WASHINGTON — Military leaders in Canada and the United States plan to work together to modernize the North American Aerospace Defense Command, jointly investing in new sensing and command and control capabilities to protect the continent from new ballistic missile threats.
“To meet our security and defense objectives, both countries must be secure within our shared North American continent. The stronger and safer we are at home, the more we are capable of engaging and acting together in the wider world, in support of a strong, rules-based international order,” the Minister of National Defence of Canada Harjit Sajjan and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in a joint statement.
NORAD is an air defense-focused organization the U.S. runs in tandem with Canada. The commander is typically a four-star U.S. general, while the deputy director is typically a three-star Canadian general. NORAD is led by Gen. Glen VanHerck, who also serves as the head of U.S. Northern Command, which is charged with homeland defense. The general said he sees the two organizations’ respective missions as inseparable.
The statement commits both countries to “modernize, improve, and better integrate the capabilities required for NORAD to maintain persistent awareness and understanding of potential threats to North America in the aerospace and maritime domains, to deter acts of aggression against North America, to respond to aerospace threats quickly and decisively when required, and to provide maritime warning consistent with the NORAD Agreement.”
That includes replacing NORAD’s main sensors with new advanced ones located in all domains — from under the sea to on orbit — that can detect threats as small as a cruise missile or even a small drone. The countries also need to conduct joint research and establish new command and control systems that enable a common operating picture.
At an Aug. 17 Center for Strategic and International Studies event, VanHerck outlined some modernization initiatives that would enable teams to see threats sooner and react faster.
“Homeland defense doesn’t start in the homeland. It starts abroad. I don’t want to be shooting down cruise missiles over the national capital region. I think that’s a little bit late in the process. So I’d like to be engaging or deterring, well, what I call left of launch,” said VanHerck.
That means moving even earlier than the instant detection of a launch provided by overhead persistent infrared sensors on orbit. Using signals intelligence, geospatial intelligence and other data sources, VanHerck wants to establish a pattern of behavior on the ground around potential threats. That way, when NORAD or other observers see a deviation in behavior, they can begin preparing responses. That sort of capability could give commanders hours, or even days notice of a threat — well before an actual launch.
VanHerck also wants to see modernization that aligns with the Department of Defense’s overarching concept of Joint All-Domain Command and Control, which envisions a series of technology upgrades that enables data from any sensor to be processed and fed to appropriate weapon systems in real time. That process would be largely autonomic, fast and effective.
But today, NORAD relies on what VanHerck describes as analog steps. Once a radar detects a potential threats, sensor controllers rely on literal telephones to pass warning data on to operators at a command center, which then calls the appropriate regional authority (CONAR, ANAR or CANAR), which in turn relay the information to NORAD headquarters. That process takes minutes, said VanHerck, and that’s not good enough.
What the general wants is a single pane of glass where all of the sensor data is seamlessly integrated in real time, with forces able to interact with it from anywhere on the globe and collaborate.
To get there, the military must adopt to software and machine learning programs to process the vast amounts of raw data collected by its sensors at a scale that humans simply cannot do.
“Today, the data and the formation for the indications and the warning that we’re talking about is oftentimes not shared, it’s not shared across multiple agencies, it’s not shared across multiple combatant commanders, and it’s not analyzed sometimes for hours, if not days,” said VanHerck.
Essentially, the data exists today, but it is not being properly utilized.
In July, NORAD and NORTHCOM hosted Global Information Dominance Experiment 3, a demonstration conducted with the other combatant commands, the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center and Project Maven to see how JADC2-type technologies could impact operations. Participants simulated global events taking place over 120 days, aggregating sensor warnings and processing that data with artificial intelligence to present options to decision makers in real time. The combatant commands were able to enter that data into a cloud environment, establishing a common operating picture that users from multiple locations could interact with simultaneously.
“I think the tools that we demonstrated are ready to be used at an operational to strategic level to create time and decision space,” said VanHerck in a promotional video for the exercise.
According to the general, the technology is ready for this JADC2 vision, but there needs to be a cultural change within DoD to implement it. The department is set up for an industrial process designed to build ships and aircraft over years and even decades, he said, but the software he needs relies on updates every 14 days. The current annual budget process and the Future Years Defense Program aren’t designed to work at the speed of software like that, he added.
There is also a need to upgrade the actual radars and systems that make up NORAD’s sensing capabilities, said VanHerck, something also highlighted in the joint statement issued by Canada and the United States.
NORAD’s main sensing capability is the North Warning System, which was set up in the Cold War to detect bombers.
“Both China and Russia have developed very advanced capabilities. China is a peer with Russia in the cyber and space capabilities. Russia is the primary military threat to the homeland today. They’ve developed capabilities that didn’t exist 20 years ago, capabilities to circumvent our legacy warning systems and capabilities: very low radar cross-section cruise missiles, submarines that are on par with our submarines that can be very quiet and present a cruise missile threat to the homeland,” VanHerck said.
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.