NORAD modernization a litmus test of Canadian post-pandemic priorities

U.S. Air Force backs sweeping NORAD upgrade proposal called SHIELD

President Joe Biden, in his first call to a foreign leader as President of the United States, spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on 22 January 2021. The White House “readout” of the call, after highlighting the “strategic importance of the U.S. – Canada relationship” and the desire to “re-invigorate” bilateral cooperation on an “ambitious agenda”, outlined the following specific areas of interest:

  • combating the COVID-19 pandemic,
  • strengthening economic ties,
  • deepening defence cooperation and
  • global leadership to address the pressing challenge of climate change.

The office of the Prime Minister, for its part, issued a statement with more details on the items discussed, including, in particular, the following:

The Prime Minister and President agreed to expand cooperation on continental defence and in the Arctic, including the need to modernize NORAD, and discussed their Foreign Affairs and National Defence ministers and secretaries of State and Defense meeting at the earliest opportunity.

However, as CBC’s Murray Brewster notes in an excellent analysis entitled Plan to rebuild defence early-warning system means political, fiscal headaches for Trudeau government (, 26 January 2021), modernization of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is much easier said than done.

According to the proponents, the heart of the defence early warning system upgrade should be a  sweeping, multibillion dollar proposal for a Strategic Homeland Integrated Ecosystem for Layered Defense (SHIELD). The US Air Force describes the concept as follows:

SHIELD builds on nearly two decades of work on Homeland Defense Design, a NORAD project launched in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that aimed to improve the U.S. military’s ability to find, fix, track, target, and engage growing air threats, such as those posed by cruise missiles, low-slow aircraft, and long-range aviation. [emphasis added]

NORAD modernization costs not part of 2017 Defence Policy

The 2017 Liberal Defence Policy — Strong, Secure, Engaged — included a commitment to:

work with the United States to ensure that NORAD is modernized to meet existing and future challenges….

The new defence policy also came with a whopping 70% budgetary increase over 10 years (with the bulk of the new money coming after 2021). But none of that was earmarked for NORAD upgrades.

That sobering fact alone should give pause to those pushing the Cadillac version of upgrades, which the SHIELD concept assuredly is. Brewster writes:

Estimates of the cost of NORAD’s renewal range between $11 billion and $15 billion. Whatever it ends up costing, Canadian taxpayers would be on the hook for 40 per cent of the total.

James Fergusson, Deputy Director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba and co-author of a tripartite research project on NORAD modernization, was blunt when discussing this issue with Brewster, stating:

The price tag is the elephant in the room….

In Fergusson’s view, the government will likely ask DND to cover Canada’s NORAD modernization share “within its existing budget” — forcing the department to make cuts elsewhere and, we would add, casting further doubt on Canada’s embrace of the entirety of the SHIELD concept.

But there are more than fiscal reasons to question the Government of Canada’s intention to get behind this concept. Brewster writes:

The NORAD [SHIELD] project also promises to drag a reluctant federal government back into a political debate over ballistic missile defence (BMD).

In 2005, faced with a growing public outcry, the Paul Martin minority Liberal government had to do a humiliating about-face and back out of discussions it had initiated for Canada to join in the American ground-based strategic ballistic missile defence (GMD) programme.  RI President Mason comments:

The Mulroney government had declined to participate back in 1985 and in 2005 the Martin government had done the same. But the former was a master lesson in saying ‘no’ diplomatically, while the latter was an embarrassing debacle for both governments, to the extent that one senior American official, privately commenting to me on the event a full 11 years later, still described the subject as “toxic”.

Since 2005, and about $US 50 billion later, the GMD system has not become more reliable, the cost for Canadian participation has skyrocketed and the negative arms control implications have not dissipated.

See, for example, the December 2020 assessment by the prestigious US Arms Control Association, where they state in part:

Nuclear strategists have long understood that the development and deployment of strategic missile interceptors are ineffective against determined nuclear-armed adversaries but could lead them nonetheless to build more numerous and sophisticated offensive missile systems to overwhelm and evade missile defenses.

And this commentary applies equally to the overall SHIELD concept, which proponents argue is an effort to overcome the following dilemma:

we cannot deter what we cannot defeat, and we cannot defeat what we cannot detect.

However, as veteran peace and security analyst Ernie Regehr writes in his tour de force entitled The North Warning System (NWS), and “what we cannot defeat” (, 12 March 2020):

The main point about nuclear deterrence is that, contrary to NORAD’s talking points, it does not rely on the capacity to defend. In nuclear strategic terms, deterrence rests on the capacity and intent to launch devastating counterattacks after having sustained an attack against which no defence was possible.

That’s obvious enough, but when senior military officials insist it is not possible to deter what cannot be defeated, the basics of deterrence obviously need to be restated.

To be absolutely clear, what Regehr is pointing out is that the central assumption of the SHIELD concept rests on a complete misunderstanding of nuclear deterrence theory. Precisely because no defence is possible, the focus of nuclear deterrence is on each side maintaining sufficient retaliatory capacity in the event of attack, such that a first strike would result in mutual assured destruction (MAD), thereby deterring the attack in the first place.

Mason further comments:

Nuclear deterrence is a sword of Damocles keeping us “safe” through the certain promise of mutual assured destruction (MAD) if either Russia or the USA launched a first strike. But infinitely worse is the insane belief that the USA could actually prevail in a nuclear war. Yet, this is the inescapable premise behind the SHIELD concept.

Given this extraordinarily dangerous strategic muddle evinced by SHIELD enthusiasts in Canada and the USA alike, we must make every effort to ensure that the Trudeau government limits Canadian modernization efforts to surveillance and related upgrades that also come with substantial sovereignty and public security benefits. Regehr writes:

And, to be clear, it is operations in support of sovereignty and public safety, not defence against Russian or Chinese strategic forces, that are the primary, day-to-day work of NORAD. With the aid of frontier warning systems–the North Warning System and especially Atlantic and Pacific coastal radars–NORAD and Canadian Forces track and identify some 200,000 civilian aircraft that annually approach or enter Canadian airspace.

The key mission is to sort out which of those aircraft represent challenges to Canadian law enforcement, public safety, or security. These are operations primarily to aid civil authorities. As the Arctic becomes more accessible to small aircraft, and as maritime traffic increases, more of those surveillance/interception operations will have to take place in the north, beyond the Atlantic and Pacific coasts where the main action obviously is today.

For more from Ernie Regehr on pursuing NORAD modernization in a manner that promotes, rather than undermines, strategic stability, see: Deterrence, Arms Control and Cooperative Security: Selected Writings on Arctic Security (NAADSN, 2020).

Whither Canada

We call on the Government of Canada to focus Canada’s role in NORAD modernization firmly on enhanced domain awareness within the region to support public safety, law enforcement and sovereignty protection while also serving national defence and strategic stability, and with funding to come from within existing resources.

Find out more in our ongoing Arctic Security Webinar Series.

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Photo credit: DFO/D.L.Labrie

Tags: 2017 Canadian defence policy, American Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), early warning, enhanced domain awareness, Ernie Regehr, Groundbased strategic ballistic missile defense (GMD), Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD), Nuclear Deterrence, Prof James Fergusson, SHIELD, sovereignty