Big-ticket radar upgrades raise questions about Liberal defence policy
The Arctic radar systems used by Canada and the U.S. to monitor airborne threats were built in the 1980s. Paying for much-needed upgrades could complicate the government's military spending promises
OTTAWA—The Trudeau government’s new defence policy could end up costing billions more than advertised because it doesn’t include one big-ticket item: modernizing North America’s early warning systems.
That sets up a potentially difficult decision: to spend even more on defence than already promised, or to cut back on some of the other promises made to the military.
The current network of long-range radars used by Canada and the U.S. to monitor airborne threats was built in the Arctic in the 1980s but is quickly nearing the end of its useful life.
The Liberals promised in their recent defence policy that the North Warning System, as it is called, would be upgraded following talks with the U.S. about ways to improve continental security.
But while the policy promised an extra $62 billion for the military over the next 20 years and was touted as being fully costed and funded, no money has been earmarked yet for replacing the radar system.
National Defence’s top financial officer, Claude Rochette, says the department could not account for the cost because Canada and the U.S. have not decided what they actually need.
“It’s still a discussion that needs to be done before we get guidance (from government),” Rochette told The Canadian Press in an interview.
“When we have guidance, then we will start looking at the options … then we will start looking at costing. But that is not covered in the funding.”
A number of studies are underway to determine exactly what is needed to ensure Canada and the U.S. can continue to detect airborne, marine and even space-based threats into the 21st century.
Talks are also expected between Canadian and American officials over what other capabilities they might want to add, which is where discussions about Canada joining ballistic missile defence could arise.
What isn’t in doubt is that Canada will need to invest billions to upgrade or replace its part of the North Warning System.
That money will need to start becoming available within the next seven years or so—a timeline that coincides with when the federal government expects to be moving back toward a balanced budget.
Rochette acknowledged that it still wasn’t clear where funding for the radar upgrades would come from.
“We’ll do a cost estimate, whatever the cost is,” he said. “I cannot predict what will happen in the future, if a government decides to say ‘No, I would prefer that you take this but remove that.’ It could happen.”
There had already been questions over whether the Liberals’ promised billions in extra defence spending would survive either a change in government, or future budget cuts if the economic situation worsened.
James Fergusson, director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, said the North Warning System throws another wrench into the defence policy’s financial works.
“It is going to be really expensive,” Fergusson, who has done extensive work on North American aerospace defences, said in an email.
“The timeline is into mid-2020s, so it is the next government’s problem, but it will certainly upset the announced spending plans for the Department of National Defence.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s spokeswoman, Jordan Owens said: “Canadians will be able to hold our government, or any future governments, to account on spending and investment decisions.”