North Americans Need to Understand the Importance of NORAD

Dr. Andrea Charron

Do you think the Chinese surveillance balloon incident demonstrated the importance of homeland defence, as well as the mandate of NORAD and USNORTHCOM? Is it possible that this incident could potentially change public opinion about defence spending?

Absolutely, this is the silver lining of the Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon, along with the three other air objects, whose original owners remain unknown. This brings home the importance of NORAD, USNORTHCOM, and Canadian Joint Operations Command for Canadians and Americans. NORAD has always been the first line of defence for North America, but no one really thinks about it, other than references to its Santa Tracker on Christmas Eve. This drives home the reality that North America is vulnerable, and that a binational command like NORAD is essential to track, assess, and defeat threats.

Additionally, Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine have done more to pique domestic interest in defence spending, and this will orient Canadians and Americans towards the need to modernize NORAD, which is an ongoing process. In June of last year, the Canadian government announced that large amounts of money would be dedicated to this project and continental defence. So, it is a matter of the Canadian and American publics catching up to what both militaries and governments have been working on for some time now.

We are in a state of great power competition, and all states involved are looking for an advantage. We know that China, specifically, tends to steal intellectual property to fast-track their own technology. With that said, I am guessing that the Chinese surveillance program is looking for evidence of new technologies that they can co-opt, such as new military capabilities that Western countries may have. They may also look for basic information about topography and road systems.

High-altitude balloons can hover in place, take many pictures, and potentially collect a lot of signals intelligence. Satellites are great, but they tend to come around once a day and to see the intelligence, you need to take a series of pictures over a number of days, put them together, and see what the differences are. In contrast, balloons can loiter for long periods of time and take all sorts of images, which instantly gives you more information.

In your book with James Fergusson, NORAD: In Perpetuity and Beyond, you mention that “Bold changes are needed, and with those changes will come either a new, modernized NORAD or a marginalized one.” What are the most essential changes that are necessary for NORAD to be fully modernized, and what progress has been made to implement these changes?

As to what needs to be done for NORAD modernization, the document that has been signed off by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and both U.S. Presidents Trump and Biden, which is available to the public, outlines four priorities that need to be addressed to modernize the command and improve continental defence. The first one is concerned with better domain awareness, which will be achieved by new radar systems, tweaking existing radar systems, and perhaps introducing artificial intelligence, along with more emphasis on research and development to stay ahead of technology, because that keeps evolving.

We also need to take advantage of the fact that we have allies and partners around the world with important information. NORAD has a global area of operations. So, when it comes to a warning function, there are no limits to what they can assess in terms of potential air or maritime threats to North America, which is a huge advantage. For example, in the case of the recent Chinese air balloon and other air objects, you could ask whether our allies also knew about these incidents and if information was being passed along. Events such as these affect not just North America, but the world, and this is where we see NORAD expand in scope, because of the access to intelligence and information, which is a huge step towards modernization.

Regarding the potential marginalization of NORAD, myself, James Fergusson, Joseph Jockel, and Richard Goette have said for a while that Canadians and Americans need to understand the importance of this command, otherwise, it could simply disappear. Regularly, there is a conversation that asks why we need what looks like a middleman in NORAD when we have USNORTHCOM and Canadian Joint Operations Command. However, the reason why NORAD is special is because of its binational nature, where Canadians and Americans work jointly in the defence of not Canada, and not the U.S., but of North America. That is a unique view that nobody else in the world has, and as a result, they see patterns of activity and potential threats in a more holistic way compared to one focusing only on one country, and one domain of threats.

You mentioned improving domain awareness. As far as NORAD modernization is concerned, what impact would implementing over-the-horizon radar have on it?

The existing North Warning System has difficulty seeing over the curvature of the earth. So, the radar system can miss an air object, depending on where it is. Due to this, the two over-the-horizon backscatter radar systems – one for the Arctic, which will be set up in a more southern location in Canada, and a polar radar, which will be set up in the Arctic – will provide better acuity and allow us to see further into other parts of the world. This gives NORAD, as well as Canadian and American militaries and governments, more time and space to consider a plethora of options. It will also ensure that we are not dependent on deterrence by punishment, and allow us to pre-empt some potential threats by opening channels of communication, and by possibly getting police and intelligence services involved. It is important to think about how to defend North America more holistically and take advantage of all the tools in our toolbox.

James Fergusson recently stated that whoever is sending objects into North American air space are trying to find out how accurate we are in identifying them, as well as our response, which is a sentiment echoed by retired Major-General Scott Clancy. What do you think of this assessment, and what message do you think NORAD and USNORTHCOM sent by responding as it did?

There are two issues there. The first is we lack the necessary information to assume that the objects were doing anything in particular, especially since they were not manoeuvrable, and so they are dependent on the air streams. Also, I am conscious that they could be legitimate research tools that were not launched with the right coordinates. These cases could range from innocuous mistakes that require regulatory action to state-based nefarious activity, which is a different conversation. I do not want to ascribe any intention yet, because that is part of a threat analysis, in which you need capability and intention; however, we have little information on both.

Secondly, the response by NORAD and USNORTHCOM was entirely appropriate. Even though the object was not a military threat, it hovered at an altitude that could have threatened civilian airspace, which would have been catastrophic. Also, in accordance with the right protocol, the Prime Minister of Canada provided his consent for anything to be shot down in Canadian airspace. President Biden did the same for U.S. airspace. Now, my concern lies with political attacks and suggestions that somehow, something was done improperly, and there is not enough information, because this sows dissent among Canadians and Americans, and sets both against each other, which adversaries try to do every day. While I think the public has every right to be curious, we need to let the process play out. This is an ongoing investigation, and in any investigation, you cannot provide information ahead of a fulsome, detailed report. Also, working in concert with our allies in these cases is a must. So, I am pleased that people are starting to think about NORAD, but they cannot take shortcuts.

A few months ago, it was announced that $4.13 billion would be going towards improving our ability to understand and communicate threats to decision-makers in a timely manner through investments in modern technology. Could you break down what this may look like? What kind of investments might there be and to what specific technologies would they be directed?

One of the problems is that we do not know what the U.S. is spending. On the Canadian side, we keep hearing different buckets of information. It was once mentioned as the equivalent of $87 billion (cash equivalent) over twenty years, which includes NORAD-specific investments and continental defence aspects. For example, regarding the F-35s. Are they uniquely a NORAD investment, or do they help with other missions and operations? The answer is they are meant for a number of things. This modernization effort involves a lot of projects, and I hope that the infrastructure involved will be multipurpose and multi-use, especially in an Arctic context.

For instance, we know that internet access and communication in the North is really difficult, and I would be surprised if the Canadian government had a military-only communications system, when other government departments need access to that information, as well as people in the Arctic. I also hope that this is not thought of as a “one-and-done” project. This is not a case of simply replacing the North Warning System, and then that is it, we are done for the next thirty years. Instead, it is an incremental system of systems approaches that will be linked and will be interoperable with allies and partners. It will also certainly involve some artificial intelligence and even cloud computing. This goes far beyond NORAD, even continental defence. These projects have implications for missions around the world.

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