The U.S. and Canada plan to modernize a network of defense satellites and radar in the Arctic, in a bid to counter a growing military presence in the north from Russia and China.
President Biden asked Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ramp up Canada’s spending on defense, including an upgrade of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, commonly known as Norad, during a bilateral meeting between the two leaders on Tuesday, according to an official familiar with the discussions.
Norad was a central part of the U.S. and Canadian military’s Cold War deterrence strategy against the former Soviet Union. Consisting of satellites, ground-based radar, and air-force bases located mostly in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, the surveillance system was designed to give the military allies notice of any impending attack from the north.
The system, once state-of-the-art, has since become outdated. New missiles being deployed by Russia and China can travel at more than five times the speed of sound and fly much farther than their predecessors, which would overwhelm the existing surveillance network, said Michael Dawson, who served as Canadian political adviser to Norad command in Colorado from 2010 to 2014.
In addition, a melting polar ice cap is leaving the once impassable Arctic Ocean ice-free for longer periods of time, creating new vulnerabilities for the U.S. and Canada, current and former military officials say.
“The Arctic is no longer a fortress wall, and our oceans are no longer protective moats; they are now avenues of approach for advanced conventional weapons," said retired U.S. Gen. Terrence O’Shaugnessy during testimony last March before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
President Biden made a pointed reference to Norad in his public comments after the Tuesday meeting, Mr. Biden’s first bilateral with a foreign leader since his election. He said the countries had agreed to modernize the system, which is jointly controlled by both governments.
Mr. Biden also said he expected NATO members, including Canada, to spend at least 2% of their economic output on defense, as outlined in a 2014 pledge made by members of the trans-Atlantic alliance. Canada’s annual defense spending is about 1.5%, according to the latest NATO figures.
The White House and a spokesman for the Pentagon didn’t respond to a request for comment. On Friday, the U.S. State Department listed the defense system as one of the priorities for the U.S. and Canadian bilateral relationship, ahead of a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Mr. Trudeau along with other senior officials.
“We welcome Canada’s reinforced commitment to Norad as we modernize the command to meet new global security challenges," said the department in a fact sheet issued before Mr. Blinken’s meeting Friday, via videoconference, with Canadian officials.
Norad also came up during a Jan. 22 call between the leaders, highlighting the importance the U.S. is placing on the upgrade of a surveillance system that was first developed in the 1950s.
U.S. military and political leaders like Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, see the Arctic warning system as an important tool for keeping abreast with China and Russia’s growing military presence in the Arctic. Russia has been developing ports along the Northern Sea Route, a shipping route that snakes along the Siberian Coast. President Vladimir Putin has also embarked on a military buildup in the region, adding new airfields, air-defense installations and bases.
China, which views the Arctic as an important shipping route, according to government documents, and has tried investing in northern mines that give the country access to minerals like zinc, nickel and gold, has forged partnerships with several countries that border the Arctic. It has deployed ice breakers in the region and declared itself a “near-Arctic state."
Though Canada committed in 2017 to boost defense spending by 70% over a decade, Mr. Trudeau’s government hasn’t set aside any money specifically to update the Arctic warning system, a project that could cost the country $6 billion—roughly 40% of the $15 billion estimated cost, said James Fergusson, deputy director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies.
That money would represent a major commitment for Canada, whose total annual defense budget of US$19 billion is less than 3% of the US$700 billion defense budget.
Canadian officials have publicly acknowledged the importance of the upgrades.
“Now is the opportunity to really ramp things up," Canada’s defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, said in a late January interview. Mr. Sajjan also discussed the modernization with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during a call in January.
Mr. Sajjan said Canada has started some of the work, citing new Arctic and offshore patrol ships that began to arrive last year, with five more on the way, and the deployment of new satellite technology to improve surveillance of the Arctic and maritime activity.
Since coming to power, Mr. Trudeau has focused on the threat of climate change to Arctic indigenous communities. A broad Arctic plan, released by Mr. Trudeau’s government in late 2019, envisaged investments in new infrastructure and improvements in healthcare to serve local indigenous communities.
Among the key initiatives the Canadian government mentioned was an upgrade of the North Warning System, or NWS, a chain of nearly 50 unmanned radar stations in the Arctic and Alaska. Canadian government documents indicate the system will come to the end of its operating life by 2025, and the technology will need to be replaced.
Behind the scenes, officials in both countries have worked on projects aimed at best updating the technology required to protect the continent’s airspace, said John McKay, a Canadian legislator and co-chairman of the Permanent Joint Board on Defense—a U.S.-Canada group that advises the country’s leaders on North American defense. The problem in recent years, Mr. McKay said, was a lack of political direction from Washington.
“The previous administration didn’t have as much interest as it should have had on Norad issues, and so therefore it was difficult to get the attention of the Americans," Mr. McKay said.
Yet, a former Trump administration senior national security official responded that Arctic security was a defense priority for the former president’s team, noting that the Defense Department published an Arctic strategy review in June 2019, re-established its second fleet for North Atlantic and Arctic operations, and repeatedly called for more funding for missile defense.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.
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