.

    Vance said Russia poses the most serious immediate military threat to the continent.

    Hypersonic missiles {Gen. Vance did not mention them specifically] can travel at several times the speed of sound and there is no technology currently available that could intercept them.

    “We’re facing new, more advanced conventional missiles that can be launched from further away, travel faster and are more manoeuvrable,” Vance told the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence.

    “More importantly, they have the potential to hold North American decision-making hostage in a period of conflict, let alone threaten our force generation capacity and critical infrastructure. Even a modest attack could hamper or cripple Canadian response to crisis — or harm Canadians or critical infrastructure.”

    Addressing these challenges requires improved capabilities for surveillance and command and control, he added.

    Last summer, CBC News reported that both Canadian and U.S. military leaders had sketched out and settled on the capabilities a revamped NORAD would need.

    Vance said Wednesday there would be more public discussion later this year and that they have begun the work to identify and determine the “scope and cost” of the modernization…”

    Lots more on hypesonics at these posts:

    Mark Collins


  3. It it striking that while Gen. Vance highlighted this threat in his speech

    North America is no longer dealing with the threat of ballistic missiles alone. We’re facing more advanced conventional missiles that can be launched from further away, travel faster, and are more manoeuvrable…”

    he made no mention any Royal Canadian Navy ASW role in countering the growing threat from Russian submarines in the Atlantic and their cruise missiles (SLCMs), a threat the US has been publicly raising for some time, e.g. the quote from the NORAD commander at the post above, and see this recent post and the “Comments”:

    “US Navy’s Revived 2nd Fleet Revving-up for Another Possible Battle of the Atlantic, with the Russian Navy’s Subs”
    Mark Collins


  4. Given the selection of the Lockheed Martin SPY-7 radar for the Canadian Surface Combatant could this be an opportunity to use the same platform as the core of a new and improved Northern radar line?

    With the Japanese already following that path and the US trialing it in Hawaii as per this could provide improved technology while leveraging the RCN investment.


  5. This tweet from NORAD would seem to suggest the need for Canada to act on the North Warning System:

    Mark Collins


  6. Plus from the estimable Prof. Andrea Charron of the University of Manitoba, one of our leading academics on NORAD matters:

    “Face to Face: Is the North Warning System obsolete?
    January 2, 2020

    Andrea Charron says “Yes”
    ANDREA CHARRON is associate professor and director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.

    The North Warning System (NWS) is a series of ground-based, unmanned (but contractor-maintained), short- and long-range radar stations arrayed from Alaska to Greenland.

    The system has always suffered from an identity crisis. Its ability to provide adequate warning—restricted to the air domain only—has long been an issue. And its 1980s-era communications system is modest. It remains, however, Norad’s main early-warning radar system for the air defence of North America.

    It is now inadequate, given its location, growing geopolitical tensions, new technologies and multi-domain threats, not to mention environmental concerns. The system’s capability must be reimagined. What new combination of systems and capabilities it should have, however, is a political and operational quandary.

    The world is in the midst of a redistribution of geostrategic power that is not in Canada’s favour. Emboldened states—Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, India, Brazil—are resorting to power politics to challenge the long-held, rules-based, United States-led order. The potential for conflict and confrontation is growing and the risk of miscalculation is rising.

    The Western alliance certainly needs to shoulder some of the responsibility, especially for its lack of attention to credible and persistent deterrence. There has never been a greater need to be able to warn of aggressive action as early as possible, but the NWS is simply not designed for such a task.

    We are also witnessing rapid development in technology. The NWS, designed as a tripwire to warn of Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-95 (Bear) bombers travelling at a specific speed and altitude, is not suited to detect drones or hypersonic weapons travelling at various speeds and altitudes. The 1980s architecture leaves the system vulnerable to new methods of data exploitation and too old for parts to be easily accessed.

    There is an opportunity here for a reimagined system, for thinking beyond simply “defence” threats. A new NWS could be multifunctional, supporting other departments and agencies, addressing security challenges, monitoring environmental change and aiding in safety scenarios.

    Canada must be able to detect, deter and defend against threats emanating from all domains: air, space, land, maritime and cyber. And from more than just a north-south axis. Currently, the NWS is a passive defensive tool that lacks the range to identify, track and, most problematic, do anything to counter unconventional threats. It does not “see” as far as the Canadian Air Defence Identification Zone, which leaves Canada and the U.S. unable to monitor air traffic adequately and blind to unorthodox or non-state threats.

    Finally, the system, whether replaced or not, is an environmental challenge. Arctic weather contributes to metal fatigue, which causes the radar sites to erode and possibly leach toxic chemicals into the ground and atmosphere. With a reimagined NWS combining space, land and cyber systems, Canada would demonstrate responsible stewardship, involve local communities, fulfil its Norad commitments and advance its radar and communication technology. All of this would contribute to situational awareness, show that Canada has command and control over its northern reaches and improve the protection of North America.”

    Mark Collins


  7. And a tweet from Prof. Charron:

    Mark Collins


  8. So how much more is Canada going to have to spend as defence against help? Which we certainly should be paying if we have real self-respect:

    Mark Collins


  9. More from Prof. Charron:

    And see the start of this post for Canada’s need to spend as “defence against help”:

    “Australia Reacts to Worsening Strategic Position in Western Pacific–Plans major Defence Spending Boost and big Equipment Capability Upgrades”

    Mark Collins


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