U.S.-Canada Decision To Modernize NORAD Emphasizes Strategic Importance Of The Arctic

President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau met virtually last week (February 24th) to discuss a spate of issues defining the new North American relationship, including plans to upgrade and modernize the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). The meeting, a relieving return to normality between the partners whose relationship had been strained under the former Trump administration, was part of a ‘Roadmap for a Renewed U.S.-Canada Partnership,’ which spanned security, climate change, and COVID-19.

NORAD, the only bi-national military command of its kind, was mentioned frequently as part of a broader U.S. pivot towards the Arctic, which is fast becoming a critical strategic concern for Washington and its NATO allies. In recent months, branches of the U.S. military have released joint strategies on dealing with climate change and the potential militarization of the sensitive region, with growing concerns about the Russian and Chinese roles there. The decision to improve NORAD infrastructure and facilities, especially at the height of a costly pandemic, highlights the challenges the U.S. and Canada believe they face in the region.

The new Roadmap, released by the White House last week, shared details of the meetings in which “the Prime Minister and the President agreed to expand cooperation on continental defense and in the Arctic,” including what Biden called “a U.S.-Canada Arctic Dialogue to cover cross-cutting issues related to continental security, economic and social development, and Arctic governance.” Though few specifics were shared about what modernization of existing security infrastructure in the High North would look like, it is likely that early warning systems—built to foresee Soviet missile attacks during the Cold War—would likely be prioritized. Facilities like the North Warning System, an early-warning radar system for North American atmospheric air defense, are reaching the end of their lifespan, especially as weapons technology advances.

Persistent risks to North American and NATO security in the north do necessitate the modernization of NORAD’s warning system capabilities, but there remains debate about how far upgrades will go. Increasing threats from Russian and Chinese technology, especially hypersonic missiles, demand a rigid deterrent in an area most analysts consider the fastest route to attack either nation. “While the U.S. military’s nuclear deterrence is key to protecting against a nuclear strike using hypersonic weapons, a conventional hypersonic weapon is a different threat,” outlined Air Force Magazine recently. NORAD General Glen D. VanHerck added, “we need to be able to posture forces and message to create doubt in their mind about utilizing these capabilities to attack the homeland to achieve their objectives.”

But despite their similarities, shifting emphasis from defense to deterrence could have adverse effects, and it is an “offensive” move that Canada appears unwilling to back, according to the Network for Strategic Analysis. In light of growing great power competition in the Arctic, restraint is probably wise.

NORAD itself goes beyond the early warning systems and radar that dot the NATO-controlled Arctic, however. Announced in 1957, the command is a combined U.S.-Canada organization providing aerospace warning and sovereignty within a broader mandate to protect the skies of North America. Each side commits forces and aircraft to the agreement, which was until recently based primarily at Cheyenne Mountain, CO. Its functions developed over the years as Cold War tensions ebbed and flowed, taking on ballistic missile warning and space surveillance capacities in light of the Soviet nuclear threat. When the Cold War ended, its attention shifted more to airborne drug trafficking and then internal regulation of airspace, following the September 11th attacks. Increasing tension in the Arctic, and with Russia and China, has necessitated a new direction for NORAD.

The modernization of NORAD’s missile warning systems in the High North is a logical step in an increasingly tense geopolitical environment, but the emergence of new threats like hypersonic weaponry means that modernization cannot solely equate to replacement. The U.S. and Canada must approach the Arctic sphere with caution in this regard due to three primary factors. One, growing great power competition in the region, hastened by climate change, must be managed without military escalation, and the deployment of vast new systems of missile deterrents sends a dangerous message across the Arctic Ocean. Canada’s caution in this regard is justified. Second, climate change itself must be accounted for, and the implications of replacing and modernizing architecture across Arctic Canada and Greenland cannot become a new environmental disaster like Project Iceworm, a former U.S. secret operation in the latter location. Finally, care must be taken to consult with and protect indigenous populations who inhabit the regions that NORAD infrastructure may be placed.

The militarization of the Arctic is a regrettable and risky business, and the modernization of NORAD’s role against new threats must not be understated.

Shane Ward
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