North America faces a pressing security challenge from Russia’s “escalation to de-escalate” doctrine and new generation of long-range air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, write Andrea Charron and James Fergusson. NORAD needs to undertake significant changes to deal with this new threat environment.
By Andrea Charron and James Fergusson, May 24, 2017
Almost since its inception in 1957, little public attention was paid to how the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has evolved from its original air defence mission since 1957 to the acquisition of ballistic missile warning in the 1960s, the provision of support to drug interdiction in the 1990s, and, most recently, maritime warning in 2006.
Today, NORAD is on the cusp of another major step forward that goes beyond upgrading and modernizing aged infrastructure and equipment. While attention has so far been placed on the need to replace the aging, outdated North Warning System (NWS), this masks much more significant evolutionary changes in the Command arising from the new threat environment.
We are witnessing a shift from intra-state conflict and “war on terror” back to state-on-state great power politics and deterrence. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, covertly supported rebels in Eastern Ukraine, and then military engaged in the Syrian civil war in support of the Assad regime. At about the same time, China expanded its military activities in the disputed South China Sea. Both countries continue to develop advanced, technologically sophisticated military capabilities, in an attempt to challenge American military superiority.
We are witnessing a shift from intra-state conflict and “war on terror” back to state-on-state great power politics and deterrence.
For North America, the most immediate and pressing concerns are from Russia. Strategically, Russia has adopted the doctrine of “escalation to de-escalate,” in which Russia may seek to escalate a crisis by threatening or striking at a target outside the region, as means to force NATO and the US to de-escalate.
Of major concern for North American defence is the new generation of long-range air (ALCMs) and surface/submarine launched cruise missiles (SLCMs), which can be launched from platforms outside of North American airspace in the Arctic, potentially even from Russian maritime and airspace.
The NWS is inadequate to meet this threat. It can neither identify ALCM-armed bombers from the Russian Arctic before they reach of North American airspace, nor can it identify and track cruise missiles (air or sea-launched) due to their low radar and flight path profiles. In addition, given their current location, NORAD forward operating locations (FOL) for jet fighters are likely too distant to be able to intercept and destroy the platforms prior to launch.
In effect, there is a significant gap in North American defence, especially with respect to cruise missiles, that cedes escalation dominance to the Russians. In other words, it provides Russia with a valuable tool for coercive diplomacy, central to the doctrine of "escalation to de-escalate," that could undermine the credibility of western deterrence, which would then rest upon the threat of strategic nuclear retaliation with all its credibility concerns.
In effect, there is a significant gap in North American defence, especially with respect to cruise missiles, that cedes escalation dominance to the Russians.
Equally worrisome is the threat of an ambitious non-state actor using a maritime platform armed with cruise missiles, such as a freighter, although significant improvements have been made in maritime domain awareness (MDA) partially as a function of NORAD’s newest maritime warning mission.
Major gaps are evident in NORAD’s aerospace warning, maritime warning, and air defence control missions – and, given this “new” threat environment, filling these gaps will require a response beyond simply modernizing the NWS and replacing aged radars, jets, and ships. NORAD’s evolution, rather than just modernization, is needed.
This modernization/evolution debate is not new. In 2013, on the direction of the Canada-US Permanent Joint Board on Defense (PJBD), the NORAD Next study was launched to examine future North American defence requirements. In 2016, the PJBD requested the study, now labeled the Evolution of North American Defense (EVONAD), identify and establish priorities for modernization and evolution beyond just potential changes to NORAD. The first results of which will be briefed to the PJBD later this year.
EVONAD is focused naturally on the next generation of the North Warning System (NWS). Yet the “new” NWS will require the capability to identify and track air-breathing threats farther from North America and may well need to be able to identify maritime threats as well. Some mix of ground, air, space and sea-based sensors will therefore be required. In addition, the NWS will likely move farther north, and contribute to a layered system of sensors, including potentially down the coastlines of North America.
Strategic considerations are also critical here. Rather than focusing on the threat projectile or “arrows” (the missiles), the ideal strategy is to intercept the launch platforms or “archers.” Unlike during the Cold War, however, this strategy now implies potential intercepts close to or in Russian airspace or other locations beyond North America, with potential implications in times of crisis. It could entail a pre-emptive strategy and thus potentially shift NORAD’s posture from pure defence to one of offence/defence.
Two key issues arise that touch on the evolution of North American defence more generally. First, such a doctrine would potentially require a delegation of new authorities to NORAD, or under the purview of the Tri-Command relationship between NORAD, Canada Joint Operations Command, and US Northern Command. This would have implications for command and control (C2) of this arrangement.
Second, both American and Canadian governments must clearly understand the political implications of such doctrinal changes, especially the notion of pre-emption. The Canadian government may prefer to leave the “archers” to the United States, adopting instead a counter-cruise missile defence function of intercepting the “arrows.” Yet this suggests Canadian fighters dedicated to NORAD will not intercept the launch platforms themselves, thereby potentially leaving a significant Northern gap that would likely be filled by the US.
The result could mean agreeing to allow US fighters to deploy to the northern FOL for the “archer” mission in lieu of Canadian fighters – a potentially politically contentious decision in Ottawa. It could also lead Canadian investment in cruise missile intercept capabilities (air, ground and sea-based) in the context of a binational military division of labour. If Canada failed to invest as a function of costs, then Canada may need to accept more US personnel and equipment, with implications for C2 arrangements in NORAD.
At the same time, the cruise missile threat also extends into the maritime environment. This raises the question of integrating maritime and air defence, and thus whether NORAD’s should expand into maritime control.
This requires consideration of the linkages between North American command and control and the other US combatant commands, especially European Command (EUCOM) and Pacific Command (PACOM), as well as NATO. Due to the speed and technology of new weapon systems, what happens under EUCOM’s area of responsibility can have a quick and profound impact in North America.
Cyber defence is another area of concern. While the US has stood up Cyber Command, Canada has no equivalent in terms of size and experience.
The future of Canada-US defence cooperation also extends to other domains. One such sector is military outer space. Yet this is currently managed bilaterally outside of NORAD and would entail revisiting the issue of ballistic missile defence (BMD). Cyber defence is another area of concern. While the US has stood up Cyber Command, Canada has no equivalent in terms of size and experience. Lastly, cooperation in the land environment remains largely nationalized, notwithstanding existing MOUs related to consequence management.
Of course, NORAD is not the only solution for North American defence cooperation. And other environments need not be integrated into a single binational command structure. Nonetheless, NORAD is an obvious solution to the demands generated by the new threat environment.
Today, modernization and evolution is on the higher political agenda. In the joint statement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump in February, the two agreed that: “We will work to modernize and broaden our NORAD partnership in these key domains [aerospace warning, aerospace control, and maritime warning], as well as in cyber and space” (emphasis added). Of course, whether they share a common interpretation remains an open question.
Given the current geopolitical threat environment, both military and civilian authorities on both sides of the border are likely considering the future of NORAD and the evolution of North American defence. Only time will tell what comes of it, although the possibility of change is certainly real.
Andrea Charron is Deputy-Director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies and Assistant Professor in Political Studies. James Fergusson is the Director or the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, and Professor in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba. They are authors of the recent CGAI study, Beyond NORAD and Modernization to North American Defence Evolution.