With New Threats Looming, Canada Commits Billions to Air Defense

Spending on military programs often leads to years of heated political debate and little action in Canada. But the announcement this week that Canada will spend nearly 5 billion Canadian dollars over the next six years on upgrading Norad’s defense systems passed with barely a ripple of controversy.

Norad, or the North American Aerospace Defense Command, is a Cold War creation that started in 1958. The only joint operation of the Canadian and American armed forces, it was first set up to track incoming bombers laden with nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union and to provide air support to defend the two countries.

In the popular imagination, Norad has been a high-tech operation that has held a starring role in film and in Christmas celebrations in Canada. The 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove” featured fictionalized Norad data from Canada’s far north and Alaska that populated a “big board” tracking Soviet bombers.

And on Christmas Eve, Norad is the outfit that tracks the movements of Santa Claus and reports them through broadcasters and online.

Norad’s systems, last overhauled 40 years ago, have fallen behind technologically and need sweeping modernization, defense policy analysts have long said. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, those calls have grown more urgent.

The current system cannot detect cruise missiles and would discover hypersonic missiles only when it was too late to be useful. The new category of missiles has sparked an arms war, and there is currently no effective countermeasure.

Russia claimed to have used a hypersonic missile early during its invasion of Ukraine. Such missiles are generally defined as ones that travel at least five times the speed of sound and can target with pinpoint accuracy. Even without a warhead, they will hit targets with a force equal to five to 10 tons of high explosive. If that’s not enough, they can carry nuclear warheads. It’s generally intended by the countries developing them that they would be fired from ships, submarines or airplanes and reach their targets within 15 minutes or less.

“Death from the air, guaranteed on-time delivery,” is how Steven Simon, an analyst at the Quincy Institute, a foreign policy research group in Washington, and a professor of international relations at Colby College, described hypersonics in an Opinion article for The Times.

[Read: Hypersonic Missiles Are a Game Changer]

By the time Norad’s current systems discovered such speedy and powerful missiles, it would be far too late to do anything about it. The spending announced this week by Anita Anand, the defense minister, includes money for new kinds of sensors that can “see” over the horizon to provide decision makers with more time to make assessments.

But even if those sensors can track all of a hypersonic missile’s flight, R. Jeffrey Smith, a former national security correspondent, argued in an article for The Times, that may not be enough.

[Read: The Growing Threat of Hypersonic Missiles]

“Creating a sizable new arsenal of superfast weapons can make other nations jittery — fearful that they might be robbed of an ability to respond effectively to a major attack,” he wrote, asking if a hypersonic missile is “so fast that it might outstrip the ability of humans to act wisely and prevent a conflict that they would prefer to avoid?”

I asked Andrea Charron, a professor at the University of Manitoba who is the director of the Centre for Defense and Security Studies there, if the new systems Canada will fund along with the United States will provide enough warning when a hypersonic missile is fired.

“Once they’re launched, I don’t think anybody has a good solution,” Professor Charron said. The new systems and sensors, she added, are designed to help avert a launch. They “focus on where the possible threat could come from, so you can take decisions and do things before you’re in a launch scenario,” she said.

Professor Charron said that Norad remained functional, despite its age, and upgrades including an artificial intelligence system for analysis have expanded its capabilities. Nevertheless, she said, much of Norad is in serious need of investment. Its Canadian headquarters in Winnipeg is so overcrowded and so dilapidated, she said, “it needs to be razed to the ground.”

Ms. Anand made her Norad announcement in front of perhaps the most contentious symbol of the political turmoil that surrounds major military spending in Canada: an aging CF-18 fighter jet.

In 2010, the Conservative government said that it would spend 9 billion Canadian dollars to replace the CF-18s with a fleet of F-35 jets. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau canceled the plan when he took office in 2015. Now his government is in talks about buying F-35s.

The Conservatives’ criticism of Ms. Anand’s announcement was chiefly that it doesn’t go far enough. The party has consistently called for a renewed commitment to Norad.

But there was little outcry from Canadians who think that the government should spend that 5 billion dollars elsewhere, like on health care.

Professor Charron said that it had most likely been muted for two reasons. Outside of Christmas, Norad has a low public profile. Also, the announcement was made at a time when Canadians’ attention is focused elsewhere.

“We’re all sort of focused on hyperinflation, the cost of fuel, school graduations and everything,” she said. “There’s no room for outrage here.”

  • The Vatican released a detailed schedule for the pope’s visit to Canada, in what is believed to be an effort ease fears that his health might lead to the cancellation of his trip. When he comes to Canada, Pope Francis is expected to deliver a historic apology to Indigenous people for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in residential schools.

  • Jon Caramanica, a pop music critic for The Times, writes that Drake’s new album, “Honestly, Nevermind,” may be “an indication that he’s leaving the old Drake — and everyone who followed him — in the rear view. Like a great quarterback, he’s throwing the ball where his receivers are already heading, not where they’ve been.” And Joe Coscarelli, The New York Times’s pop music reporter, and Lawrence Burney, arts and culture editor at The Baltimore Banner and the founder of True Laurels, discussed the album on the Popcast! podcast.

  • Paul Haggis, the Canadian-born director who wrote and directed the Oscar-winning crime drama “Crash,” has been arrested in Italy and accused of assaulting a woman over the course of two days.

  • Mark Vanhoenacker, a gay pilot, reflects on his many years of traveling to Montreal and what travel means for L.G.B.T.Q. people.

  • François Billaut, an exercise physiology professor at Laval University in Quebec City, lays out the benefits of kayaking as low-impact aerobic exercise for older people or anyone wanting to ease into fitness.

    A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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