Canada and the US Explore Joint Defence | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canada and the US Explore Joint Defence

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 12, 2005. Partner content is not updated.

FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Canadian and American officials will sit down across the table from one another this month and begin delicate negotiations over the future of their joint military institutions.

Canada and the US Explore Joint Defence

FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Canadian and American officials will sit down across the table from one another this month and begin delicate negotiations over the future of their joint military institutions. The subject of their talks will not be Afghanistan or Iraq, but the defence of North America itself. For almost half a century, the U.S. and Canada have jointly defended their skies in what has been perhaps the most intimate binational military collaboration in the world. Burrowed deep inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, operating from some 7,100 feet above sea level, the North American Aerospace Defence Command - known as NORAD - is a unique blended operation in which an American admiral and a Canadian deputy command forces from both countries.

Shoulder patches on their matching flight suits are all that distinguish the Yankees here from the Canucks, the loo-tenants from the leff-tenants, who watch the skies from blast-proof steel-walled buildings at the end of damp Batcave-like tunnels of exposed rock. From white phones on their desks in the Battle Management Center - an 800 sq.-foot room lined with computer work stations - commanders are able to scramble fighter planes to intercept airborne threats from either side of the border.

But the agreement that makes this arrangement possible expires in May. Prime Minister Paul MARTIN and President George W. Bush have said they want to use this renewal process to expand the Cold War partnership into a strengthened defence against threats from terrorism, rogue states, and natural disasters. But they left unanswered the key question: by how much?

For three years and at a cost to Canadians of $2.1 million, a group of military and civilian specialists convened by both governments has studied this question. The 20 Americans and 20 Canadians began with the proposition that borders should not stand in the way of saving lives when it comes to dealing with natural disasters or attacks. If Canadian troops have the closest chemical decontamination equipment to a disaster in Maine, they should cross the border and take the lead without delay. If a mass disaster in Canada could be helped by U.S. personnel or equipment, they should be pre-authorized to help at a moment's notice. "Why would we limit ourselves to our own pool of resources if our neighbours have something very close by that could be of use?" asks Richard Bergeron, a Canadian navy captain who is the current co-director of the group, known as the Bi-National Planning Group.

But the reality does not live up to that neighbourly ideal.

When the researchers began investigating what on-the-shelf plans the two countries had for co-operation, they were shocked. First, the protocols (mostly on paper and some existing only in one copy) were scattered to the four winds: some in Ottawa, some in Washington, others in Nova Scotia, and the rest "in grandma's basement," in the words of one senior researcher. Most were out of reach and out of mind of a commander who might be able to use them. All but the NORAD agreement were grievously out of date. Most plans were focused on the Soviet threat, some referred to agencies that no longer exist, and most had not been practised by the people who were meant to execute them.

Up-to-date contingency plans can save time in an emergency because they allow the two militaries to co-operate without having to seek the political permission to do so, as long as the situation meets the criteria agreed to ahead of time by political leaders. "If the plan is in place, you just go quickly through a checklist, and you've done it, instead of wondering if you have the authority to do this," says the other co-director, Kendall Card, a U.S. navy captain and former commanding officer of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier (he and Bergeron worked together in the Persian Gulf, where the Canadian commanded HMCS Ottawa).

The more the group probed the realities of cross-border co-operation, the more it came to the conclusion that relying on the ad hoc goodwill of both countries to help each other in an emergency was irresponsible wishful thinking. New plans needed to be drawn up, but more than that, both militaries needed a new culture and a new structure to promote co-operation.

The vision the researchers laid out for the politicians in their interim report last October is ambitious and to some degree politically provocative. The air-only NORAD should be replaced by a new universal binational command that would identify and respond to threats from air, land and sea. This new "North American Defence Command" could be "expanded to integrate all domains in a coherent military strategy that will seal our common seams and gaps." The NORAD agreement could be replaced by a broader "Continental Defense and Security Agreement," wrote the group. Its final report is due in the spring.

While the group worked, however, commands were proliferating rather than consolidating. In the fall of 2002, the U.S. established U.S. Northern Command, or USNORTHCOM - a centre that combines all American forces, sea, air and land, for the defence of North America. Canada is now mirroring the effort by creating Canada Command, based in Ottawa, which is scheduled to begin operations next spring. How the two will work together, and how they will interact with NORAD, remains to be seen.

For now, there are Canadian liaison officers at USNORTHCOM's operations centre, some 16 km from Cheyenne Mountain at Peterson Air Force Base, which also houses NORAD's administrative headquarters. Their job is to coordinate by phone and email with their own commands. But their situation underscores some of the obstacles to smooth co-operation. Canadians are not allowed to so much as walk in front of one entire row of workstations - one of which contains an intelligence computer encased in a black box and is off-limits to foreigners. What kind of information does it contain? "I'm not allowed to tell you," says Col. Bob Felderman, a U.S. National Guard pilot of 30 years, one of the commanders of the centre. Next to it is a workstation that will be used to track missiles as part of the ballistic missile defence system. Once that system is operational, it too will be off-limits to Canadians.

It is such barriers to information-sharing that alarm the Bi-National Planning Group, which has been mapping the way information flows within and between the two militaries. It bemoans a broad tendency in both countries to stamp intelligence NOFORN - meaning "no foreign" access. Even if officers from one country believe the information could save lives in the other, existing rules could put them at legal risk for mishandling classified information if they pass it on, notes Bergeron. More than that, the group wants to open information flow among not only the uniformed services, but all agencies in both countries involved in homeland security - from civilian law enforcement agencies to local first responders. Rather than "linear" military-to-military information sharing, they want to achieve a "spiderweb" of information flow among agencies. There were hard lessons learned during a recent military exercise involving a hypothetical nuclear "dirty bomb" over the Ambassador Bridge that links Windsor and Detroit, the largest conduit for cross-border trade. While the RCMP and FBI shared information efficiently and military forces talked to each other in this fictional exercise, there turned out to be a lack of "cross-talk" with other agencies, which led to a lengthy closure of the border, shutdowns of auto plants and untold costs to both economies. This, say Bergeron and Card, is what needs to be avoided.

But neither U.S. nor Canadian political leaders are interested in raising integration to the level of a broader fused command, say officials familiar with the negotiating positions of both countries. "A single blockbuster joint command for both countries to cover everything is unnecessary and too big, and there would be worries about sovereignty," says a senior Canadian official involved in the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We are more likely to take a modest approach, being pragmatic and moving yardsticks on where we should go." Canadian officials do, however, like the idea of revamped and well-rehearsed contingency plans for command-to-command co-operation and assistance to civilian agencies. "There will be standard operating procedures, well-documented in a memorandum of understanding that our cabinet has reviewed in detail," the Canadian official said.

Nor are the Americans clamouring for an overarching binational command. "Don't expect" a new North American Defence Command, said an American official directly involved in the negotiations. While Canadians may be concerned about the domestic political repercussions of military integration with the U.S., some people in the U.S. military question whether Canada brings enough to the table in terms of air and naval assets to make a joint command worthwhile. "I think we're going to end up with something that is not a whole lot different from the existing agreement," added the U.S. official. "NORAD essentially works. I don't sense a whole lot of enthusiasm on the part of the military to do more." The most likely new outcome of the talks, according to officials from both countries, is some kind of increased co-operation on surveillance of the seas - but not a single command that would direct a military response should a suspicious vessel be identified.

Such a surveillance project could be modelled on NORAD's new "Air Warning Center," a row of computers in the mountain that track the comings and goings of all aircraft over the continent. Before the 2001 attacks, NORAD watched the perimeter of the continent using military radar. Information about domestic flights required a phone call to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and the good luck of being patched through to the appropriate person. On the day of the 2001 attacks, the FAA took too long to inform NORAD of the threat, and jets were scrambled too late to make a difference. "We had to rely on civilians - that was slow at best," says Lieutenant Commander Frank Schuller, who commands the new centre. It now gets real-time information from the FAA and Canada's NavCan, and uses software that features bright green and pink lines to indicate if a plane has veered off course, which could indicate a hijacking. The workstations are also flanked by speakers that channel the "chatter" of flight controllers all over the country, instantly telling NORAD if a drunken passenger causes a disturbance on a flight anywhere in the country.

But the view of the seas remains much more limited. At the moment, both countries watch their own coasts, but neither has a joint real-time picture of the continent. Yet a ship sailing from Europe to the American East Coast first passes Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. A vessel sailing to Canada from Asia will often first pass Alaska. Even though ships move more slowly than planes, they could be carrying weapons that move at the speed of sound. Both countries agree that a joint picture of the seas would be useful.

However, neither side is interested in a combined naval command - which some critics decry. "It's an opportunity lost," says Dwight Mason, the former chairman of the U.S. section of the Permanent Joint Board on Defense under the Clinton administration, and an advocate of greater integration. Monitoring the seas jointly is one thing, but responding is another, he says. "It is a problem of coordinating response," says Mason, now senior associate of the Canada Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. "If you have a problem off the coast of Nova Scotia and New England, officially each navy is to operate separately. These days when there is less time to fool around it's better to be organized."

Lieut.-Gen. (Ret) George Macdonald, a former deputy commander-in-chief of NORAD and former Canadian vice-chief of defence staff, also calls the modest approach of both governments a "fundamental missed opportunity." Macdonald, now an Ottawa consultant, adds, "I'm personally disappointed that we Canadians are not seizing the opportunity to be more aggressive in finding areas of mutual security where we could co-operate with the U.S. I feel our economic, cultural, and physical interests are implicated."

The Bi-National Planning Group says it will support whatever agreement the politicians forge. But its members are philosophical about the prospects for greater integration in the future. "I don't think it will be an end-state," says Bergeron of the NORAD agreement that is about to be renegotiated. "It's the beginning - of a long journey to make it better."


Maclean's September 12, 2005