North Warning System – A Question of Sovereignty

By John McLearn

Murray Brewster of CBC on 26 January 2021 wrote a piece called “Plan to Rebuild Defence Early warning System Means Political, Fiscal Headaches for Trudeau Government” covering the well-known and previously required actions to upgrade the North Warning System (NWS).  The cost of the system is estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars shared between Canada and the United States.  Despite a known commitment to mutual defence, including its upgrades, the current Canadian government failed to take the NWS into account when creating the most recent defence paper “Strong Secure Engaged,” more known by its abbreviation SSE.   The revised program would include creating a system that is networked and covers more than “Russian bombers.”

The article covers the cost and political fallout faced by the government due to the precarious fiscal situation that Canada finds itself with the pandemic, which is true, but one really cannot evaluate that because the current government has not properly funded the Auditor General of Canada and, in fact, could not answer questions on the large number of infrastructure projects programmed.  Canada has spent a lot of money…we just do not know how much, where, when projects were to be completed and so on.  We also learned that the government wants to spend up to a trillion dollars over the next five years but has been short of detail.  Mind you, this government is also famous for saying they couldn’t plan because of the pandemic.  The point is, there is lots of money, some strangely enough could be spent on key military agreements which Canada has noticeably neglected for years.  It would also allow the current government to say it is closer to meeting the NATO standard of 2% of GDP for defence and allow us to safely say that we have and will continue to meet our commitments to friends and allies.  It is an excellent investment not only in doing what we promised, but it provides a major increase in capability and supports our friends to the south.  The US has been increasingly concerned about our lack of effort.  The NWS replacement requires high skills, advanced technology and minimum manpower, and at the same time exponentially increases the overall security of the nation and our friends.  The money is there, it just has to be allocated, and so are the greater political benefits, not to mention the very real economic and industrial benefits to Canada created by this project with many jobs created in our North.

The one argument that should have been raised and firmly made is the potential loss of our sovereignty over our own territory.  The Arctic is warming and may soon be clear of ice for at least part of the year.  Russia has made major investments in re-opening military airfields and has made major investments in its Northern Fleet.  China has also mentioned that they want…no, insisted that they will be involved in the Arctic one way or another.  The US has also called into question our passages through our Arctic Islands as “open seas” and not as internal waterways as declared by Canada.  Canada’s sovereignty is being threatened as never before from a flank that was previously closed.  The US will not stand idly by and let this flank deteriorate further.  They will do what they must to ensure it is secure; this would include somewhat the NWS project over Canadian territory.  By being a partner, we gain access to US capabilities and situational awareness in our North as well as in decision making.  It should also be mentioned that this would include the air, space and sea surrounding North America.  We cannot ignore the increasing threat.  By supporting the renewed and upgraded system, it provides us with very real leverage with the US.  It also shows us to be capable of making the necessary decisions for the defence of North America and as a result protects our sovereignty by being a reliable partner.  Without active participation, we stand to lose so very much including having a say in the overall defence of the continent.

The only issue worthy of consideration is neither political nor economic as suggested by the article – the real issue is Canadian sovereignty.  Once it is lost in real terms, it will be impossible to get it back.  Our years of neglect in Arctic development and defence will cost us by far more than the “small change” by the current government’s standards and will be a lot more useful and advantageous.

Photo: Newly re-opened base at Nagurskoya, Franz Josef Land. The northern most airfield in Russia. Credit:

This work is the sole opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian Department of National Defence, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or the Royal United Services Institute of Nova Scotia.  The author may be contacted by email at: [email protected].

RUSI(NS) Staff

Editorial Staff at RUSI (NS). This work is the sole opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Department of National Defence, the Canadian Armed Forces, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or the Royal United Services Institute of Nova Scotia.