Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers the federal budget in the House of Commons as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on in Ottawa on Monday April 19, 2021. It was only a few lines in the federal budget, and the money involved represents a rounding error in the overall scheme of things.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers the federal budget in the House of Commons as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on in Ottawa on Monday April 19, 2021. It was only a few lines in the federal budget, and the money involved represents a rounding error in the overall scheme of things.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Budget first small step in long, expensive path to upgrading North American defences

Military officials and experts have been cautioning about the state of the current system

It was only a few lines in the federal budget, and the money involved represents a rounding error in the overall scheme of things.

For defence officials and experts who have been sounding the alarm about North America’s aging defences in an increasingly turbulent world, however, it represented an important step: the first real funding to update the North American Aerospace Defence Command.

Yet there remain many unanswered questions, including what that those new defences will look like, how fast they will be built — and whether the rest of the money required to finish the project will be available when needed.

“This is a step forward,” said University of Manitoba professor James Fergusson, one of Canada’s top experts on NORAD. “There was some money. It’s not very much, but at least the government has started to move. The question becomes: How pressing is all this?”

The federal budget unveiled Monday included more than $100 billion in new spending over the next few years. Of that, $163 million has been earmarked for what the government calls NORAD modernization.

“This funding will enable the enhancement of all-domain surveillance of our northern approaches and renewed investment in continental defence more broadly,” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s spokesman Daniel Minden said in an email.

“Our government is determined to develop better surveillance, defence and rapid-response capabilities in the north and in Canada’s maritime and air approaches. We are currently evaluating further NORAD modernization initiatives, which will be announced when finalized.”

The U.S. and Canada created NORAD in the 1950s to protect North America from a Soviet nuclear attack. Strings of radars and air bases were built to detect and stop incoming missiles and bombers, and placed under a unique joint command.

Yet military officials and experts have been cautioning in increasingly loud voices about the state of the current system, which includes a string of radars built in Canada’s far north in the 1980s called the North Warning System.

Officials and experts have emphasized the physical age of the system’s technology and infrastructure, and its inability to find and identify new types of weapons being developed by Russia and other adversaries.

Those include low-flying cruise missiles and extremely fast hypersonic missiles, which are much more difficult to detect and stop than the massive intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers for which NORAD was originally designed.

In fact, military officials have warned the system can’t even detect Russian bombers before they are in position to launch an attack.

Canada and the U.S. have talked for years about replacing the existing system, with Justin Trudeau discussing it in his inaugural meetings with both Donald Trump and Joe Biden when they became president. It is also promised in the Liberals’ 2017 defence policy.

Yet progress has been extremely slow, which has contributed to a sense of frustration in some military circles. The project also didn’t have any dedicated Canadian funding attached to it — until now.

“This is the amount of money that will be invested to sort of get things rolling,” retired Canadian diplomat Michael Dawson, who served as an adviser to the commander of NORAD in Colorado Springs, Colo., said of the $163 million.

“It strikes me as a pretty good sign that they really do plan to deliver on the NORAD commitment.”

Fergusson believes the new money will be largely directed at the Defence Department’s research arm, Defence Research and Development Canada, to start work on ideas and technology.

One question will be what to include in the new system given how fast weapons are evolving, including whether it will revolve around ground-based radars, satellites or other technology.

There has also been talk about artificial intelligence and quantum computing to speed up detection and decision-making, while a debate is pending around the degree to which Canada will participate in not just identifying threats, but also stopping them.

Canada famously opted out of joining the U.S. in ballistic missile defence system in 2005, which involves shooting incoming nuclear missiles out of the sky. It will likely need to wrestle with the issue again along with what to do about other threats.

Such discussions and research will come against a backdrop of growing urgency as the existing system becomes increasingly obsolete and in recognition of the glacial pace of the military procurement system and the challenges of building in the Arctic.

“We had some pretty interesting briefings on this about how long it takes to do stuff in the north,” Dawson said of his time with NORAD. “And I think the rule of thumb is it takes three times as long and cost four times as much for anything.”

Yet Fergusson worries that there isn’t enough of an appreciation in Ottawa — and the Canadian public, in general — about the importance of the project, which he suggests is important for relations with the U.S. and sending a message to adversaries about Canada’s resolve.

Military officials have previously said failing to replace the current system would hamstring any response to Russian or Chinese aggression here and around the world as those countries could effectively hold North America hostage by threatening strikes.

There are also questions about whether the government will provide the necessary cash, which some estimates put at more than $10 billion, when it comes time to start construction.

That may not seem like a big concern now, when the government is promising $101 billion in new spending over the next three years, but the military has previously seen major spending cuts when governments want to slash the deficit.

The fact the government has yet to dedicate any specific funds to the project aside from the $163 million in the budget adds to those concerns about billions more dollars being available for NORAD in the coming years.

“Certainly the whole Defence Department probably breathed a sigh of relief when they got the budget, but I’m sure they’re sitting there, given past practices in this country, waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Fergusson said about the absence of cuts in the document.

“What’s the old saying? Someone’s got to pay the piper down the road. So I can understand why the government has done what it’s done, but we’ll see what happens next year.”

FEDERAL BUDGET 2021: Liberals highlight plans for COVID supports, long-term care, child care

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

2021 Federal BudgetNATONorth America

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Creston Town Hall. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Ellen Tzakis resigns from Creston Town Council

Council is preparing to hold a by-election later this year

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a 'person of interest' in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
Man sought in suspicious Kootenay death found in Lake Country

Philip Toner is a person of interest in the death of Brenda Ware

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
65 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Overall, B.C. is seeing a decrease in COVID-19 cases

School District 8 employees Shannon Tetz, Cheryl Rendek, and Janet Wall officially began their retirement with a COVID-friendly send-off outside of Prince Charles Secondary School. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
School District 8 employees Shannon Tetz, Cheryl Rendek, and Janet Wall officially began their retirement with a COVID-friendly send-off outside of Prince Charles Secondary School. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Three women retire from School District 8 with COVID-friendly celebration

Shannon Tetz, Cheryl Rendek, and Janet Wall shared 87 years of service collectively

The Salmo Public Library’s director Taylor Caron with her award. Photo: Submitted
Salmo Public Library director wins provincial award

Taylor Caron has been recognized by her peers for innovation and advocacy

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police “E” Division Headquarters, in Surrey, B.C., on Friday April 13, 2018. Indigenous leaders are calling for an investigation into the conduct of Mounties on Vancouver Island after two police shootings of members of a small First Nations community in three months. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Indigenous leaders call for clarity, investigation into RCMP after B.C. shooting

The RCMP declined to comment on the requests by Indigenous leaders

Colleen Price, Vancouver Island University’s bachelor of science in nursing program chairperson, says she is impressed with how students have persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Next generation of B.C. nurses already showing resilience

University program head says learning had to be adjusted amidst pandemic

Two-year-old Kashius Weme rides at the Steve Smith Memorial Bike Park in Nanaimo on Tuesday, May 11. The youngster’s precocious bike-riding ability is already attracting cycle sponsors. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
2-year-old B.C. bike rider already attracting cycle sponsors

Nanaimo’s Kashius Weme has a knack for extreme cycle sports

Keith MacIntyre - BC Libertarian
Penticton’s Keith MacIntyre new leader of the B.C. Libertarian Party

The Penticton businessman was voted in by members of the party on May 8

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Vernon North Okanagan RCMP reported to 287 mental health calls between Jan. 1, 2021, and May 1. (Black Press files)
‘It’s not the police’s responsibility to deal with mental health calls’: Vernon RCMP

RCMP remind public to take care of mental health and well-being, while better solutions are sought

Thompson Rivers University campus is in Kamloops, B.C. (KTW file photo)
Thompson Rivers the 1st B.C. university to supply free menstrual products

The university will offer the products this September

Fraser Health is using ‘targeted’ vaccination clinics in high-risk areas of the Lower Mainland. (Fraser Health photo)
B.C.’s COVID-19 decrease continues, 515 new cases Tuesday

426 seriously ill people in hospital, up from 415 Monday

Most Read