North America has few options to defend against Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons, which can maneuver while traveling at more than five times the speed of sound. Potentially capable of carrying nuclear warheads, the United States is still trying to develop a similar arsenal.
“Hypersonic weapons are extremely difficult to detect and counter given the speed, maneuverability, low flight paths and unpredictable trajectories of these weapons,” NORAD Commander General Glen VanHerck told CTVNews.ca . “Hypersonic weapons are testing NORAD’s ability to provide threat warnings and attack assessments for Canada and the United States.
Short for North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD was formed by the United States and Canada at the height of the Cold War to protect the continent from air attack. Now, more than 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has led to renewed calls to upgrade and modernize the binational defense group so it can respond to 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 Committee on Armed Services on 8 March.
“I cannot defend, and I am not charged with defending, against a hypersonic glider vehicle attack,” said his Prepared statement for the committee read.
“WE CANNOT TRACK THEM AND WE CANNOT KILL THEM”
Both Russia and China have developed hypersonic weapons, which can travel at speeds of Mach 5 and above. There are two types: hypersonic cruise missiles, which are powered by an air-breathing engine scramjet engine; and hypersonic glide vehicles, which reach orbit with a conventional thruster before gliding toward a target.
While traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles follow relatively predictable up-and-down arcs, hypersonic weapons are maneuverable and can fly at altitudes where few military sensors are looking. They can optionally be deployed from land, air, and sea, and are capable of reaching North America from any direction, such as the relatively exposed south. Although it is not clear whether Russia and China already have nuclear hypersonic weapons, such a development is considered inevitable.
This graphic from the US government shows how hypersonic vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles differ from conventional ballistic missiles. (U.S. Government Office of Accountability)
“Most cruise missiles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, so the expectation is that they can do both,” James Fergusson told CTVNews.ca.
Fergusson is Deputy 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 the Winnipeg political science professor. “You have to deal with this problem. You can’t just ignore it.
“THE UNITED STATES HAS NEVER MADE IT A SUFFICIENT PRIORITY”
By its own admission, the United States is lagging behind. In October 2021, US General Mark Milley, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, described a reported Chinese test as “very close” to a “Sputnik moment”, referring to fears the US were technologically overtaken by the Soviet Union after the launch of the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit in 1957.
“The United States is working very hard trying to develop prototype systems that could be available in two or three years,” 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.
“In every way, the United States is definitely behind in terms of having something now,” Boyd said. “The United States has never made it a high enough priority.”
Speaking to the Congressional Armed Services Committee last week, VanHerck said NORAD upgrades must include space-based sensors capable of tracking hypersonic weapons and above-the-horizon radar capable of detecting objects around of the curvature of the Earth. NORAD must also work with other military and civilian agencies to gather more data from existing sensors and then apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to speed up information processing and responses to subsequent threats, said VanHerck.
“The ability to detect a threat, whether from a cyber actor or a cruise missile, is a prerequisite for 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 enable commands, agencies, allies, and partners to collaborate globally in time. real and in all areas.
United States would have estimates only the first constellation of 28 infrared sensor satellites for tracking hypersonic weapons will cost 2.5 billion dollars.
“These activities are quite early, they are very, very expensive and will take many years to implement,” said Boyd from Colorado.
“NO MONEY ALLOCATED”
In Canada, the federal Liberals have called NORAD modernization a priority and, in April 2021, earmarked $163 million for this purpose. Joint statements on NORAD modernization have also been issued on several occasions by the two United States and Canada. But during his trip to Ottawa in November 2021, VanHerck told reporters he was still waiting for politicians to decide how to update the North Warning System, a chain of 52 radar stations that stretches over 4,800 km from Alaska to Labrador to act as a “voyage wire” for the northern approaches to the continent.
The North Warning System was built between 1986 and 1992 to detect conventional threats like bombers and missiles. The Ministry of National Defense calls him “Canada’s most significant contribution” to NORAD (which has a Canadian deputy commander), but admits that “its radar capabilities are increasingly challenged by modern weapons technology, including cruise missiles advanced and hypersonic weapons. Nor does the North Warning System allow NORAD to keep an eye on the northernmost parts of the Arctic Archipelago.
“Budget 2021 included $163.4 million over five years, beginning in 2021-22, to support the modernization of NORAD,” a National Defense spokesperson told CTVNews.ca in an email. “This investment should lay the foundation for the future of NORAD, including research and development of advanced technologies that can help us detect and defend against threats to the continent.
Fergusson of the University of Manitoba says the investment can’t come soon enough.
“The issue of modernizing NORAD and modernizing North American defense has been on the table for some time,” he said. “There really hasn’t been any 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’s normally populist politicians and defense departments who push for this technology for votes and tactical advantages,” he told CTVNews.ca from Montreal. “They are an expensive waste of money, primarily designed to hit US warships and fixed installations like airbases and ports.”
Still, Spencer-Churchill does not 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 out of fear, they will use it against us,” he said. “I think they think we are likely to be constrained, and it is not impossible that they will not shoot one at an oil installation in Edmonton to demonstrate their ability, especially if we become actively involved in Ukraine and that we are publicly expressing our concern. ”
The problem with hypersonics, Boyd adds, once launched, there’s no way to tell 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 makes the situation a bit more unstable.”
Even if the United States lacks hypersonic weapons, Spencer-Churchill believes its massive nuclear arsenal remains a powerful deterrent to a wider war with Russia.
“None of the systems the hypersonic missile can target is one that would reduce America’s response capability,” he said. “In the real world, if they use it to bomb Edmonton, in 45 minutes, we’ll automatically bomb St. Petersburg the old fashioned way…Russia knows that.”
With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press