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North America Vulnerable to Hypersonic Weapons: NORAD

North America has few options to defend against Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons, which can maneuver at five times the speed of sound. Having the potential to carry nuclear warheads, the US is still working to develop a similar arsenal.

“Hypersonic weapons are extremely difficult to detect and counterattack due to their speed, maneuverability, low flight path and unpredictable trajectory,” NORAD commander General Glen VanHerck told CTVNews. .shift. “Hypersonic weapons challenge NORAD’s ability to provide attack assessments and threat warnings to Canada and the United States.”

Short for North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD was established by the US and Canada during the height of the Cold War to defend the continent from air attacks. Now, more than 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine has led to new calls to upgrade and modernize its biodefense group so it can cope with the threats of the war. New threats such as hypersonic weapons.

“There is currently no policy directing NORAD to defend North America against hypersonic weapons,” VanHerck said in a written response to questions from CTV News.

The US Air Force general shared the same message with defense officials in Ottawa on November 29 and with the US House Armed Services Committee on March 8.

“I cannot defend, nor am I supposed to defend, against a hypersonic vehicle attack,” his prepared statement to the committee read.

‘WE CAN’T TRACK THEM AND CAN’T KILL THEM’

Russia and China have both developed hypersonic weapons that can travel at speeds of Mach 5 or more. There are two types: supersonic cruise missiles, powered by pneumatic jet engines; and hypersonic gliders, reach orbit with conventional boosters before gliding toward their target.

Whereas traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles follow relatively predictable up-and-down arcs, hypersonic weapons are maneuverable and can fly at altitudes that few military sensors can observe. Okay. Conceivably they could be deployed from land, air and sea, and potentially reach North America from any direction, as relatively south is exposed. Although it remains unclear whether Russia and China already have nuclear-armed hypersonic weapons, such a development is considered inevitable.

hypersonic weaponsThis US government image shows how supersonic flying vehicles and supersonic cruise missiles differ from conventional ballistic missiles. (US Government Audit Office)

James Fergusson told CTVNews.ca: “Most cruise missiles can carry nuclear or conventional warheads, so the expectation is that they can do both.

Fergusson is associate director of the Center for Defense and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.

“We can’t really see them, we can’t track them and we can’t kill them,” said political science professor from Winnipeg. “You have to deal with this problem. You cannot simply ignore it”.

‘USA NEVER MAKES IT A EFFECTIVE PRIORITY’

In its own judgment, the US is lagging behind. In October 2021, US General Mark Milley, the country’s most senior military officer, described a reported Chinese test as “very close” to “Sputnik moment”, alluding to anxiety. Concerned that the United States had surpassed the Soviet Union technologically after the first artificial satellite was launched into earth orbit in 1957.

“The US is working very hard to try and develop prototype systems that could be available in two or three years time,” Iain Boyd told CTVNews.ca.

Boyd is a professor of aerospace engineering and director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“By any measure, America is definitely behind in terms of having something now,” Boyd said. “The US has never made it an adequate priority.”

Speaking to the Armed Services Division’s congressional committee last week, VanHerck said NORAD modernization needed to include space-based sensors capable of tracking hypersonic weapons and ground-based radar. sky, can detect objects around the curvature of the earth. NORAD also needs to work with other military and civilian agencies to collect more data from existing sensors, then apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to speed up information processing and responses. future threat response, VanHerck said.

“The ability to detect a threat, whether from a cyber agent or a cruise missile, is a prerequisite for defeating the threat,” VanHerck told CTVNews.ca. “To harness the full value and potential of our network of sensors and intelligence, information must be integrated, properly classified, and shared rapidly to allow commands, agencies, allies to and partners collaborate globally in real time and across domains.”

US reports estimate that just the first of 28 infrared sensor satellites to track hypersonic weapons will be worth $2.5 billion.

“These operations are pretty early on, very expensive, and will take years to implement,” said Boyd from Colorado.

‘NO MONEY ALLOWED’

In Canada, the federal Liberal Party has called upgrading NORAD a priority and in April 2021 has earmarked $163 million to that end. Joint statements on NORAD modernization have also been made several times by both the US and Canada. But during a trip to Ottawa in November 2021, VanHerck told reporters he was still waiting for politicians to decide on how to update the Northern Warning System, a string of 52 radar stations that stretches 4,800 kilometers from Alaska to Labrador to act as the “wire trip” for the northern approach of the continent.

The Northern Warning System was built between 1986 and 1992 to detect common threats such as bombers and missiles. The Department of Defense calls it “Canada’s most important contribution” to NORAD (whose Canadian deputy commander is in charge) but acknowledges its “radar capabilities are increasingly challenged by modern weapons technology, including missiles.” advanced cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons”. Nor did the Northern Warning System keep an eye on NORAD in the northernmost part of the Arctic Archipelago.

“The 2021 budget includes $163.4 million over five years, commencing 2021 through 22, to support NORAD modernization,” a Department of Defense spokesperson told CTVNews.ca in an email. “This investment lays the groundwork for the future of NORAD — including through research and development of cutting-edge technologies that can help us detect and defend against threats to the continent. this”.

Fergusson from the University of Manitoba says investment can’t come anytime soon.

“The issue of NORAD modernization and North American defense modernization has been on the table for some time,” he said. “There is really no money allocated for modernization. The government says it will come. Let’s wait and see “.

‘COST WASTE’

Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of political science at Concordia University, whose research focuses on strategic and security studies.

“Usually populist politicians and defense ministries promote this technology for votes and tactical gain,” he told CTVNews.ca from Montreal. “They are an expensive waste of money, primarily designed to attack US warships and fixed installations such as air bases and ports.”

However, Spencer-Churchill does not rule out the possibility of Russia launching a limited attack on North America with hypersonic weapons.

“It is the same with any weapon: if we show fear, they will use it against us,” he said. “I think they think we’re easy to coerce, and it’s not out of the question that they wouldn’t shoot a man at an oil facility in Edmonton to demonstrate their ability, especially if we were simultaneously actively engaged. involved in Ukraine and also openly expressed our concerns. ”

The problem with hypersonics, Boyd adds, is that once launched, there’s no way to tell if they’re carrying a nuclear warhead.

“The unpredictability is in what way Russia is different from China,” he said. “Having these weapons doesn’t necessarily make Russia and China stronger, it really just makes the whole situation a little bit more destabilizing.”

Even if the US doesn’t have hypersonic weapons, Spencer-Churchill believes its vast nuclear arsenal remains a powerful deterrent to a larger war with Russia.

“There is no system that can be targeted by a hypersonic missile that can reduce the ability of the United States to respond,” he said. “In the real world, if they used it to bomb Edmonton, in 45 minutes we would automatically bomb St. Petersburg in the old-fashioned way… Russia knows this.”

With files from the Canadian Press and the United Press

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