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A Canadian forces member walks by a A CF-18 Hornet on the tarmac at Canadian Forces Base Trenton before an announcement by Minister of Defence Anita Anand in Trenton, Ont., on June 20.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

The federal government’s commitment to invest billions of dollars in upgrading NORAD’s ability to detect and track new missile threats is reigniting a debate over how much of a role Canada should play in eliminating inbound warheads.

Defence Minister Anita Anand told reporters this week that Canada has not deviated from its policy to avoid participation in U.S. ballistic missile defence, as first announced in 2005. But she left the door open to revising it, saying “the reality is that we will continue to look at this policy going forward” and “ensure that Canada has a proper response to missile threats across the board.”

On Monday she unveiled the replacement for the North American Aerospace Defence Command’s soon-to-be obsolete North Warning System, to track and respond to missile threats. The new “Northern Approaches” surveillance system is being set up as the U.S. grapples with how to respond to Russian and Chinese hypersonic missiles, which can change course in flight, as well as advanced cruise missiles with improved stealth capabilities.

Conservative defence critic Kerry-Lynne Findlay, however, said it’s not realistic for Canada to leave interception of most missile threats to the United States Northern Command. The Conservatives say Canada should join the U.S. ballistic defence program as a first step.

Modernizing NORAD is key to supporting economic reconciliation in the North

Canadian fighter jets will have a role, regardless. Ms. Anand’s announcement also said Canada will purchase “advanced air-to-air missiles.” The new American-made F-35 fighters Ottawa is set to buy will have an anti-cruise missile capability.

But beyond that, Ms. Findlay asked, why is Canada not participating more broadly in missile defence with the Americans? “We need to be a willing partner,” she said, noting U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska last month called Canada a freeloader on defence.

The new “Northern Approaches” surveillance system will rely on cutting edge over-the-horizon radar, which has a far greater range of detection – as much as thousands of kilometres away – as well as what will be called the Crossbow network of sensors across Canada. Space-based surveillance will also be provided by satellite.

Canada’s share of this new system will be $40-billion over 20 years. How much the U.S. is contributing has not been disclosed.

Troy Bouffard, director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience in Fairbanks, Alaska, said he expects Canada’s NORAD announcement on missile detection represents “an intent” from Ottawa to explore missile defence with the United States.

“A threat can come from different approaches now – not just the Arctic,” he said.

Joseph Jockel, professor of Canadian studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., said one reason Canada might want to join the U.S. ballistic missile defence system is to increase its chances of being protected from attack.

“Canadians are assuming the United States is going to defend Canada against ballistic missiles. That is not necessarily the case. The U.S. ballistic missiles defence system is very limited. If you give up your shots to protect Vancouver, you have less capability to protect San Francisco. Show me an American general who would sacrifice San Francisco to protect Vancouver.”

He said, however, Canadians might not consider themselves to be at risk of being attacked by North Korea.

Andrea Charron, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, said the U.S. ballistic missile defence system is largely focused on the threat from North Korea, with interception capabilities from Alaska and California.

The United States lacks the ability right now to address hypersonic missile threats.

She said the broader missile defence effort today, unlike decades earlier, seeks to stop the “archer” – the launch of a missile – rather than intercept the “arrow” – the missile in flight.

“We need to know where the launch points are and defeat the launch points before a missile is even launched – and that means the need for greater detection,” Prof. Charron said.

NORAD’s new Northern Approaches surveillance system is expected to help the U.S. and Canada detect prelaunch activity in the future.

It will include an Arctic over-the-horizon radar system to provide early-warning radar coverage and threat tracking from the Canada-U.S. border to the Arctic Circle, and a second 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.

General David Thompson, vice-chief of space operations with the U.S. 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.”

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