NORAD commander Gen. Glen VanHerck warned top Canadian government and military leaders Tuesday about the threat hypersonic missile technology poses to North American security, saying it's making it "very challenging" for him to carry out his mission.
Visiting Canada for the first time since taking command of the continental defence organization last year, VanHerck gave officials in Ottawa what he called a "candid" risk assessment — one day after Russia said it had successfully tested another of its hypersonic cruise missiles.
Hypersonic missiles can travel at more than five times the speed of sound and have vast ranges. A hypersonic missile can bob and weave through the atmosphere and avoid interception en route to its target. Its manoeuvrability also makes it more difficult to track.
Most hypersonic vehicles can only deliver conventional warheads — but experts warn that they could be capable of carrying nuclear weapons within years.
"As the commander of NORAD, I think probably the most important mission I do is provide threat warning and attack assessment for both Canada and the United States, for North America," VanHerck told a media roundtable.
"Hypersonics will challenge my ability to do that going forward."
VanHerck said he's not tasked with defending North America against hypersonics right now. He said it's up to decision makers in Canada and the U.S. to tell him if his mission should change.
The U.S. missile defence review is looking into the technology, he said. Canada, meanwhile, is not conducting a similar review and hasn't laid out a clear position on what it would do to defend Canada from hypersonics.
VanHerck said that Canadian officials didn't share any policy decisions with him on Tuesday. He said he gave Defence Minister Anita Anand, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre and his vice-chief, Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen, information about the threat so that they can determine "the way forward."
"It's not my job to get into the politics of, 'You should do this or that,'" he said. "My job is to lay out the facts of the risk, the capabilities that are out there."
The global race to master this next generation of weapons is intensifying.
U.S. confirms China launched hypersonic
Russia said on Monday that it had carried out another successful test launch of its Zircon hypersonic cruise missile. Moscow said the missile was fired from a warship in the White Sea and hit a target more than 400 kilometres away.
The U.S. Navy and Army also tested hypersonic weapon component prototypes last month — on the same day that U.S President Joe Biden said he was concerned about Chinese hypersonic weapons.
China stunned the Pentagon in the summer by launching a rocket with a "fractional orbital bombardment system" to propel a "hypersonic glide vehicle" around the world for the first time. The weapon came close to hitting its target, the Financial Post reported.
In a rare move last month, U.S. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that China had conducted two hypersonic weapons tests. He called the tests a "very significant technological event" that came "very close" to a "Sputnik moment," according to his interview with Bloomberg Television.
China's foreign ministry denied that a weapons test had taken place and called the device tested a space vehicle, rather than a missile.
VanHerck said Russia is already using hypersonics in the field, while China is not.
He said NORAD needs the capability to use artificial intelligence to feed defence officials information about the threat.
Canada and the U.S. have committed to modernizing NORAD to bring it into the digital age. VanHerck said the modernization discussions are in the early stages.
"To say we're well down a path in discussion and have come to an agreement on anything would be false information," he said." I think we're in the infancy stages, not the running stages right now. We're getting ready to crawl, if you will."
There isn't a timeline or estimated cost yet, VanHerck said. The next step would be for Canada's defence minister and the U.S. secretary of defence to create a framework to move forward, he said.
Canada's hypersonics defence posture unclear
When CBC News asked Anand's office what direction she would give VanHerck during their meeting Tuesday about hypersonics, a spokesperson said that "Canada and the United States coordinate closely regarding emerging threats to our continent."
"These threats include long-range cruise missiles — including hypersonic missiles — for which NORAD is devoting significant attention and resources in order to mitigate the threat they pose," wrote Anand's spokesperson Daniel Minden in a media statement.
David Perry, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the government's policy on hypersonics remains "unclear."
Perry said parts of Canada's military, including ships and fighter aircraft, are oriented toward defending Canada from missile strikes. But in 2005, Canada opted out of joining the George W. Bush administration's ballistic missile defence.
In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canada would not change its position on missile defence "anytime soon." Anand's office also confirmed Tuesday that the position hasn't changed.
Perry said the U.S. is leading the world on development of systems to detect, track and destroy hypersonic missiles. But the Canadian federal government, he said, hasn't stated publicly if opting out of the U.S. ballistic missile defence effort also means the country continues to opt out of defence arrangements for other missile types, like hypersonic glide vehicles.
"Since saying no to that, there's been a lack of at least public clarity about what exactly we will and won't do when it comes to defending Canada," said Perry.
Times have changed, Perry said, and Canada should clarify its position now that there's proof that Russia and China are aggressively modernizing their militaries and pursuing new weapons technology.
"That means they now have the military capability that they can launch from their homeland that can reach North America," he said.
James Ferguson, deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, said Canada hasn't yet come up with a defensive response to hypersonic weapons.
"How do you classify them?" said Ferguson. "We just don't know what the government's thinking about this, if they're thinking about this at all."
Canada and the U.S. issued a joint statement in August committing to modernizing NORAD in the coming years and vowing to "respond to aerospace threats quickly and decisively."
Anand's office told CBC News in a media statement that Canada earmarked $163 million in the 2021 budget for the NORAD modernization program and, in partnership with the U.S., will "continue to advance the necessary investments to keep Canadians and Americans safe from current and emerging threats."