Plan to rebuild defence early-warning system means political, fiscal headaches for Trudeau government


It’s not the SHIELD you’re probably thinking of — the one with the super-spies and flying battleships from Marvel comics and movies.

In fact, the SHIELD at the centre of the upcoming evolution of NORAD — the six-decade-old North American defence pact — shares nothing with its fictional counterpart but the acronym. But those trying to sell pandemic-weary, deficit-swamped governments on the proposed Strategic Homeland Integrated Ecosystem for Layered Defense may be hoping for a little reflected glamour for their multi-billion-dollar idea.

The current Liberal government committed to the renewal of NORAD early on; it was the top item in the first meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and now-former U.S. president Donald Trump in 2017. The proposal now presents a host of thorny political and financial problems for Canada.

The SHIELD concept is not your grandfather’s version of NORAD — which was simply a chain of radar stations across the North primed to warn of approaching Russian bombers and missiles.

A NORAD for now

The new strategy was first sketched out last fall in a paper written for the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute by the former U.S. NORAD commander, retired general Terrence O’Shaughnessy, and U.S. Air Force Brig.-Gen. Peter Fesler, the current deputy director of operations at the U.S. air defence headquarters.

Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 17, 2018. (Carolyn Kaster/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Fesler and O’Shaughnessy argued that, faced with a variety of new and improved weapons — everything from hypersonic glide vehicles to next-generation cruise missiles — North America needs a defence surveillance system that knits together space, air and land-based surveillance in real time.

Such a system “pools this data and fuses it into a common operational picture,” said the paper, published last September. “Then, using the latest advances in machine learning and data analysis, it scans the data for patterns that are not visible to human eyes, helping decision-makers understand adversary potential courses of action before they are executed.”

What they’re talking about is predictive analysis and artificial intelligence. The SHIELD concept envisions a “global sensing grid” that can sniff out threats as they develop by drawing on data from “traditional and nontraditional sources,” such as civilian air traffic control grids.

To an extent, the SHIELD concept is being put to work already by NORAD through operational testing of a cloud-based data fusion system called Project Pathfinder.

A hard sell

The U.S. Air Force signed off on the Pathfinder prototype and has ordered a production model through an $8 million US contract, according to Air Force Magazine.

The NORAD refurbishment was never costed in the federal government’s 2017 defence policy and it presents a host of challenges and tough decisions for the Liberal government now, ranging from the fiscal to the political to the military.

The arrival of the Biden administration in Washington seems to have made government-to-government negotiations more politically palatable in Ottawa. Many in Canada’s defence community were convinced there was little appetite among federal officials to haggle with Trump over NORAD after the bruising experience of re-negotiating the NAFTA trade deal.

One of the first challenges for government officials will be to present the NORAD renewal project to a Canadian public and political establishment overwhelmed by the pandemic, said one defence expert.

A crew bus leaves the the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station complex — command centre for NORAD — outside Colorado Springs, Colo. on May 10, 2018. (Dan Elliott/The Associated Press)

An economic argument

“If you try to quickly sell this in the context of ‘the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming,’ that is politically problematic, I think, particularly for this government,” said James Fergusson, deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.

Framing it in economic terms — highlighting the opportunities for innovation and high-tech jobs — likely would help, he said, but the overall cost will be an issue given the damage done to the economy and government balance sheets by the pandemic.

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.

The price tag is “the elephant in the room,” said Fergusson, adding that he’s skeptical about the assurances he’s heard from senior government officials that the money for NORAD will be in addition to already-promised defence policy funding.

Belt-tightening and BMD

He said he attended a conference in Ottawa a year ago that heard a senior Department of National Defence (DND) official state that the department had “been promised we’re going to get extra money for NORAD …”

“No, you’re not,” Fergusson added.

He said he believes it’s more likely that DND will be asked to cover Canada’s NORAD contribution within its existing budget — forcing the department to make cuts elsewhere.

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

This image made from video broadcast by North Korea’s KRT shows a military parade with what appears to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, Oct. 10, 2020. (KRT via The Associated Press)

The recent Liberal defence policy reaffirmed the 2005 decision by Paul Martin’s government to remain on the sidelines of any continental BMD effort, despite pleas from both the Senate and House of Commons defence committees to reconsider joining.

BMD is a non-starter for New Democrats and for some experts in the defence community who argue that missile defence merely contributes to the arms race.

Fergusson said recent advances in technology and military doctrine may force the government’s hand.

“The United States is moving very quickly to integrate air and missile defence into single units, rather than have them separated,” he said. “So that has big implications for us. We can’t simply do air defence without having to work with or having to do missile defence.”

And embedded in the concept of a “global sensing grid” is the expectation that threats — once identified — would be taken out.

Instead of focusing on the missiles — the “arrows,” to use NORAD parlance — the expectation is that a defensive network would focus its response on the “archers,” or the launch platforms. Russian bombers circling far outside of North American airspace, for example, would be targeted under the SHIELD strategy.

“That will be unpalatable to the Canadian government,” said Fergusson, pointing out that the Canadian military doesn’t have the long-range capability to conduct those kinds of defensive operations.

It’s a conversation Canada can’t avoid for much longer, he said, because much of the existing North Warning System reaches the end of its operational life by 2024.

“The United States cannot defend itself without Canada and we can’t defend ourselves without the United States.”



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