Russian missile attacks in Syria have Arctic implications, NORAD commander

The bloody, sun-baked sand of Syria is a long way from the Canadian Arctic, but Russia's use of cruise missiles in the five-year-old civil war has defence planners in both the U.S. and Canada sitting up and taking notice.

OTTAWA — The bloody, sun-baked sand of Syria is a long way from the Canadian Arctic, but Russia’s use of cruise missiles in the five-year-old civil war has defence planners in both the U.S. and Canada sitting up and taking notice.

U.S. Admiral Bill Gortney, the commander of Norad, said multiple strikes on Raqqa — the de facto capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — show Russian aircraft don’t have to leave their airspace in order to deliver lethal effects.

The missiles, launched last November, came from Tu-160 and Tu-95 warplanes and warships in the Caspian Sea and travelled thousands of kilometres to hit their targets. Those attacks were followed in December by submarine-based launches of Kalibr cruise missiles.

In an exclusive interview with The Canadian Press, Gortney said the message intended for the West was crystal clear.

“There was no tactical or operational requirement for any of those shots,” he said. “They were telling us they have this capability and can employ it globally.”

The Trudeau government is about to embark on a defence policy review, but unlike its Conservative predecessor, which emphasized military preparedness in the Arctic, the issue has barely registered in Liberal policy statements.

One of the pressing issues will be replacing the rapidly aging north warning system of radar stations over the next decade.

But defence planners in both Washington and Ottawa have in recent years been quietly warning about the threat of a surprise cruise missile attack from the Far North. Most of their research, however, has focused on rogue nations or terrorist threats from converted ships operating in the Northwest Passage.

They have warned, however, that the absence in the Arctic of radar protection at low levels below 3,000 metres means there would be very little warning of a cruise missile launch in the region.

Gortney said Norad can track ballistic missiles coming over the North Pole, but coverage for low-flying cruise missiles remains a major challenge. American and Canadian planners are together trying to figure out a solution, he said.

“Against this particular threat, you need the ability to look over the horizon,” Gortney said. “Does that mean it needs to be airborne — or land based? Or a combination of both?”

The harsh environment poses a bit of conundrum, he added.

One possible solution would be an aircraft carrier-based E2D-Hawkeye surveillance plane, which has been fully tested electronically. But Canada has neither the plane nor the ship, and American use of both would depend on weather.

Norad planners are also experimenting with the use of static balloons with a load of surveillance gear.

“Because of the nature of the Arctic, a balloon might not be the best option,” Gortney said.

The Canadian military has been studying the idea on its own, and has considered the possibility of installing static surveillance balloons at choke points along the Northwest Passage.

The aerospace command is also responsible for monitoring maritime approaches to the continent. A number of defence journals and open-source intelligence reports have noted that Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic has now surpassed Cold War levels — something Gortney confirmed.

Yves Brodeur, Canada’s former ambassador to NATO, recently said Russia has become a more unpredictable actor on the world stage and that the alliance was caught flat-footed by the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“We never saw it coming,” Brodeur told a defence conference last week.

“It says something about the early warning systems. We ended up trying to catch up with something we didn’t quite understand.”

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