Implementing North American Defence Modernization: Partnering for Success


Image credit: Corporal Chris Duffney, Canadian Armed Forces Photo


A joint publication with:


by William Richardson

Table of Contents


The modernization of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a response to North America’s changed threat environment. NORAD remains central to safeguarding Canada and the United States (U.S.) against aerospace and maritime threats.  

The current focus in Canada is to improve situational awareness and operational control over the approaches to North America, contributing to integrated deterrence and information dominance.  

Force interoperability and digital connectivity will be key enablers for NORAD’s future capability. Both must be systematically enhanced, practiced, and protected.  

NORAD modernization remains in its early stages, although key aspects have been approved and funded by the Government of Canada. Collaborative and dynamic long-term partnerships with Canadian industry, including Indigenous-owned firms, and Northern communities will be absolutely critical to the success of the overarching effort.



In June 2022, then-defence minister Anita Anand announced Canada’s $38.6 billion plan to modernize NORAD over twenty years. Five areas of investment have been identified: modernizing surveillance systems, modernizing command and control (C2) systems, upgrading air weapons systems, investing in new infrastructure and support capabilities (at a cost of $15.8 billion), and science and technology research.  

NORAD’s modernization is a necessary response to North America’s changed threat environment. In the last 20 years, China has emerged as a leading economic and military power, with the capability and will to challenge the rules-based international order. Rogue states now pose conventional, nuclear, and cyber threats. Russia remains the primary threat to North America. It has modernized its nuclear triad and developed offensive cyber capabilities, while also maintaining a robust long-range cruise missile capability. It intends to hold North America at risk with new weapons in the future. 

The U.S. Unified Command Plan classifies forward, approaches, and homeland layers of defence. NORAD’s mission is to survey and exercise operational control over the approaches to Canada and the U.S. The Arctic is therefore an area of strategic interest for NORAD/NORTHCOM and a central focus of its modernization.  

NORAD/NORTHCOM operates within a strategic framework of integrated global deterrence. This requires universal information dominance, with sensor linkages and data fusion providing time and decision space to commanders. NORAD modernization will support information dominance in the face of dynamic threats and technological change.



Guided by the RCAF Strategy, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) is currently undertaking a force structure review to anticipate future organizational needs and map optimal organizational arrangements. NORAD modernization and the integration of associated technologies are front of mind for the RCAF in this exercise.  

While Canada and the U.S. have agreed on the need to move forward with NORAD modernization, both countries are handling multiple security and defence priorities.

Various aspects of NORAD modernization will likely be subject to change over time as the threat environment and operational requirements evolve.  

Ongoing conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine demonstrate that conventional missiles have become weapons of choice. Canada does not currently possess an Integrated Air and Missile Defence System, which allows hostile actors to hold Canadian population centres and critical civilian and military infrastructure at risk.  

Advanced sensors will form a major component of the modernized NORAD and are a focus for Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC). The Arctic Over the Horizon Radar and the Polar Over the Horizon Radar will be integrated sensor systems.  

Although funds have been allocated by the Federal Government for major elements of NORAD modernization, growing budgetary pressures on the Department of National Defence (DND) and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) will present a challenge.  

Force interoperability is enabled by shared situational awareness and an integrated data backbone. Simultaneously integrating systems, ingesting data, and rapidly digesting data is very challenging. 

Interoperability is dynamic, with digital connectivity certain to evolve further over time. 

The U.S. military’s ongoing efforts to define and implement Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) will shape NORAD modernization. For example, the U.S. Military has embraced cloud computing as a key enabler of JADC2. Canada lags behind here. Cloud computing technology is readily available in the commercial marketplace. It can be treated as an enabler for organizational transformation in DND/CAF.  

Technology companies are increasingly moving towards small, empowered teams for project delivery. Such teams work initially on smaller pieces of large problems, before iterating rapidly and building minimum viable products that address the larger issues. This expertise is difficult for the Government of Canada to acquire through legacy procurement processes and mechanisms. 

Given the harsh climate, vast distances involved, and lack of infrastructure, the Arctic is a challenging operational environment for the CAF. It will be pivotal for NORAD to ensure that advanced technologies deployed in the region are sufficiently resilient and consistently provided with specialist in-service support.  

Meaningful, continual engagement, including long-term business partnerships, with Indigenous communities and Indigenous-owned firms across Canada, and particularly in the Arctic, is a national priority and will also be critical to the future success of NORAD modernization, including the integration and sustainment of next-generation military capabilities in the North. Investment in the Arctic should also prioritize the delivery of dual-use infrastructure and technologies to benefit local communities and facilitate regional economic development. 

The Defence of Canada Fighter Infrastructure is a $7 billion project to modernize the RCAF’s Forward Operating Locations (FOLs) and Deployed Operating Bases (DOBs) across Canada. These installations are being overhauled to securely host next-generation military platforms and sustain their digital connectivity.  

Canada’s civil nuclear power industry is assessing the potential for small nuclear reactors to provide power in Northern communities and at remote NORAD installations. Given the continuous power requirements of advanced sensor and communications installations, such innovations will be needed to ensure the success of NORAD modernization.


Lessons for Canada

  • Given the prevailing international security environment and the rate of technological change, NORAD modernization should be conceived of as a continuous joint effort with the U.S., Northern partners and Canadian industry, rather than a discrete upgrade period.
  • Next-generation military platforms will generate unprecedented quantities of data. Ensure that such platforms are connected with one another, and also with legacy systems, from their initial operating capability (IOC). Binational and international exercises can help to foster interoperability, and particularly robust connectivity between modernized command and control (C2) systems.
  • Canada should seek partnership opportunities with the U.S. on cloud computing to rapidly increase domestic capacity, leverage U.S. lessons learned, and build interconnectivity in this area. Upskilling DND/CAF members to be proficient in cloud computing will be necessary. Industry support can be leveraged to do this.
  • Canada must rapidly establish central data repositories to facilitate enhanced data fusion and exploitation in a secure environment. This will require greater internal collaboration and information-sharing within DND/CAF. Cloud security requirements and classified data governance in the binational construct must be clarified.
  • People are central to joint and bilateral interoperability. Continue to foster strong people-to-people ties across the different elements of the CAF, and between the CAF and the U.S. military.
  • Strike a balance between large capital projects and product management in information systems for efficiency and effectiveness. Create joint, cross-functional teams which erode barriers between areas of expertise, and also between the public and private sectors. Encourage rapid iteration. Public sector talent acquisition will need to be streamlined to support this effort.
  • Engage consistently with commercial firms both within and beyond Canada’s traditional defence supplier base to build trust and increase domestic industrial capacity. The more information that DND can share with suppliers, the better their capability solutions can be. Smaller technology firms specializing in areas such as quantum computing may be particularly attractive for future partnerships with government and established defence contractors.
  • Consider potential lessons learned from air and missile defence challenges faced in other parts of the world, including Ukraine, Guam, Australia, Korea, and Israel.
  • Continue to leverage lessons learned from the U.S. and other Five Eyes and NATO allies in emerging technologies and the introduction of advanced military capabilities.
  • NORAD modernization, and the fixed installation upgrades and advanced technology integration that it entails, will require long-term partnerships with Northern communities and firms. Although the security requirements associated with next-generation military platforms will need to be addressed, multi-use infrastructure remains an efficient and much-needed solution in the North.


About the Author

William Richardson is a PhD student in Political Science at Carleton University. He specializes in International Relations and Public Policy. His Doctoral thesis will examine the intersection of Five Eyes military cooperation, emerging technologies and defence procurement. Will completed his MA at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in 2020. His MA thesis examined Canada’s Future Fighter Capability Project and the role of interoperability in Canadian defence policy. Will also works as a Consultant at Space Strategies Consulting Limited, where he prepares research papers, concept papers and oral briefings on advanced aerospace concepts, military doctrine, emerging technologies and the commercial space sector for clients in the public and private sectors. Will has also worked as a political and security desk officer on several geographic desks at Global Affairs Canada, during which time he produced strategic advice, research reports, and briefing documents for use by the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, and senior departmental officials.


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