James Fergusson: ‘We Simply Cannot Ignore North American Defence’

An Interview with James Fergusson

“While NORAD is integrated with civil radars from NAV Canada and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), they are not powerful enough to deal with leakers. It should be dealt with within a broader modernization plan, which the government is not talking about.”

‘We Simply Cannot Ignore North American Defence’                          NORAD Modernization, Integrated Air/Missile Defence, & North Warning System Update

Canada has historically discouraged NATO involvement in the North American Arctic. Do you think this should change? Does keeping NATO and NORAD separate create vulnerabilities that could be exploited by Russia or China?

I think the question is not whether it should change, but if it will change. Canadian policymakers are very sensitive towards the Alliance’s role in the North. Part of the problem is that Canada and NATO have different interests. Canada is concerned about North American defence, particularly, the development of a robust deterrence posture against emerging threats from Russia and potentially China, while NATO is concerned about the traditional sea lines of communication, which is driven largely by American naval thinking. Dealing with this issue requires the ability to move forward as fast as possible to prevent Russian naval forces from threatening member states in the Atlantic, which is distinct from the threat of air-and-sea-launched cruise missiles, along with hypersonic vehicles, that could pass through Greenland and Iceland towards North American targets.

This problem didn’t exist in the past because the technology wasn’t there, however, now that it does exist, how do you address it, and where is the line drawn between NATO and NORAD, considering their different interests in North American defence? Additionally, can this be exploited by Russia? Potentially. However, much of that depends on two key geostrategic locations—Greenland, because of its relationship with Denmark, which has always looked east, and Iceland, which has historically looked east as well, notwithstanding bilateral agreements with the United States. If you consider the Unified Command Plan, the issue is locating the seam between European Command and North American Command. The latter consists of NORAD and USNORTHCOM, which is structured west of the southernmost middle part of Greenland, and to the east is NATO. Due to NORAD and NATO’s different defence requirements, the choice of moving that seam poses a problem.

Can this seam be exploited? Absolutely. Can the application of NATO-related capabilities be sufficient to handle it? That is where we get into highly technical and classified information. Politically, however, I think the Canadian government will still be wary about NATO commencing activity in the Canadian Arctic. The rhetoric may be there, but many who have been silent would argue that letting NATO assume a bigger role in the North would be problematic since it will potentially escalate the adversarial relationship between Russia and the West.

Recently, two RAND senior fellows argued that NORAD should consider opening its doors to Greenland and Denmark. How feasible this be? What are some benefits and challenges of doing so?

I think it’s very important because Russian bomber training flights move down the east coast of Greenland. This also potentially applies to Iceland. Given the long-range nature of Russia’s missile launch platforms, this possibility must be discussed. Due to bilateral agreements, there are numerous American bases in Greenland. However, bilateral arrangements between the U.S., Greenland, and Denmark will need to be integrated into NORAD. Since Denmark informally sent a liaison officer to NORAD Headquarters, we have some awareness of its interests, which raises the issue of Denmark’s tension-filled relationship with Greenland, and Canadian policy approaches for this issue.

This is an important development project that needs to be done. The outdated North Warning System (NWS) extends into Labrador, but not Greenland. When replacing the NWS, where should new radars be placed in Greenland, and what role would Canada play, considering that we are reluctant to spend money outside of our territory? I don’t see how Greenland can be left out in the future if we want to cultivate effective command and control and deterrence postures.

How will the Northern and Polar Warning Systems improve upon the North Warning System? What kinds of capabilities or upgrades can we expect?  

The North Warning System was primarily focused on offsetting Soviet bomber threats. Its capabilities were designed to locate them before they could reach their launch points. Cold War cruise missiles had a shorter range and would have had to enter the Canadian Arctic’s mainland. Russia now possesses long-range air-and-sea-launched cruise missiles, and Moscow—in a continuation of past Soviet military behaviour—tends to equip their submarine launch capabilities with ballistic or cruise missiles under the Arctic ice. It is hard to locate them, not least of all because of the noise of Arctic ice moving, and now you face this threat where launch points will be far removed.

The North Warning System is obsolete. I’ve argued that we’re effectively blind because it can’t track cruise missiles due to their low radar cross-section and ground-hunting capabilities. It’s certainly not optimized to detect hypersonics in the higher altitudes of what I call suborbital space. The new Arctic and Polar Lines are designed to use over-the-horizon radars to identify bombers beyond the North Pole before they reach their launch points. Whether you can vector your fighters, given their ranges, even with refuelling capabilities, is another question. However, supposedly, we will also have the capability to track cruise missiles, since the new radar beams can look downwards.

While we are exclusively talking about replacing the North Warning System with Ryzen systems, the addition of space-based capabilities is unclear. Even though ground-based systems are an important layer, air-based systems like AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) are needed. I would point out that the future combat ship for the Canadian Navy will have a small version of the Lockheed Martin long-range discrimination radar. The existing ballistic missile warning radar in Alaska will also be replaced. It will also likely have anti-hypersonic capabilities. The problem, of course, is that they have a limited ability to sustain themselves in the Arctic. You need to take ground, air, sea, and space systems, integrate them, and develop the command-and-control communications networks and processing systems to have an effective surveillance architecture to tackle the threat environment.

One area we need to focus on is the ground-based component. How that will play out in terms of the Canadian-American agreement remains to be seen. I’m sure that has been or is being, negotiated. This system is more complicated, and costly, and raises questions about whether to incorporate additional radar lines to deal with what I call leakers, which need to be tracked because once threats fly past detection systems, they are lost. While NORAD is integrated with civil radars from NAV Canada and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), they are not powerful enough to deal with leakers. It should be dealt with within a broader modernization plan, which the government is not talking about.

What issues does a fully integrated air/missile defence system raise for the current NORAD mission suite relative to Canada-U.S. cooperation on continental defence? 

Following WWII, NORAD was primarily focused on intercepting aeroplanes and bombers. Today, NORAD is in the missile defence business. It does not handle air defence anymore because it would have to invest in anti-cruise and hypersonic capabilities. The Canadian government is loath to use the term missile defence because it raises the issue of participation in BMD. When NORAD Modernization investments were announced, the defence minister advised that Canada has not changed its policy but is keeping an eye on the issue. Furthermore, the CDS has stated that we need to deal with integrated air and missile defence.

The U.S. is pursuing this integration. It is important to note that the U.S. Army is responsible for air and missile defence, as opposed to the Air Force. They began by integrating Patriot terminal phase missile defences, which have high altitude air defence capabilities, with theatre defences. As technology develops, plans are in place to integrate them with ballistic missile defences. You will have a set of radar tracking capabilities that need to be functional to deal with various threats. Coordinating capabilities to respond to threats from hostile states—in this case, Russia, which has many options to use against us—is important. There is also the concern about whether Canada’s non-participation policy on ballistic missile defence is sustainable. We can engage in issues related to cruise missile defence, along with hypersonics, but we are not going to get interceptors on Canadian soil. In my view, while the Canadian government is willing to invest in surveillance and tracking capabilities, we have no plans to acquire any true missile defence capabilities currently.

Some ground-based surface-to-air missile capabilities were promised in the 2017 White Paper on Defence, but they are short-range and for overseas forces. No discussions were commenced about what is needed domestically to offset cruise and hypersonic threats. Even though the Canadian government will not invest in interceptors, the missile defence issue will re-emerge because of existing gaps. Ottawa never explained why it said no to ballistic missile defence participation, although, historically, it was partially motivated by the potential destabilization of the strategic relationship with the Soviet Union, and it has been argued that missile defence is dangerous and could encourage pre-emptive strikes. I do not agree with that argument, but I understand the politics behind it, considering the large domestic opposition. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore this issue anymore, and it needs to be addressed by the Canadian government, which it doesn’t want to do.

Is there a risk that the investment plan for NORAD Modernization – 40 billion over the next 2 decades – could be susceptible to disruption as a result of competing government priorities, changes in government, and political will?  

I wonder whether $40 billion will be enough. Usually, in government programs, estimates are low, and projects gradually end up costing more. Twenty years is a long time in the world of economics and politics. We do not know what the economy will look like down the road, and while anti-militarism rhetoric died down because of the Ukraine War, it will not disappear forever. Just as we cannot predict domestic economics and politics, we cannot predict the future international security environment. For instance, I doubt we will remain enemies with Russia because even though the U.S. mentions Moscow in government policies, they are focused on China.

As the environment changes, the government and the public’s willingness to spend will be affected, but, in my view, the key question about the vulnerability of NORAD Modernization is the American side of the equation. Everyone wants to keep this project quiet because of our sensitive relationship with the U.S. Will Washington remain committed to North American deterrence, or will it retreat? I am not overly concerned about that. What I am concerned about is the lack of sufficient funding. I am concerned that the Canadian government will suddenly find the domestic environment to be less quiet than it would like it to be. Nonetheless, NORAD was always under the political radar. This is likely to continue and partially explains why there are few details available from the government.

If the economy goes south, there will be constraints on government spending, which will negatively impact defence investments. However, the answer does not revolve around what the Canadian government does, says, or thinks, but what the Department of National Defence will do. As far as the department’s internal bureaucratic politics are concerned, it will be informed by American perceptions, since Washington’s budget will also be impacted by negative economic circumstances. This could be problematic, because Canadian defence thinking, like its American counterpart, prioritizes meeting threats to North America overseas. Due to the current threat environment, that is no longer sufficient—we cannot simply ignore North American Defence.


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