With Canada under increased scrutiny about its defence spending in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ottawa’s plans to replace outdated radar systems in the north have taken on a new sense of urgency.
Defence Minister Anita Anand has said she will present a “robust package” of reforms to modernize the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in a joint effort with the United States.
A major component is expected to be the replacement of the North Warning System — a line of dozens of radar stations scattered throughout Canada’s North that was completed in the 1980s and is long overdue for updating.
“Those radars are not only out of date, but they’re not going to be able to deal with the threat environment that’s emerged over the past five to 10 years,” said James Fergusson, deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.
As the government looks at increasing its defence spending ahead of next week’s federal budget, “the only thing sitting out there unfunded in policy is NORAD (modernization), so that’s the obvious place where the money will go, or should go,” Fergusson said.
The system of ground-based radar stations designed to detect Russian bomber aircraft approaching Canadian territory will have to be completely revamped to detect modern threats, including longer-range and faster, manoeuvrable missiles that could pass through the Arctic, experts say.
That would almost certainly include not just new physical stations with new technology, but air-based, sea-based and space-based tracking capabilities as well, experts say.
The price of the upgrade could be anywhere from $10 to $20 billion or more, experts say, although the U.S. would shoulder part of the costs.
“We really do need to think about North American defence in a different way than we have for at least a generation or two,” said Whitney Lackenbauer, Canada research chair in the study of the Canadian North at Trent University.
“Certainly Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine has brought this to the fore, and Russia still represents a very significant threat, probably the most acute short-term threat.”
But Lackenbauer said China — which has shown recent significant interest in the Arctic — has also been showcasing “very advanced systems that quite frankly we don’t have the ability to detect, never mind defeat at this stage,” which makes NORAD modernization all the more important.
Replacing the North Warning System was in Anand’s mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last December, along with other NORAD modernization measures.
Her predecessor, Harjit Sajjan, and U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin committed last August to modernization, including an agreement for a “system-of-systems approach” for tracking threats, which would include sensors from the sea floor to space.
“Canada and the United States share a desire to co-ordinate in fielding new capabilities to complement and eventually replace the North Warning System with more advanced technological solutions as soon as possible,” their joint statement said.
The replacement “is overdue … and should already be well underway,” said David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, noting that such a project could take one to two decades.
When some missiles can be launched from great distances, or from ships and submarines, “you need a system that can basically be able to tell us if there’s a problem from any one of those modern threats, whereas the existing system was built to provide us the information against a specific missile threat delivered by Russian bomber aircraft,” Perry said.
There remains debate among experts about whether there’s a military-style security risk to the Canadian Arctic itself, or if the threat is from another country’s missiles passing through the Arctic. Anand has said she believes the threat of an invasion in the North to be low, but that Canada needs to be prepared for any scenario.
Lackenbauer said security threats to the Arctic itself would be more related to climate change, while military threats would be “for the most part … targeting the North American heartland, and the greatest likelihood is that it’s adversaries who would want to intimidate us and limit our ability to intervene elsewhere in the world.”
Perry argues that the current geopolitical situation means an attack on the Arctic can’t be ruled out. “I would agree there’s a threat to the Arctic,” he said.
“I think we’ve ruled out all kinds of things that Russia would do in Ukraine that we should not have ruled out.”
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