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Expectations high as Canada prepares to reveal plan for aging North American defences

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, speaks to members of the media as Gen. Glen VanHerck, Commander of United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command and Canadian Minister of National Defence Anita Anand look on at the Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station facility in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Expectations are high as Defence Minister Anita Anand prepares to unveil the federal government’s plans to upgrade North America’s aging defences, whose importance has only grown in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The announcement at an Ontario air force base on Monday morning comes amid numerous warnings from U.S. and Canadian military officials and experts about the state of Norad, the shared early-warning defence network that’s badly showing its age.

Anand has been promising a robust package of investments for upgrading the system, which was first established in the 1950s and is responsible for detecting incoming airborne and maritime threats to North America, including missiles and aircraft.

Those promises were reiterated earlier this month when Anand and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Norad headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., though neither offered any specific details at that time.

The Liberal government has only said that some of the $8 billion in new military funding in April’s federal budget will be spent on Norad, which is expected to include a new long-range radar system capable of detecting threats coming over the Arctic.

Anand also said last month that the government was weighing whether Canada should finally join the U.S. in actively defending against intercontinental ballistic missiles, after Ottawa famously opted out of the controversial program in 2005.

Yet all of that to this point has been largely talk from the Canadian side as the U.S. has pressed ahead on several fronts — including with new missile interceptors and artificial intelligence to merge data from a variety of different sources to detect an attack.

Anand has instead said discussions have lingered on the threat of long-range missiles and the importance of four key principles: situational awareness, command and control, research and development and an understanding of potential threats to North America.

There have been questions about how much the entire effort will cost. Most experts predict the price tag will be in the billions, with Canada on the hook for 40 per cent of the total.

The lack of concrete Canadian action has not gone unnoticed in Washington, said University of Manitoba associate professor Andrea Charron, one of Canada’s top experts on Norad. That is especially true in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“They need Canada to do certain things,” Charron said. “And whereas before they could be patient and say: ‘Okay, it'll come,’ I think they're at the end of their patience.”

That growing impatience has been illustrated by several high-level visits by U.S. officials to Ottawa, Charron said, as well as during congressional hearings in Washington.

When asked about Canada’s involvement in continental defence during one such hearing in March, Norad’s commander, U.S. Gen. Glen VanHerck, said Ottawa was “in the decision-making process,” adding: “I look forward to seeing what they come up with.”

VanHerck had previously said during a visit to the Canadian capital in November that he was awaiting political direction on Norad modernization, including what to do with a string of 1980s-era radars in Canada’s Arctic known as the North Warning System.

Last summer, then-defence minister Harjit Sajjan and U.S. counterpart Lloyd Austin issued a statement in which they committed to several priority areas, including maintaining the North Warning System until a new long-range radar system can be built.

Canadian defence firms were briefed earlier this year about plans to build an over-the-horizon system that could detect threats approaching North American cities from over the Arctic. The radar, to be based in southern Canada, is expected to cost $1 billion.

Retired general Tom Lawson, who was Norad’s deputy commander before serving as Canada's chief of the defence staff from 2012-15, said replacing the North Warning System is one of several areas of continental defence in need of investment.

But at this point in time, he said, any movement would be welcome after so many years of talk.

“If we get an announcement that adds $1 billion or $2 billion in investment over the coming five years, I'm a happy man.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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