As It Happens·Q&A

Defence minister cites Russian aggression as factor in $5B upgrade to continental defence

Defence Minister Anita Anand says the “threat environment” has changed in Canada, and so, too, much the country’s defence capabilities.

Anita Anand says Canada must ramp up defence in face of changing ‘threat environment’

National Defence Minister Anita Anand announced on Monday that the federal government will spend $4.9 billion to modernize NORAD, the continental defence system Canada operates with the U.S. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Story Transcript

Defence Minister Anita Anand says the "threat environment" has changed in Canada, and so, too, much the country's defence capabilities.

Anand announced on Monday that Canada will spend $4.9 billion over the next six years to modernize the decades-old continental defence system that Canada operates alongside the United States through the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).

A major part of this overhaul will include replacing the current North Warning System —  a chain of radar stations in the North — with the more sophisticated Northern Surveillance System.

The aging infrastructure was originally designed to watch out for Soviet bombers. The Liberal government first announced plans to update it in the 2021 federal budget.

Anand spoke to As It Happens guest host Tom Harrington about the announcement. Here is part of their conversation.

Minister Anand, you've pledged billions today for this upgrade to NORAD. What threat are we dealing with here? 

As autocracies like Russia threaten the rules-based international order that has protected us for decades, as our climate changes and as our competitors develop new technologies like hypersonic weapons and advanced cruise missiles, there is a pressing need to modernize Canada's NORAD capabilities. 

The radar system, as it is now, hasn't been upgraded in decades. And even your own military leaders say it's no longer adequate. Why is this happening now as opposed to five, 10 years ago? 

So the announcement today is really the unwritten chapter of our defence policy of 2017. It is based on an understanding of the current threat environment. It is based on an understanding that we need to engage with Indigenous and northern communities in modernizing NORAD. It is based on an understanding that the threat environment has changed and we need to ensure the Canadian Armed Forces are equipped to respond in the correct manner. 

WATCH | Security experts weigh in on NORAD overhaul:

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Canada's steps to modernize the continental missile defence system is a positive move but there still appear to be gaps in the security plan, says Rob Huebert, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

As you said, military technology is always evolving. Yet for many, it feels like Canada's always playing catch-up. Why is that? 

Actually, the thrust of the announcement today is that we will be two steps ahead rather than behind. 

We are investing in technologies across the board relating to detection, relating to decision-making, relating to defensive capabilities, relating to science and technology, and really funding research and development as well. 

There are well-documented cases … in [the Department of National Defence] about procurement, whether it's, you know, submarines, fighter jets, that sort of thing. How do you ensure that this project doesn't get bogged down with procuring the things that are needed? 

We need to make sure that procurement processes are efficient and effective. But I want to say at the same time that this is a 20-year plan that will deliver new capabilities to keep Canadians safe for decades. Many capabilities that I have announced will come online in a much shorter period of time. For example, the air-to-air missiles that will be compatible with our future fighters. 

I'm going to work very closely with Minister [Filomena] Tassi at Public Services and Procurement to ensure the timely delivery of these procurements. And we will hire new procurement specialists to ensure that these new capabilities are delivered on time and on budget. 

I want to also highlight that in Budget 2021, we allocated specific NORAD [research and development] funding, and this funding is going to allow us to better understand the technical requirements needed to deliver these capabilities and to de-risk our procurements in the way that you mentioned. 

Over the years, Washington has made it pretty clear they think Canada needs to spend more on defence. And we've even been called a freeloader, I believe, by some American politicians. How do you answer that charge? 

I have had many conversations with my counterpart, [U.S.] Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, over the last few weeks, internationally. And I visited Washington in April to discuss these issues with him directly. 

The reality is, as I've discussed with him, we are on an upward trajectory in our defence spending since 2017. We are increasing defence spending by 70 per cent. In Budget 2022, we announced an additional $8 billion in new defence spending. And today we've announced a robust package funded over 20 years to modernize NORAD at an amount of approximately $40 billion. We have the sixth largest defence budget of all NATO countries. And we will continue to be on a very steep upward trajectory in terms of our defence spending. 

Canadian military members arrive at 5 Wing Goose Bay in Labrador on March 11, 2022, for Operation Noble Defender, a NORAD air training operation. (Ken Jacobson/NORAD)

Canada, also, though, continues to be criticized by allies for not meeting NATO's benchmark for national defence spending [of two per cent of Gross Domestic Product] by member nations. It's not a requirement, but it's the expectation. How can we consider ourselves full partners in NATO if we cannot meet the minimum defence spending they ask?

I just returned from NATO — the defence ministers' meeting there, in fact — and had numerous conversations about Canada's meaningful contributions to NATO, including leading the … battlegroup in Latvia and being recognized as an international leader in that respect, especially in terms of the protection of NATO's eastern flank. 

[You said] you are committing to keeping Canadians safe, but we have a system which you have to remake. So how do Canadians feel safe while that process is happening? 

It's a fair question. The North Warning System is the system that has been in place for decades. And what we understand is that we need to maintain the North Warning System and keep it operable while we are bringing online the new Northern Surveillance System that we will put in place as a replacement.

There are going to be Canadians who will say, "You know what? I'm dealing with high prices for gas and for food and inflation and other issues in my day-to-day life. Why are we spending this kind of money on a system I can't even see? And no one's fired a rocket at us in 50 years —  or ever. So why are we spending so much money?" … So what do you say to those who think we really can't afford to spend this kind of money on NORAD? 

There are two points. The first point is that our plan to modernize NORAD will support Canada's economic vitality [with] tens of thousands of Canadian jobs adding billions to our GDP per year. The reality is that in the building of infrastructure, in the awarding of contracts relating to detection and surveillance, there will be the need for Canadian input, and Indigenous input, to the efficacy and the fulfilment of these contracts. So Canadians are going to see tangible results from the investments in defence and security. 

And the second point is that on Feb. 24 of this year, the world changed, and the threat environment changed as well. The military threat posed by aggressors, including Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the climate change threat, the economic threat and the need to ensure our Arctic sovereignty all create a threat environment that requires us to respond with modernized command and control system [and] modernized detection systems. And that requires the investments in NORAD that I announced today.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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