In June 1921, the governments of Canada and the United States (US) announced a bi-national decision to press forward with the modernization of North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) infrastructure and facilities. A public declaration of governmental intent that had been outlined in 2017’s Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy, the announcement was an overt recognition that investment was required in NORAD to allow it to meet a new generation of emerging threats, both kinetic and non-kinetic. The Soviet invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and the massive use of drone, ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as hypersonic weapons, spurred the government, with appropriate fanfare, to announce in June that Canada would invest $38.6 billion in NORAD over a twenty-year period. In defence circles, the news was received as a long-overdue recognition that the world was a far more dangerous place and that institutions, such as NORAD, require significant investment to ensure their relevance.
Over a year has passed since the Minister of National Defence (MND), Anita Anand, announced Canada’s sizeable investment and progress, at least on the surface, appears to be somewhat lacking. Even the recent incident involving a purported Chinese spy balloon, which dominated news cycles in both countries, from its announced presence in Alaskan airspace on 28 January 2023, until it was shot down off the US east coast on 4 February, does not seem to have added any appreciate urgency towards the implementation of the various aspects of the modernization project. Despite acknowledgement by senior NORAD officers that gaps in existing air defence infrastructure precluded the continuous surveillance of the balloon as it leisurely transited Canadian and US airspace, the government of Canada appears content to maintain its slow but steady approach to NORAD modernization.
Overall, investment in NORAD modernization falls into five general categories: replacing surveillance systems to ensure early detection of threats, improving command and control infrastructure, acquiring air weapon systems; renovating or replacing physical facilities and support capabilities; and investing in research and development (R&D) focused on future technologies. Immediate funding for projects within these categories has already programmed or will be dealt with through incremental additions to existing budgets. The government, as it made clear in the June 2022 announcement, is not anticipating additional funding until approximately 2029 at the earliest. Funds annotated to various projects span a period from 2022 until 2042, but for the first six years the $4.9 billion allocated has already been assigned.
Virtually all of the projects listed under the “NORAD Modernization Project Timelines” site are planned to reach project definition between 2024-2029. Project definition, the second of a four-step project management life cycle, allows the government to establish objectives, refine implementation estimates, and identify potential problems to mitigate risk. Until this stage is complete, the timeline for when the associated project will achieve initial operational capability (IOC), or its minimum useful form, ranges from 2029 until 2035. Much of the work already completed or anticipated in the near future is either preparatory, addressed deficiencies with existing NORAD facilities, or involves supporting initiatives that fall within future-focused R&D. However, there has been some progress in each of the four remaining modernization categories.
Modernization of Surveillance Systems. ($6.96 billion).
Monitoring threats to North American will rely on the replacement of dated North Warning System (MWS) by a new Northern Approaches Surveillance System (NASS). A mix of overt and classified systems, the NASS will contain two over-the horizon radars (OTHR) capable of detecting airbreathing threats at greater distances than currently available through the NWS. Prime Minister Trudeau announced in March 2023 that the Arctic OTHR will be built in southern Ontario, but its exact location has not been released. Placement of the Polar OTHR, located further north to enhance surveillance beyond Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, has yet to be determined. Scheduled to be in place for 2032, work is underway examining way to make the facilities minimize its environmental impact. Terrestrial systems will be augmented by space-based platforms under the Defence Enhanced Surveillance from Space (DESSP) project. The requirement for DESSP is driving in part by the aging of Canada’s RADARSAT constellation which is due to reach the end of its planned life in 2026.
Command and Control. ($4.13 billion).
The heart of the Canadian NORAD Region (CANR) is the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) co-located with 1 Canadian Air Division at 17 Wing, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Upgrading COAC software and hardware to make it fully interoperable with other air defence sections throughout North America has been ongoing with the project set to be completed by 2025. As well, progress has been steady on enhancing the RCAF’s ability to operate in remote locations through acquisition of state-of-the art secure global position system (GPS) devices, incorporating Precision Navigation and Timing (PNT) technology across multiple aircraft fleets. Initial delivery is nearing completion, and the project is expected to be concluded by 2028/9. Finally, the acquisition of new digital radios, replacing legacy systems, is in the implementation phase, but the Enhanced Satellite Communication Project – Polar (ESCP-P), the backbone for northern communications, is still many years away.
Modernizing Air Weapons Systems. ($6.38 billion).
Multiple projects address the acquisition of modern short, medium, and long-range air-to-air missiles (AAM), however, only the medium AAM project has moved past the definition phase. Now that the F-35 has been chosen as Canada’s replacement for the aging CF-188’s, helping to limit potential missile systems, it is anticipated that the projects will advance more quickly.
Facilities and Support Capabilities. ($15.68 billion)
Perhaps not unexpectedly, progress has been greatest in those projects dealing with ensuring and sustaining the RCAF’s presence in the North. The January 2023 announcement that Canada would be acquiring 88 Lockheed Martine F-35 fighter aircraft brought more focus to the work being undertaken to update facilities supporting NORAD within Canada. Both 4 Wing, Cold Lake, Alberta, and 3 Wing, Bagotville, Quebec. The two fighter Main Operating Bases (MOB) will see extensive additions to their physical plant encompassing administrative space, hangars, and quick reaction area (QRA) facilities with direct investment totalling $272 million and $253 million respectively. The QRA at Cold Lake will house up to six aircraft with a 6500 square metre facility encompassing administrative, logistic, maintenance, and living spaces as well. A similar QRA will be built at Bagotville.
Investment in the four Forward Operating Locations (FOL) at 5 Wing Goose Bay, Labrador, Yellowknife and Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and Iqaluit, Nunavut, is planned, but to date only work on the Mike Zubko Airport, Inuvik has commenced. The runway is being extended by approximately 1000 metres and upgrades to lighting, navigation and approach aids are progressing. These improvements are a first step in permitting the FOLs to better accommodate modern military aircraft.
Politically, the Canadian government is also addressing two long-standing and pressing issues. The first deals with the requirement, as recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to ensure that Indigenous communities “gain long-term sustainable benefits from economic development projects.” The government has pledged to fulfill this recommendation, setting a modest goal of a minimum of five percent of the value of a contract be undertaken by Indigenous entities. A potential blueprint for how this might transpire can be found with the Nasittuq Corporation. Established over two decades ago, Nasittuq grew out of a partnership between Pan-Arctic Inuit Logistics (PAIL) and ATCO Frontec Limited in Calgary, Alberta. Between 2001 and 2014, Nasittuq provided a broad range of support for NWS radar and logistic sites and currently do the same for Canadian Forces Station Alert at the tip of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. The ability to make good with this promise of economic inclusion will be closely watched by key stakeholders as well as opposition parties.
The second issue deals with Canadian position on North American ballistic missile defence (BMD). Under Prime Minister Paul Martin, the government decided in 2005 not to participate in BMD for a variety of reasons such as public opposition, concern over the weaponization of space, and potentially destabilizing the status quo between the US and Russia. However, the potential threat from rogue nations capable of threatening North America with a ballistic missile and the advent hypersonic weapon systems have renewed BMD debate. Responsible for aerospace control, aerospace warning, and maritime warning, NORAD has the mandate to alert both Canadian and US governments of a ballistic missile attack but does not have the authority or capability to defend against it. Defensive assets must be requested via national channels introducing various levels of complexity and delay in responding to a threat. As NORAD modernization proceeds apace, the Command will increase its ability to detect threats, but corresponding improvements to command and controls authorities and functions will not permit it to deal with the threat in a timely and efficient manner. However, during recent interviews, Minister Anand has indicated that all options are under consideration leaving open the possibility of a reversal in Canada’s position.
NORAD has been, is, and will be an important element of Canada’s defence. The government’s commitment to ensuring that NORAD is prepared for future threats has consistently been a central facet of its defence policy for many years and, perhaps prompted by recent global events, it has made a sizeable investment in the bi-national command. Modernizing is always necessary, but never easy especially for an organization as large and multifaceted as NORAD. Progress, albeit slowly, is being made. Challenges persist, not the least of which are the glacial pace of the procurement policy, lack of staff, both in and out of uniform, to move the projects forwards, and ever-changing fiscal pressures on the government. Nevertheless, a modernized NORAD is important for Canadian security in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world.