A plan to plug gaps in the continent’s Arctic defence shield faces roadblocks

Despite the buzz surrounding last year’s announcement, it’s clear that modernizing North America’s air defense systems – a plan to spend $4.9 billion over six years – has a long way to go. and some major technical hurdles to overcome.

The Trudeau government announced its long-anticipated NORAD modernization plan in June in the run-up to the NATO leaders’ summit – a tense meeting where alliance members, denied affected by the war in Ukraine, is expected to show how serious they are about defense spending.

And the plan to upgrade the air defense system was a key point of discussion for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Defense Minister Anita Anand and Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly at the NATO summit in Madrid.

However, in the months since, some of the challenges facing that multibillion-dollar defense overhaul have become apparent — especially in Canada.

The goal of the modernization program is to create a multi-layered defense over the Far North that will protect against strategic bombers (the type NORAD was created to counter more than seven decades ago) as well as enemy aircraft. ballistic, cruise and hypersonic – the kind of weapons we’ve seen Ukraine bombarded with.

The two hugged each other amid the rubble of destroyed houses.
Local resident Yana hugs a friend as she reacts outside her mother’s house — damaged in a Russian missile attack — in Kyiv, Ukraine on December 29, 2022. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Under the plan, Canada and the US want to improve satellite coverage, introduce state-of-the-art over-the-horizon radar, and deploy undersea sensors and surveillance in the Arctic – especially in so-called spots. “choking point”, the ocean entrance of the archipelago Canada claims as its sovereign territory.

The good news, according to the Chief of Operations of the Armed Forces of Canada, is that the military has pretty good surveillance capabilities in the Far North at the moment, due to modest traffic level.

“Do I have good domain awareness right now? Yes, I do,” said Vice Admiral Bob Auchterlonie, in charge of Canada’s Joint Operations Command. “For example, in the maritime sector, only about 150 ships actually pass through the North each year. We know each of them, we track them very well.”

Look out below

The challenge — or threat — lies below the ocean’s surface, especially under the ice where submarines carrying ballistic or cruise missiles can hide.

In a year-end interview with CBC News, Auchterlonie said Canada and its allies always share naval intelligence about the whereabouts of their adversaries and their major warships, including submarines.

And a host of new technologies – some still in development – are expected to join NORAD’s underwater network soon, he said.

“I’d say the technology has really evolved over the last few years. And we’re working with our allies, as well as their own defense scientists, to deliver detection capabilities. enemies in our waters… on the surface and below the surface,” said Auchterlonie.

A titanium capsule with a Russian flag is seen seconds after it was docked by the mini-submarine Mir-1 to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean under the Arctic during a record dive in 2007. (Russian Association of Polar Explorers/AP)

The development of that new technology – which could include mobile sensor arrays, unmanned ships and unmanned underwater vehicles built to hunt submarines – is happening alongside the Navy’s 5th Fleet. US army.

Last summer, the US Navy’s head of naval operations presented a plan to revive the fleet by 2045. The plan calls for the creation of a fleet of 373 manned and 150 ships. unmanned patrol, with a total of 523 ships. The Navy has asked the US Congress for more than $250 million to develop unmanned surface ships and submarines.

Although construction on these new weapons systems is underway, Auchterlonie said Canada is closely following developments.

That said, he added, Canada and the United States could begin deploying existing technology — such as underwater drones — to defend the North.

The war in Ukraine is fueling an undeniable sense of urgency in the West about the need to develop new surveillance technology – and Canada has been watching Moscow’s moves in the North with growing alarm.

The Russian Navy’s Marshal Ustinov missile cruiser sets off for Arctic exercises in January 2022. (Press Service of the Ministry of Defense of Russia/Press Association)

Jody Thomas, the prime minister’s national security and intelligence adviser, recently told the House defense committee: “Russia is rebuilding its military infrastructure in the Arctic to gain capabilities from Soviet times”.

“They’ve stopped. And they’re coming back. I think that’s exciting. They’re continuing to build in the Arctic despite the economic hardships they’re experiencing due to the illegal invasion and their barbarians into Ukraine.”

During a visit to Canada’s Far North last summer, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg remarked that the shortest way for Russia to attack North America is through the North Pole.

Canadian officials have repeatedly stated that plans to purchase the F-35 stealth fighter jet and introduce state-of-the-art over-the-horizon (OTH) radar will help alleviate that fear.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrive at Cambridge Bay, Nunavut on Thursday, August 25, 2022. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Over-the-horizon (OTH) radar systems can locate targets that are beyond the range of conventional radar. They also draw large amounts of energy. Defense scientists are trying to figure out how to power stations in remote northern locations in an environmentally responsible way.

“Due to their extremely large size, most OTH radar systems are located in remote areas where large amounts of electricity cannot be accessed from the grid. Therefore, diesel generators are used. regularly,” a Canadian Defense Research and Development Department technical memo wrote in 2006, as the military was studying the feasibility of new systems.

It warned that, to prevent shutdowns, a two-megawatt generator burning 15,000 liters of diesel fuel per day would be required to power an OTH array.

That “leads to a separate issue with continued fuel delivery,” the memo said. “Disruptions in fuel supply (for example, due to severe adverse winter weather events) can be minimized by storing fuel for several days.”

Two RADARSAT spacecraft are prepared for vibration testing at MDA facilities in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que. (Canadian Space Agency)

Perhaps the most pressing and frustrating problem facing Canadian officials is the country’s rapidly aging government-owned RADARSAT Constellation satellite chain. The federal auditor general warned in November that the satellites could exceed their useful life by 2026.

Replacements for those satellites – used by a number of government agencies, including the Department of Defense – are still being planned. The current government has promised dedicated military surveillance satellites in its 2017 defense policy but — as Auditor General Karen Hogan noted in her recent report — those systems will not be launched. until 2035.

Government needs ‘a backup plan’, AG says

Hogan told the Commons defense committee on December 8, 2022: “What we are looking for is that the government has a bit of a contingency plan.

“What if these satellites are out of service? Right now, the government either buys information commercially or turns to its allies.”

Nicholas Swale, a senior official in Hogan’s office, said that the same committee that heard the satellite system was overtaxed.

“There are many departments that are looking for information from these satellites and their needs are currently not being met,” he said.

In a year-end interview with CBC News, General Wayne Eyre, the defense chief of staff, was asked if the Department of Defense would accelerate a dedicated satellite launch program before 2035.

“At this point, I don’t know,” he said. “But we’ll definitely try.”


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