Beyond the North Warning System


Aug. 18 marked the 80th anniversary of the Canadian-U.S. Permanent Joint Board on Defense. This binational board of experts provides advice to the prime minister and president on how best to defend North America. The pressing topic today is North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) modernization and the renewal of its aged radar sensors in the Arctic.

The North Warning System, a series of unmanned, long- and short-range radars dotting the North American Arctic and Greenland in support of air defense and frontier control, is reaching its end of serviceable life. The American and Canadian defense industries are racing for a chance to provide both militaries with the latest technology to replace the old radars. But to what ends? More sensors are not the magic solution to “modernizing” NORAD. Sensors are but one very small part of a wider effort to reconsider what it means to defend North America — beyond technology and the North Warning System.



The United States is engaged in a pivot to the Arctic because of increased competition with Russia and China, climate change, and increased commercial interests in the region. This has wider implications for Canada and for other partners, including Arctic NATO allies such as Denmark (Greenland) and Norway, to contribute to air, surface, and subsurface situational awareness beyond what the North Warning System provides. NORAD and the United States Northern Command are responsible for defending North America, but they can no longer do so independently of the other U.S. combatant commands and NATO allies. The defense of North America needs to be thought of as a global effort reimagined for the 21st century.

NORAD and the North Warning System

NORAD has always been closely associated with defending the Arctic. Its crest includes a broad sword facing due north, suggesting that the avenue of potential attack against North America is through the Arctic. Now 62 years old, NORAD identifies air and maritime threats and provides air defense for North America. One of its key assets is the North Warning System. The system was completed between 1986 and 1992, using 1970s technology. It was designed to detect air bomber threats from the Soviet Union travelling in a north-south direction.

Washington and Ottawa are rethinking how to defend North America. Adversaries, especially Russia, have access to advanced technologies and capabilities and can strike from multiple directions. The United States and Canada need to focus on increasing “all-domain” awareness, improving command and control, and enhancing targeting capabilities for a new security environment and peer adversaries. Upgrading the North Warning System exclusively in a NORAD context is not sufficient. Canada and the United States need new sensors capable of dual-use data and information collection for military and civilian government agencies and allies in multiple domains including land, space, maritime, and subsurface zones, in addition to the aerospace domain. And these sensors — which will be subject to probing, denial of service, and cyber attacks — are but one layer in an ecosystem (beyond even system of systems) informed by a reconsideration of what it means to defend North America. Canada and the United States should embrace a posture that includes active and direct defenses (i.e., anticipating attacks by pooling and analyzing multiple sources of data from a variety of sources and systems at much longer ranges vs. responding to attacks via system-specific information) of North America. This will enable the simultaneous deterrence from attack and defense of North America rather than simply the latter.

The impetus for the creation of NORAD and for the North Warning System was the recognition that the Canadian and continental U.S. airspace were functionally indivisible. They still are, but so too are the other domains. NORAD, however, operates in the aerospace domain and only warns in the maritime domain. New systems need to provide information and data that can be analyzed through what the outgoing NORAD and U.S. Northern Command commander Gen. O’Shaugnessy called “predictive analysis.”

Governments and industry are focusing too narrowly on technology and a North Warning System 2.0 as the solution to modernize NORAD. What is more, the dependence on technical solutions from the defense industry to provide solutions may contribute to confining modernization efforts to the North Warning System only, at the expense of a more strategic overview of what it means to defend North America globally.

Changing Geopolitics

Russia’s growing military capabilities and assertiveness mean that NORAD’s detection, deterrence, and defeat mandate has never been so important. The Arctic is still the fastest avenue of approach to North America. The U.S. pivot to the Arctic is set to endure for the foreseeable future.

NORAD, U.S. Northern Command, and Canadian Joint Operations Command — the tricommand of North American defense — deter key threats to the region. All-domain awareness, therefore, is paramount to detect those threats. After ignoring the region for years, Washington is now more focused on the Arctic. The Obama and Trump White Houses have produced five major Arctic strategies, in addition to strategies for the various armed forces including the first-ever U.S. Department of the Air Forces’ Arctic Strategy under President Donald Trump. The document anticipates a larger role for the space domain and, eventually, for the newly established Space Force to defend the Arctic and contribute to homeland defense. Given the harsh operating conditions, geography and curvature of the earth which limit the usefulness of ground-based radars in the extreme north, space-based satellites are essential for providing a better picture of what is happening on the ground, at sea, and in the air.

The defense of North America is indivisible from the defense efforts of NATO and the other U.S. combatant commands, especially Northern Command, European Command, Indo-Pacific Command, and Space Command — all of which have a role in the Arctic. The area of responsibility seams created by the U.S. Unified Command Plan and national jurisdictions of key NATO Arctic allies mean that NORAD’s missions are part and parcel of global efforts to compete with China and Russia. Current NORAD systems can warn of attacks — for example, a ballistic missile attack — but this information is not available to other systems that are responsible for a target’s defeat. This means that precious time and information can be lost in the translation to other systems and that allies may be left out of the loop, including from important intelligence that may aid in decision-making. This stovepiped approach to defense represents a vulnerability to exploit. Nevertheless, the North Warning System is the main set of “eyes” for NORAD. At a minimum, its serviceable life needs to be extended while wider, strategic discussions take place.

Industry Challenges

The North Warning System was built during the Cold War. Replacing it will be a very different challenge. The effort will be hamstrung by cumbersome procurement systems, an overreliance on the defense industry for solutions, and new actors with a say in military activity, especially in the North American Arctic.

The first challenge is the complicated procurement processes of both Canada and the United States. While resources are often pooled to fund joint solutions such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Project, there are few examples of truly binationally conceived and built projects. Trying to plan and deliver major capital projects tied to politically charged, lengthy, and cumbersome procurement systems is bound to be a Sisyphean task. Per the exchange of notes in 1985 for the current North Warning System, the costing split between the United States and Canada is 60-40. This split may be revisited, especially in light of the worldwide recession from COVID-19. Both countries use big capital projects to benefit domestic firms and U.S. and Canadian interests may not always overlap.

During the Cold War, militaries could depend on governments to fund much of the research and development and infrastructure associated with a project like the North Warning System. The reliance on industries to come up with solutions can release militaries from the burden of their internal bureaucracy, but it may also make militaries too dependent on how industry interprets a problem and conceives of the solution, as well as on their supply chains. For example, current requirements for a new North Warning System are for it to contribute vital information to feed the “kill chain.” This elegant but linear thinking leads to one ultimate solution: a system that ends with defeating a target. As necessary as that capability is, what if NORAD wants to exploit, track, or gather intelligence on the target? If defense firms are not intimately involved in understanding requirements, including those of other actors, combatant commands, and allies, the technology could limit NORAD’s options. In other words, more is at stake than just new equipment. New technology designs can introduce single points of failure or limit redundancy and backups. When billions of dollars are at stake, simplicity is often favored and safety add-ons the first to be jettisoned.

Finally, Canadian and U.S. policymakers need to be cognizant of their obligations toward indigenous peoples in the Arctic. New sensors, infrastructure, training, or other military activity in the region will likely be on indigenous land in Alaska, Canada, Greenland (Denmark), and potentially in other NATO Arctic states. Not only does Article 30 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples enshrine an obligation of militaries to consult with indigenous peoples, it is the right thing to do and makes good business sense. Even if a new North Warning System does not include land-based radar sites, the old equipment needs to be decommissioned safely, requiring an extensive, meaningful consultation and a plan for local involvement. The environment should also be considered. No one will tolerate abandoning old equipment to leach chemicals as was done in the past. It is cheaper to clean up sites sooner rather than later.

Looking Ahead

America’s renewed emphasis on the Arctic has placed new attention on homeland defense, and with it, NORAD’s role and assets. NORAD modernization is far more complex and wider in scope than solely a North Warning System renewal. Rather, Canada and the United States need to think in terms of an evolution in North American defense writ large, which will require dual-use technology that contributes to all-domain awareness and action. Given the economic impact of COVID-19, there will be pressure to spend money judiciously to benefit national economies, which could make defense cooperation between Canada and the United States more difficult.

For the foreseeable future, the key threats to North America will be associated with great-power competition, including increased activity in the Arctic. In response, Ottawa and Washington need to invest in all-domain awareness, embrace the notion of deterrence and defense in conjunction with allies, and focus on delivery and implementation of workable solutions, perhaps with a view to redundancy and backups — not technological perfection. The United States, Canada, NATO allies, and their respective defense industries should work together to achieve situational awareness across the entire Arctic and consider homeland defense anew.



Dr. Andrea Charron worked for various Canadian federal departments, including the Privy Council Office in the Security and Intelligence Secretariat and Canada’s Revenue Agency. Charron holds a Ph.D. from the Royal Military College of Canada (Department of War Studies). She is now director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies and associate professor in political studies.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Lanis Williams)