The Canadian government has pledged $4.9-billion over six years to help upgrade North America’s air defences, addressing the growing threat posed by hypersonic missiles and advanced cruise missile technology developed by Russia and China.
The money is part of a modest boost in military spending announced in the April budget. Ottawa is not spelling out how exactly – or how quickly – those funds will be rolled out, or whether Canada will continue to increase its defence spending in order to meet minimum thresholds agreed upon by NATO members.
Defence Minister Anita Anand announced the investment at Canadian Forces Base Trenton on Monday, offering a first glimpse of how Canada and the United States plan to modernize the North American Aerospace Defence Command and replace its soon-to-be-obsolete North Warning System. This aging U.S. and Canadian radar setup includes dozens of sites from Yukon to Labrador. Its job is to detect airborne threats, originally long-range bombers and ICBMs.
The risk that Canada and the U.S. have in mind is missile-technology advancements in Russia and China that can send non-nuclear warheads far greater distances with far more accuracy than older missile types. These new threats include hypersonic missiles, which travel extremely fast and can dodge and weave during flight to avoid interception, as well as next-generation cruise missiles that can travel close to the ground.
Defence experts told The Globe and Mail the spending commitment, nine days before a NATO Leaders’ Summit in Madrid, seems to be an effort to create the appearance that Canada is devoting more money to the military. Canada has come under pressure from allies, the U.S. in particular, to raise its military spending to meet NATO’s target level for each of its members: the equivalent of 2 per cent of annual economic output. Canada’s current defence spending amounts to 1.33 per cent.
Ms. Anand said Canada and the United States are building a new “Northern Approaches” surveillance system that will eventually replace the North Warning System. This will include cutting-edge technology called over-the-horizon radar, which has a far greater range of detection – as much as thousands of kilometres away.
“As autocratic regimes threaten the rules-based order that has protected us for decades and as our competitors develop new technologies like hypersonic weapons and advanced cruise missiles, there is a pressing need to modernize NORAD capabilities,” Ms. Anand told reporters.
She said the new surveillance and tracking system would push NORAD’s line of sight farther north so that Canada and the U.S. can better respond to “fast-moving” threats, such as hypersonics. Until then, the current North Warning System provides a “limited threat warning,” said Lieutenant-General Alain Pelletier, NORAD Deputy Commander.
The new setup will have several components, according to Ms. Anand. “Arctic Over-the-Horizon Radar” will provide early-warning radar coverage and threat tracking from the Canada-U.S. border to the Arctic Circle.
The second component will be a “Polar Over-the-Horizon Radar” system to provide the same coverage and tracking over and beyond the northernmost approaches to North America, including Canada’s Arctic archipelago.
A third piece will be a new network called Crossbow, which will be made up of sensors with what Ms. Anand called “classified capabilities.” They will be located throughout Northern Canada, where they will provide another layer of detection.
A final component will be a space-based surveillance system, which will use satellites to collect intelligence and track threats, she told reporters.
Ms. Anand said the North Warning System will remain active until the new package of technology has been put in place. She did not provide a breakdown of how the $4.9-billion would be spent, and did not offer any estimate of when the new surveillance equipment would be up and running. She said Canada will spend a total of $40-billion over 20 years for NORAD modernization under the plan announced Monday. (However, the government did not make it clear whether that figure takes into account the effects of inflation.)
General David Thompson, vice-chief of space operations with the United States Space Force, warned a Halifax security forum last fall that China and Russia have surpassed the United States in the development of hypersonic missiles – which are regarded by some as weapons that could be used pre-emptively. He said the new armaments have made the world a “much more complicated place.”
The aging North Warning System is incapable of effectively responding to modern missile technology, experts have warned MPs.
Andrea Charron, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, said it’s important that Canada is “thinking about and working on the joint defence of North America.”
But, she added, she thinks Monday’s announcement was aimed first and foremost at Canada’s NATO allies.
“There is incredible pressure that Canada spend more on defence, so they can go to NATO and say, ‘Look, we are spending more,’ " Prof. Charron said. “At least they are going to the table with something.”
Canada remains far short of NATO’s 2-per-cent spending target. The federal government would need to spend an extra $13-billion to $18-billion a year above what it spends now to reach that threshold, according to estimates from the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
Asked when Ottawa would reach its 2-per-cent commitment, Ms. Anand pointed to Canada’s “upward trajectory” in defence spending, including increases since 2017 under the federal Strong Secure and Engaged policy, and an $8-billion boost in the April federal budget.
With the $4.9-billion for NORAD, she said, “our defence spending is now on an even sharper upward trajectory.” However, that $4.9-billion is part of the $8-billion announced in the budget.
But Ms. Anand declined to provide a precise defence-spending target, or to explicitly pledge that Canada would reach the 2-per-cent threshold.
David Cohen, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, said last month that the $8-billion increase in the federal budget was disappointing. During the same month, U.S. senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska labelled Canada a freeloader for its failure to meet the 2-per-cent threshold. But on Monday the U.S. embassy issued a statement welcoming Canada’s increased NORAD spending.
Prof. Charron said the new radar and surveillance projects will take “years and years” to build. She added that she has no idea whether Canada has obtained consent from Indigenous groups to locate the technology on their land.
She recommended Canada and the U.S. wrap up cost-sharing negotiations related to the NORAD upgrades before any change of government in Ottawa or Washington. Former president Donald Trump is expected to be the Republican candidate in the next presidential election. He has frequently criticized Canada for not spending enough on defence.
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