North Warning System Modernization May Include Detection of Bombers, Cruise Missiles and Small UAS

The modernization of the U.S.-Canadian North Warning System (NWS) should include the ability to detect bombers, low-flying cruise missiles and small drones, U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the commander of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), said on Aug. 17.

A successor to the 1950s Distant Early Warning (DEW) line, NWS, first fielded in the late 1980s, consists of 25 Lockheed Martin [LMT] AN/FPS-117 long-range radars and 36 short-range AN/FPS-124 radars. NWS provides early warning of possible incursions into U.S. airspace and covers nearly 3,000 miles across North America from the Aleutian Islands in southwestern Alaska to Baffin Island in northeastern Canada.

NWS was designed to detect “bombers flying at 36,000 feet that had to fly over the homeland to drop a gravity weapon,” VanHerck said on Aug. 17 during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Ideally, we would like to go to an advanced system–over-the-horizon radar,” VanHerck said of NWS modernization. “The North Warning System is limited in its distance…which doesn’t allow us to see far enough out away from the homeland. There’s proven technology today that would give us domain awareness. I think it’s crucial, as we create new systems, that we don’t make them singularly focused. Any new systems that we create must be able to not only detect bombers, but cruise missiles and even small UAS, to be affordable and usable.”

Air Force Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements, said last month that the U.S. and Canada need to modernize NWS and have delayed such modernization “for too long” (Defense Daily, July 27).

NORAD modernization has been a topic of conversation among President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

On Aug. 17, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Canadian Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan said in a joint statement that they plan to consult on future strategy documents involving both nations.

James Fergusson, the deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, suggested in a paper in January last year that the cost to modernize NWS could be $8 billion to $11 billion–split 60-40 between the U.S. and Canada.

VanHerck has said that the use of artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) is critical to efforts to modernize NORTHCOM and NORAD.

On Aug. 17, he characterized the communications process as “analog.”

“If a radar detects a bomber approaching…the first step would be the controller that detects it, picking up a telephone to talk to the command center, who would then pick up another telephone to talk to either the CONR [Continental U.S. NORAD Region], the ANR [Alaska NORAD Region] or CANR [Canadian NORAD Region],” VanHerck said. “We have two sectors as well…Finally, it will get to my headquarters through another phone call, which would take minutes to do that. That’s not good enough, in my mind. Imagine having a single pane of glass to see that all real-time and globally collaborate on response options. That’s where we’re going.”

Air Force Lt. Gen. David Krumm, the commander of Alaskan Command and the 11th Air Force, has suggested that radar modernization for the Arctic is vital, as the legacy radars “were designed primarily to detect Soviet bombers coming to attack over the poles,” not the hypersonic weapons and cruise missiles on the current U.S. watchlist.

A NORTHCOM/NORAD Pathfinder initiative “is processing more sensor data than the current command and control system used for air defense of North America,” according to Hardening the Shield: A Credible Deterrent & Capable Defense for North America, a paper last September by retired Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy–the former NORAD commander–and Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Fesler, NORAD’s deputy director of operations.

Pathfinder also “is identifying information buried in the data, giving new life to old sensors” and has been able to identify and track very small drones “previously thought to beyond the capability of the system,” per the paper.

VanHerck has said that NORAD has applied Pathfinder to analyze the raw data from the NWS radar sensors. The AI/ML in Pathfinder has led to significant improvements for NWS’ advance warning, he said.