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Joe Biden speaks to the media after a virtual roundtable with frontline health workers in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 18, 2020.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Because the incoming Biden administration places a high priority on fighting global warming, Canada may be asked to spend billions of dollars modernizing NORAD.

If the Trudeau government, or its successors, aren’t willing to spend those billions to watch for both incoming missiles and changing climate, the Americans may upgrade the North American Aerospace Defence Command on their own, at the expense of Canadian sovereignty.

For more than six decades, Canada and the United States have shared responsibility for protecting the continent from air attack. But the North Warning System – a network of Arctic radar stations deployed in the 1980s – is hopelessly out of date.

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“Cruise missiles have much longer ranges, sub-launched cruise missiles are way more capable, hypersonic weapons are now a reality,” said Stephen Fuhr, who as a Liberal MP chaired the House of Commons defence committee in the first Justin Trudeau government. “So what sort of sensing systems are we going to need to take care of those new threats?”

At the very least, the North Warning System will need to be replaced with a more modern radar system situated farther north. Such a system could cost more than $10-billion, with Canada expected to pay 40 per cent of the cost.

But ground-based radar would only be one part of a truly effective, multilayered system, combining land-based, ship-based, space-based and cyberbased detection systems that could be continuously modified as threats evolved. That’s where global warming comes in.

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to recommit the United States to the Paris accord on climate change. That commitment will require close observation of the Arctic, which also happens to be the frontline of today’s great-power struggles.

“That’s where the Russians want to be, that’s where the Chinese want to be, that’s where the resources are, that’s where the next round of investment is already coming,” said Sarah Goldfeder, who served two U.S. ambassadors to Canada and who is now a principal at Earnscliffe, a consulting firm.

A modern early warning system would allow for detecting incoming missiles or “the movement of troops, the movement of merchant vessels and coastlines and icepacks and water temperatures and oil spills and that kind of thing,” Ms. Goldfeder said.

Such a system would be cutting edge, upgradable and very expensive. But the Liberal government’s 2017 white paper on defence policy, while committing to the modernization of NORAD, did not also commit funds.

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“NORAD is in there, but not costed,” said James Fergusson, who is deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security at the University of Manitoba.

“The Minister of National Defence is committed to working with our American partners to modernize NORAD,” Todd Lane, director of communications for Harjit Sajjan, said in a statement. But “as nothing has been agreed to, there are no publicly available cost estimates.”

On the one hand, protecting Canada’s airspace must be a top defence priority for this country. We are an Arctic nation, with more experience in and a greater focus on the region than the United States. Modernizing NORAD as part of a multipronged effort to better surveil the Arctic – which could also involve improved access to broadband and future communications technologies in the Far North – could be popular.

But then there is that other hand: the environmental impact of any new land-based system; the duty to consult Indigenous communities. And most of all, the cost.

“My biggest concern is that there is no money set aside,” Mr. Fuhr said. “And getting the money today is going to be exponentially more difficult than it was a year ago because of COVID.”

The reality is that the U.S. probably could and would push ahead with protecting itself if Canada lost interest in making a meaningful contribution to NORAD.

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“If the United States comes to the conclusion that we need this, this, this and this in the Canadian Arctic, and Canada says, we understand, but financially we just can’t do this, the United States will just do it," Prof. Fergusson predicted. "All we’ll do is give them permission to put it on our soil.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Canada allowed the United States to assume the cost and responsibility for protecting the continent from attack, while claiming to be a true partner in the endeavour. For some reason, Canadians seem not to mind.

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