Canada’s hesitancy on military defence is leaving us vulnerable

Paul Wells: NORAD says the threats are higher than they’ve been in decades and action is needed now. Good luck getting Canada on board.
Launching a hypersonic weapon in Russia (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP/CP)
In this photo taken from undated footage distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, an intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a truck-mounted launcher somewhere in Russia. The Russian military said the Avangard hypersonic weapon entered combat duty. Little on the Pentagon’s drawing board illustrates more clearly the Trump administration’s worry about China and Russia than its work on hypersonic weapons. These missiles and aerial vehicles fly at speeds of a mile a second or faster and maneuver in ways that make them extra difficult to detect and destroy in flight. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP/CP)

Sooner or later, everyone visits Ottawa. Why, here at the end of November was Glen VanHerck, a Kentucky-born U.S. Air Force general, former pilot and instructor in F-15 fighters and B-2 bombers. Since the summer of 2020 he has been the commander of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

In Ottawa, VanHerck met Canada’s new defence minister, Anita Anand, and deputy minister Jody Thomas. He met Gen. Wayne Eyre, the chief of the defence staff. He also met some reporters. I’m writing what follows from a recording of that conversation.

VanHerck was in Ottawa partly because, as commander of NORAD, he reports directly to both the Canadian and U.S. governments. So in an operational sense, he was coming “home” for the first time since he got his job. But he also was bringing urgent news his Canadian hosts have plainly preferred not to hear: a dangerous world is becoming more dangerous, or dangerous in new ways. NORAD, which seeks to protect North America, is not ready for these new threats. Getting ready will cost money and force uncomfortable choices on a government that prefers not to think about military threats.

NORAD was founded in 1957, in the depths of the Cold War, to protect the U.S. against incoming bombers or missiles with nuclear payloads. As a bonus, it sought to protect the country those bombers or missiles would be likeliest to fly over: Canada. The main threat in those days was the Soviet Union and its vassal states. A range of technology would track potential launches from Soviet  territory. The main deterrent was the threat to launch a devastating counterstrike before an enemy strike could land. Everyone would die. Nobody liked this, but it worked for decades, in the sense that everyone did not die.

These were the “mutually assured destruction” years many of us grew up in. The climax of the 1983 movie War Games, with Matthew Broderick trying to keep a rogue computer from launching a global thermonuclear war, takes place in the NORAD command centre in Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. These days NORAD no longer does its business out of a mountain bunker; it uses a building nearby. That’s not all that’s changed. “Our competitors have analyzed our ability to operate overseas,” a NORAD strategy document from last March says, “and have invested in capabilities such as ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, small unmanned aircraft systems, artificial intelligence, cyber capabilities, and delivery platforms to offset our strengths while exploiting our perceived weaknesses.” As a result, “the stakes are higher than they have been in decades.”

The document laid out who’s on the list of “competitors”: “China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, violent extremist organizations, or transnational criminal organizations.” VanHerck keeps a short version of that list. “You know, I’m on record,” he said. “Russia’s a primary military threat to North America. China’s about a decade behind.”

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Behind at what? China spent the summer testing hypersonic weapons that could be launched from a “fractional orbital bombardment system” travelling 150 km overhead. These are scary. You launch a weapon into space, where it circles the planet for a fundamentally unpredictable amount of time. NORAD has spent a lifetime guarding against an attack coming over the North Pole, but these new weapons could as easily come from the south.

The Russians have weapons that are simpler and ready to use. They can fire cruise missiles from Russian airspace that would fly in over the Arctic, the old-fashioned way, but lower than NORAD’s radar outposts are designed to track.

VanHerck’s goal wasn’t to counsel responses to these threats. That’s up to politicians, he said repeatedly. But at any rate, he doesn’t think ballistic-missile defence is the main rebuttal to these threats. “My homeland defence design does not count on us shooting cruise missiles down over Ottawa and Washington, D.C.,” he said. Instead, if NORAD can gather and process information fast enough, and predict action based on that, it might be possible to dissuade a foe before an attack is launched.

“Now, to be candid, we have a lot of work to do” before such things are possible, he said. “To say that we’re well down the path in discussions, that we’ve come to agreements on anything, would be false information,” he added. “We’re getting ready to crawl, if you will.” How long can the preparing-to-crawl phase last? “You know, North America is only going to become more vulnerable to future capabilities being developed by potential adversaries. And decisions need to be made in the not-too-distant future. So I’d love to see those happen sooner than later.”

Best of luck with that, general. February’s triumphant videoconference meeting between Justin Trudeau and a then-popular Joe Biden ended with a plan to convene a “2+2” meeting of the two countries’ defence and foreign ministers to discuss just this sort of thing. Ten months later, it still hadn’t happened.

The two countries did release a “joint statement” on NORAD modernization in the middle of August. Late on a Saturday night. Hours before Trudeau went to Rideau Hall to kick off an election campaign. At a time when such a document was guaranteed to get zero news coverage in Canada. When I asked the U.S. embassy for details on this agreement, I was told that, strictly speaking, it’s not an agreement. It’s a joint statement.

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Why so skittish? In March the CBC attributed the “golden silence” over NORAD modernization to the lingering hangover from Paul Martin’s refusal to participate in George W. Bush’s ballistic missile defence program. No Canadian government wants to touch BMD with a barge pole. Even the Conservatives, who reliably blame the Liberals for refusing to participate in missile defence, didn’t reverse that decision during the decade Stephen Harper was prime minister.

But not deciding is a decision: when the Americans make command decisions on missile defence, they do it without their Canadian counterparts present, and NORAD stops being NORAD for the duration of the conversation. To the extent that the Americans need to ensure their continental defence in the absence of our half of the continent, they’ll simply proceed without us. At some point that becomes embarrassing.

This is the kind of decision Justin Trudeau hates to make. He’d get no credit from his voter base for making North America more secure against threats many voters don’t believe exist, in concert with an ally many don’t think is worthy.

But neither is endless delay an option. It’s a bit like repairs on 24 Sussex Drive, which Trudeau has been punting forward for half a decade. Meanwhile, the place falls to scrap and some future prime minister will send us the bill. Except in this case it’s a house the size of a continent. It’s threatened by worse than rain and cold winds. The neighbours have noticed, and they’re banging on the ceiling with a broomstick.

This column appears in print in the February 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Ditherers in a dangerous time.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.