The aging early-warning system charged with detecting incoming threats to North America cannot identify and track long-range Russian bombers before they are close enough to launch missiles at the continent, according to a senior Canadian military officer.
Commodore Jamie Clarke, deputy director of strategy at the North American Aerospace Defence Command, revealed the system’s shortcoming in an address on Wednesday as he pressed on the need to upgrade Norad to face a growing array of modern threats.
Those include everything from incoming ballistic missiles and bombers, which Norad was created to spot, as well as cruise and hypersonic missiles, drones, submarines and other naval vessels as well as space-based and cyber weapons.
Clarke became the latest in a line of Canadian and American military officers to warn that the technology underpinning Norad, including a chain of 1980s-era radars in Canada’s Arctic called the North Warning System, is becoming obsolete.
“Currently, the North Warning System cannot identify and track Russian long-range bombers prior to their missile-launch points or their overflights of the Arctic region,” he said during a conference on the future of Norad hosted by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“Yet this system, entering its fourth decade of service, is the system we rely on each and every day.”
Created in the 1950s in response to the threat of a Soviet attack by bombers or ballistic missiles over the Arctic, Norad is unique in the world as a joint operation between the U.S. and Canada.
Its technology was last upgraded in the 1980s, before the end of the Cold War, though the U.S. did incorporate the ability to shoot down incoming missiles in the mid-2000s. Canada famously decided in 2005 against joining what is now known as ballistic-missile defence.
The Liberal government’s 2017 defence policy included plans to upgrade or modernize Norad to defend against the threats of today and tomorrow, but offered few specific details because discussions with the U.S. had not started in earnest.
Three years later, it’s difficult to say what progress has been made. The U.S. and Canadian governments have held consultations with industry, Clarke said when asked when Norad modernization will happen. But he could not offer a schedule for moving on the project, saying: “It’s longer than any of us would like, but I can’t even give you a timeline.”
And he suggested that as long as Canada and the U.S. remain behind the curve, it leaves the continent vulnerable.
“We cannot deter what we cannot defeat and we cannot defeat what we cannot detect,” he said. “We have to recognize that we are not just trying to prevent a military attack, but in fact we are defending our entire way of life.”