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Minister of National Defence Anita Anand takes part in the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence on March 11.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Defence Minister Anita Anand says the Canadian government will soon unveil a significant spending plan to help modernize continental defences under NORAD – a revamp the United States has been seeking for years to address more complex missile threats to North America.

“Make no mistake: Canada will be at the table in the short term with a robust package to modernize NORAD – a system that has kept Canadians and Americans safe for over 60 years,” Ms. Anand told the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence on Friday.

Just days earlier, after Russia launched its military assault on Ukraine, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government would consider boosting defence spending.

A major component of upgrading the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) is replacing the soon-to-be obsolete North Warning System, a joint United States and Canadian radar system that includes dozens of sites from Yukon to Labrador. Its job is to detect airborne threats: originally long-range bombers. The price has been estimated at more than $11-billion.

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The risk that Canada and the United States have in mind is missile technology advancements in Russia and China that can send non-nuclear warheads far greater distances with far more accuracy. These include hypersonic missiles, which travel extremely fast and can dodge and weave during flight to avoid interception, as well as next-generation cruise missiles.

This evolution in conventional missiles has made them an increasingly important tool to deter threats or project power without resorting to nuclear weapons.

In response to a question from an audience member, Ms. Anand declined to clarify whether Canada would join the U.S. ballistic missile defence system as part of this NORAD revamp.

In 2005, former prime minister Paul Martin’s Liberal government rejected joining the U.S. system.

“I cannot give away the plans to modernize NORAD in their intricacies at this time, but I will assure you we are fully cognizant of the various threats that our current system allows to be present and we are working very hard on bringing forward a robust package of new technologies in the short term,” the minister said.

David Perry, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said it’s very possible that revamped NORAD defences could end up integrating Canada more deeply into the Americans’ overall missile defence system.

Last August, on the eve of the 2021 federal election campaign, the Canadian and U.S. governments announced they had agreed to proceed with “co-ordinated investments” that bolster their ability to protect North America from “a greater and more complex conventional missile threat.” That includes gear that watches for incoming threats from “the sea floor to outer space.”

The August, 2021, statement, titled “Joint Statement on NORAD modernization,” set out priorities for the future of NORAD, the heart of a Canada-U.S. continental defence pact, saying the two countries must be able to detect and identify airborne threats earlier and respond to them faster and more decisively.

The statement said the North Warning System will be replaced with technology that includes “next-generation over-the-horizon radar systems,” which have the ability to detect targets at very long ranges. The technology is being developed by Canada’s Department of National Defence. The statement also mentioned building a network of U.S. and Canadian sensors installed everywhere from the seabed to satellites in space.

Mr. Perry said he thinks the modernization of NORAD would also include greater capabilities for air interception and more capacity for aerial refuelling of military planes.

The defence analyst said it’s considered likely now that if Russia were to launch conventional-warhead missiles at North America, they would come straight over the North Pole through the Canadian Arctic or from the North Atlantic. Thirty years ago, the range of conventional missiles was so much shorter that the Russians would have had to fly relatively close to the U.S. mainland to strike a target there.

Retired U.S. vice-admiral James Foggo, former commander of NATO Allied Joint Force Command Naples, told the same defence conference it is imperative for NORAD to boost its defence capabilities to counter Russia and China in the High Arctic.

“With Russia’s interest in taxing transit through the northern sea route, and with China’s interest in creating a polar silk road, and China and Russia’s development of new weapons systems … we need to have a better dialogue on this,” he said in an interview.

Canada, the United States, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland have announced they won’t participate in the work of the Arctic Council or attend any of its meetings until further notice to protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia currently chairs this council of nations that ring the Arctic. The group oversees ways to improve search and rescue, scientific co-operation and oil-spill emergency preparedness.

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