This video grab provided by RU-RTR Russian television via AP television on Thursday, March 1, 2018, shows the launch of what President Vladimir Putin said is Russia's new nuclear-powered intercontinental cruise missile. President Putin declared that Russia has developed a range of new nuclear weapons, claiming they can't be intercepted by enemy. (RU-RTR Russian Television via AP)

Cruise missiles, drones and hypersonic weapons: NORAD gets ready for new threats

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As the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) turns 61, it is preparing to confront new threats that include a new generation of long-range and more accurate Russian cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, as well as drones, says NORAD deputy commander Lt.-Gen. Christopher Coates.

Over the last sixty years NORAD has undergone a few transformations and is on the cusp on another major remake, Coates said in a phone interview from the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, CO.

“There is this notion that North America is susceptible to threats in new ways that it hasn’t been before,” said Coates who began his military career as a helicopter pilot in the Canadian Forces.

“That’s the big change in NORAD right now as we adjust to new threats to ensure that our homeland is well-protected into the future.”

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A new threat environment

Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian General Staff attends a briefing in the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, backdropped by a screen showing a Russian navy’s Admiral Essen frigate launching a cruise missile at the Islamic state in Syria. (Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo)

According to Canadian defence experts Andrea Charron and James Fergusson, NORAD is facing a new threat environment shaped by Russian behaviour in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, a new Russian strategic doctrine, and a new generation of advanced Russian long-range cruise missiles.

“There is a new generation of cruise missiles being developed and fielded and used by Russia,” Coates said. “We’ve seen them used in Syria off of their aircraft and off maritime ship and submarine platforms as well.”

These cruise missiles have much longer range – thousands of kilometres versus hundreds of kilometres in the previous generation – and they are much more stealthy and precise, Coates said.

This combination of long range, stealth and precision presents a new threat to the North American continental defence, he added.

Canada and the United States are examining current and future technologies that might provide them with capabilities to address that threat, Coates said.

360 degrees defence

However, Russia’s deployment of two Tu-160 supersonic strategic bombers on a friendly visit to Venezuela last week also shows that Russia is signalling to the U.S. that it is capable of deploying some of its cruise missile carrying bombers much closer to southern underbelly of the North American continent.

“I can assure you NORAD was very aware of what Russia did with those bombers last week,” Coates said. “NORAD looks 360 degrees. We have had focus from the beginning on the North but that hasn’t stopped us in looking in all directions.”

In its 2017 Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy white paper the Liberal government undertook to work closely with the U.S. to modernize NORAD, Coates said.

In the coming year, NORAD commanders in partnership with the U.S. Northern Command and the Canadian Joint Operations Command will continue their discussions on what the future of the defence of North America looks like and what will be NORAD’s role in it, he said.

“It’s an opportunity for us to refresh our understanding how we can best contribute to the defence of Canada and the United States,” Coates said. “We’ve seen some of the other nations of the world change their way of acting and we want to make sure those threats don’t apply to Canada and the United States.”

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