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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

The aging North Warning System that is supposed to detect incoming threats to North America is incapable of effectively responding to modern missile technology, MPs were warned Monday.

James Fergusson, deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, told the House of Commons defence committee that this shortfall in continental defence has been apparent for some time.

The North Warning System is a chain of jointly-operated U.S. and Canadian radar stations that includes dozens of sites from Yukon to Labrador. Its job is to detect airborne threats: originally long-range bombers.

Earlier this month, Defence Minister Anita Anand said 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. The 2022 federal budget is expected to be released in the weeks ahead.

A major component of upgrading the North American Aerospace Defence Command, or NORAD, is replacing the North Warning System. The price has been estimated at more than $11-billion to be shared by Canada and the United States.

Prof. Fergusson, also a political scientist at the university, told members of Parliament that the development of long-range cruise missiles more than one decade ago “basically made the North Warning System obsolete.” He added that Russian advances in hypersonic missiles around five years ago, as well as the deployment of this new technology, “pose another significant challenge to North American defence.”

Hypersonic missiles can fly five times the speed of sound and change course midflight. Russia said on the weekend it used hypersonic missiles in Ukraine to destroy an ammunition depot.

Last fall, a senior U.S. general warned a Halifax security forum that China and Russia have surpassed the United States in the development of hypersonic missiles – regarded by some as first strike weapons. General David Thompson, vice-chief of space operations with the United States Space Force, said the world has become a “much more complicated place” with the advent of hypersonic missiles that can alter course en route. This means, unlike with ballistic missiles, a targeted country cannot quickly predict where such missiles will land.

Earlier this month, after the start of Russia’s new military assault on Ukraine, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government would consider boosting defence spending.

Rob Huebert, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, told MPs that successive Canadian governments have been hamstrung in their ability to conduct an independent assessment of threats to this country and the necessary military equipment because of the assumption the “Americans will always be there to protect” the continent, regardless of defence spending in Canada.

Steve Saideman, a political scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa and director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network, said he is skeptical that Russia poses a threat to Canada’s North. He told MPs that climate change is among the most important threats facing Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces.

“If the Russians can’t provide logistics for a conventional military campaign next door I can’t see how they are a huge threat to the North,” Prof. Saideman said, referring to Moscow’s failures in its war on Ukraine.

Prof. Fergusson told MPs the most important and pressing defence spending investment Canada could make today is sensor systems to detect incoming threats: not just replacements for the ground-based North Warning System but also other air-based options, such as airborne radar systems, high-altitude balloons and space-based systems.

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.

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