Politics

Next-generation missiles could hold leaders hostage in times of conflict: top general

Advances in missile technology by both the Russians and the Chinese have the potential to paralyze leaders and decision-makers in a crisis, Canada's top military commander warned in a speech Wednesday.

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

In this photo taken from undated footage distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, an intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a silo somewhere in Russia. Both Russia and China have begun to field advanced systems, including manoeuvrable cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles. (Russian Defence Ministry Press Service/AP)

Advances in missile technology by both the Russians and the Chinese have the potential to paralyze leaders and decision-makers in a crisis, Canada's top military commander warned in a speech Wednesday.

The remarks by Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, are among the most stark and forceful delivered to date about the urgency of re-imagining decades-old continental defence systems and arrangements.

The speech comes as the Liberal government begins to grapple with how to upgrade the aerospace warning systems at North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD). It's an expensive, multi-billion-dollar, multi-year proposition that was not funded as part of the country's defence strategy.

Both Russia and China have begun to field advanced systems, including manoeuvrable cruise missiles 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 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.

Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance delivers remarks at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence in Ottawa, on Wednesday. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

"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.

Rob Huebert, a defence expert at the University of Calgary, describes the new generation of missiles as "game changers" — weapons that have in some respects put military planners and political leaders in the same awkward place they were in when ballistic missiles first appeared over five decades ago.

Not 'fear mongering'

Back then, there was no defence against the intercontinental rockets.

Critics have argued hypersonic missiles are now a reality because successive U.S. administrations have pushed the development of ballistic missile defence systems.

Vance challenged his audience of defence and foreign policy officials and academics to take up the debate.

"I'm not talking about fear mongering. I'm not talking about sensationalism. I'm talking about honest and informed discussions about the world we're in," he said.

The Americans have yet to fully develop their own hypersonic missile capability, but the Pentagon said this week it intends to field the weapons across all branches, including the air force, navy, army and marines.

Gen. Jonathan Vance said Russia poses the most serious immediate military threat to the continent.   (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo/AP)

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington last month, Admiral Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, tried to reassure lawmakers that the U.S. will have adequate deterrence.  

"I am confident that this nation has the ability to produce the capabilities we have to have," he said.

In its 2021 budget, the Trump administration proposed spending $3.2 billion for hypersonic weapons — a 23 per cent increase over 2019.

Arctic needs attention, said Vance

In his speech Wednesday, Vance argued that the threats to both Canada and the U.S. are more complex than missiles.

"Defending North America isn't just about having the best point or area air defence.," he said.

"The Armed Forces must have the capacity to help maintain our resiliency as a nation and the right capabilities to maintain a credible deterrent posture." 

Vance cited the Arctic as one region that requires special attention.

"I am increasingly concerned about the Arctic as an avenue of approach" to North America, he said.

"This requires strengthening inter-agency and multi-national partnerships, increasing surveillance and military capabilities and improving our ability to base, project and sustain forces in the Arctic."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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