North

Senior officer warns NORAD can't detect Russian bombers in time, needs upgrades

The aging early-warning system charged with detecting incoming threats to North America cannot identify and track long-range Russian bombers before they are close enough to launch missiles at the continent, according to a senior Canadian military officer.

Commodore Jamie Clarke, deputy director NORAD, revealed the system's shortcoming Wednesday

A senior Canadian officer warns that NORAD's reliance on 1980s technology is a risk. (Heather Howard/Associated Press)

The aging early-warning system charged with detecting incoming threats to North America cannot identify and track long-range Russian bombers before they are close enough to launch missiles at the continent, according to a senior Canadian military officer.

Commodore Jamie Clarke, deputy director of strategy at the North American Aerospace Defence Command, revealed the system's shortcoming in an address on Wednesday as he pressed on the need to upgrade NORAD to face a growing array of modern threats.

Those include everything from incoming ballistic missiles and bombers, which NORAD was created to spot, as well as cruise and hypersonic missiles, drones, submarines and other naval vessels as well as space-based and cyber weapons.

Clarke became the latest in a line of Canadian and American military officers to warn that the technology underpinning NORAD, including a chain of 1980s-era radars in Canada's Arctic called the North Warning System, is becoming obsolete.

"Currently, the North Warning System cannot identify and track Russian long-range bombers prior to their missile-launch points or their overflights of the Arctic region," he said during a conference on the future of NORAD hosted by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

"Yet this system, entering its fourth decade of service, is the system we rely on each and every day."

Mostly 1980s technology

Created in the 1950s in response to the threat of a Soviet attack by bombers or ballistic missiles over the Arctic, NORAD is unique in the world as a joint operation between the U.S. and Canada.

Its technology was last upgraded in the 1980s, before the end of the Cold War, though the U.S. did incorporate the ability to shoot down incoming missiles in the mid-2000s. Canada famously decided in 2005 against joining what is now known as ballistic-missile defence.

The Liberal government's 2017 defence policy included plans to upgrade or modernize NORAD to defend against the threats of today and tomorrow, but offered few specific details because discussions with the U.S. had not started in earnest.

Three years later, it's difficult to say what progress has been made. The U.S. and Canadian governments have held consultations with industry, Clarke said when asked when NORAD modernization will happen. But he could not offer a schedule for moving on the project, saying: "It's longer than any of us would like, but I can't even give you a timeline."

And he suggested that as long as Canada and the U.S. remain behind the curve, it leaves the continent vulnerable.

"We cannot deter what we cannot defeat and we cannot defeat what we cannot detect," he said. "We have to recognize that we are not just trying to prevent a military attack, but in fact we are defending our entire way of life."

Unclear how Canada could pay

Even if discussions were further ahead, it remains unclear how Canada will pay for its portion of the new system as the Liberal defence policy did not set aside money for upgrading NORAD. The government at the time blamed the many questions around its design and schedule.

Some analysts have worried that the government will dip into the tens of billions of dollars earmarked in the defence policy for new warships, fighter jets and other equipment.

The Department of National Defence's top civil servant, deputy minister Jody Thomas, told the conference during a roundtable discussion that "whatever funding we're envisioning for NORAD modernization is new money" and not taken from other defence procurement projects.

"I don't think we should presume that we are going to do more with the same," she added. "That's been the history of the department, and we can't possibly do that. Not with the amount of money that is required for (the defence policy) and the money that is required for NORAD."

Many defence analysts, industry representatives and others speaking during Wednesday's conference lamented what they saw as apathy by decision-makers — and citizens — in Canada and the U.S. when it came to what they saw as the biggest threat to North America.

"It is in my view the No. 1 defence priority for Canada as well as the United States, and that is homeland defence," said James Fergusson, director of the University of Manitoba's Centre for Defence and Security Studies and a leading expert on NORAD.

"Unfortunately, in the world of politics in Canada, particularly with a minority government right now, everyone will tell you this is really not on their radar at all. They are going to be obsessed for the next several years with domestic and internal policy priorities."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2020.

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