North America has few options to defend against Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons, which can manoeuvre while travelling more than five times the speed of sound. Potentially capable of carrying nuclear warheads, the U.S. is still trying to develop a similar arsenal.
“Hypersonic weapons are extremely difficult to detect and counter given these weapons’ speed, maneuverability, low flight paths, and unpredictable trajectories,” NORAD commander Gen. Glen VanHerck told CTVNews.ca. “Hypersonic weapons challenge NORAD’s ability to provide threat warning and attack assessments for Canada and the United States.”
Short for North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD was formed by the U.S. and Canada during the height of the Cold War to protect the continent from aerial attack. Now, more than 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine has led to renewed calls to upgrade and modernize the binational defence group so it can respond to new threats like 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 American Air Force general shared the same message with defence officials in Ottawa on Nov. 29, and with the U.S. House Committee on Armed Services on March 8.
“I cannot defend, nor am I tasked to defend, against a hypersonic glide vehicle attack,” his prepared statement for the committee read.
‘WE CAN’T TRACK THEM AND WE CAN’T KILL THEM’
Russia and China have both developed hypersonic weapons, which can travel at speeds of Mach 5 and more. There are two types: hypersonic cruise missiles, which are powered by an air-breathing scramjet engine; and hypersonic glide vehicles, which reach orbit with a conventional booster before gliding towards a target.
While traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles follow relatively predicable up-and-down arcs, hypersonic weapons are maneuverable and can fly at altitudes where few military sensors are looking. They can conceivably be deployed from land, air and sea, and are capable of reaching North America from any direction, like the comparatively exposed south. While it is unclear if Russia and China already have nuclear-armed hypersonic weapons, such a development is seen as inevitable.
This U.S. government graphic shows how hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles differ from conventional ballistic missiles. (U.S. Government Accountability Office)
“Most cruise missiles can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, so the expectation is that they can do both,” James Fergusson told CTVNews.ca.
Fergusson is the deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.
“We can’t see them really, we can’t track them and we can’t kill them,” the political science professor said from Winnipeg. “You have to deal with this problem. You can’t simply ignore it.”
‘THE U.S. NEVER MADE IT A SUFFICIENT PRIORITY’
On its own admission, the U.S. is lagging behind. In Oct. 2021, U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, the highest-ranking military officer in the country, described a reported Chinese test as being “very close” to a “Sputnik moment,” referring to fears the U.S. had been technologically outpaced by the Soviet Union after the first artificial satellite was launched into earth orbit in 1957.
“The U.S. is working very hard to try and develop prototype systems that might be available in two- or three-years’ time,” Iain Boyd told CTVNews.ca.
Boyd is a professor of aerospace engineering and the director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
“By any measure, the U.S. is definitely behind in terms of having something now,” Boyd said. “The U.S. never made it a sufficient priority.”
Speaking to the Armed Services congressional committee last week, VanHerck said NORAD modernization needs to include space-based sensors capable of tracking hypersonic weapons and over-the-horizon radar, which can detect objects around the curvature of the earth. NORAD also needs to work with other military and civilian agencies to garner more data from existing sensors, and then apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to speed up information processing and subsequent threat responses, VanHerck said.
“The ability to detect a threat, whether from a cyber-actor or a cruise missile, is a prerequisite to defeating the threat,” VanHerck told CTVNews.ca. “To unlock the full value and potential of our intelligence and sensor networks, information must be integrated, appropriately classified, and rapidly shared to allow commands, agencies, allies, and partners to collaborate globally in real-time and across all domains.”
The U.S. reportedly estimates just the first constellation of 28 infrared sensor satellites for tracking hypersonic weapons will cost US$2.5 billion.
“These activities are pretty early on, they’re very, very expensive and they’ll take many years to implement,” Boyd said from Colorado.
‘NO MONEY ALLOCATED’
In Canada, the federal Liberals have called upgrading NORAD a priority, and in April 2021 earmarked $163 million to that end. Joint statements on NORAD modernization have also been repeatedly released by both the U.S. and Canada. But during his trip to Ottawa in Nov. 2021, VanHerck told reporters he was still waiting for politicians to decide on how to update the North Warning System, a chain of 52 radar stations that stretches 4,800 km from Alaska to Labrador to act as “trip wire” for the continent’s northern approaches.
The North Warning System was built between 1986 and 1992 to detect conventional threats like bombers and missiles. The Department of National Defence calls it “Canada’s most significant contribution” to NORAD (which has a Canadian deputy commander) but admits “its radar capabilities are becoming increasingly challenged by modern weapons technology, including advanced cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons.” The North Warning System also does not give NORAD eyes on the northernmost reaches of the Arctic Archipelago.
“Budget 2021 included $163.4 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, to support NORAD modernization,” a National Defence spokesperson told CTVNews.ca in an email. “This investment is to lay the groundwork for NORAD’s future—including through research and development of cutting-edge technologies that can help us detect and defend against threats to the continent.”
Fergusson from the University of Manitoba says that investment can’t come soon enough.
“The issue of NORAD modernization and North American defence modernization has been on the table for some time,” he said. “There’s really been no money allocated for modernization. The government says it’s coming. We wait and see.”
‘AN EXPENSIVE WASTE OF MONEY’
Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of political science at Concordia University whose research focuses on security and strategic studies.
“It is normally populist politicians and defense ministries that push for this technology for votes and tactical benefits,” he told CTVNews.ca from Montreal. “They are an expensive waste of money, primarily designed to strike at U.S. warships and fixed facilities like airbases and ports.”
Still, Spencer-Churchill doesn’t dismiss Russia’s ability to launch a limited strike on North America using a hypersonic weapon.
“It’s the same with any weapon: if we act scared, they will leverage it against us,” he said. “I think they think we are susceptible to coercion, and it is not beyond impossible that they would not fire one at an oil facility in Edmonton to demonstrate their capability, especially if we simultaneously got actively involved in Ukraine and also publicly demonstrated our concern.”
The problem with hypersonics, Boyd adds, is once launched, there’s no way to know if they’re carrying a nuclear warhead.
“The unpredictability, I think, is where Russia is different from China for this specific thing,” he said. “Having these weapons doesn’t necessarily make Russia and China stronger, it actually just makes the whole situation a little bit more unstable.”
Even if the U.S. doesn’t have hypersonic weapons, Spencer-Churchill believes its massive nuclear arsenal remains a robust deterrent to a larger war with Russia.
“None of the systems that the hypersonic missile can target are those that would reduce America’s ability to respond,” he said. “In the real world, if they use it to nuke Edmonton, in 45 minutes we will automatically nuke St. Petersburg the old-fashioned way… Russia knows this.”
With files from The Canadian Press and the Associated Press