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NORAD general: Canada examining its defenses amid new threats

By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Tribune News Service | Published: February 15, 2016

Change is on the horizon for the North American Aerospace Defense Command as Canada reviews its military for the first time in more than 20 years, the top Canadian general in Colorado Springs said.

Royal Canadian Air Force Lt. Gen. Pierre St-Amand said Thursday that new threats have shown the continent's military leaders that oceans no longer provide a shield of safety.

"Now, we are at the cusp of a new age," said St-Amand, who took the job as the deputy commander of NORAD in July.

Canadian leaders said in December that they will review the role of their military for the first time since 1994. That review, run by the new government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will have to account for Canadian commitments in Afghanistan and elsewhere, terrorists threats and shrinking polar ice caps that make Canada's northern coast vulnerable.

"Threats are developing that could put North America at risk in different ways," St-Amand said.

It's unlikely that any review could hurt the unprecedented partnership between Canadian and U.S. military leaders at NORAD. The 58-year-old command started out to protect the continent from Cold War threats but has since adapted to deal with the specter of space warfare, airborne terrorism, threats from the sea and drones.

Colorado Springs is the home to the largest permanent foreign deployment of Canadian forces, with 147 transplanted families here.

Those Canadian troops help their U.S. counterparts scan the skies for threats and scramble fighter planes when a response is needed.

It's a big commitment for Canada's pint-sized military, with only 68,000 full-time troops in all services.

Questions are arising in Canada about defense spending these days - they spend three pennies for every dollar spent by their southern neighbors.

St-Amand said he and other Canadian troops are staying out of the defense arguments.

"The whole discussion is right now a discussion of policy, which is for the government to decide," he said.

Canadian troops, though, are showing concern about growing danger.

The most obvious threats come from across the pole, with Russia, China growing their militaries and North Korea putting its long-range missiles on display.

And, concern has been building for years about the possible rush to stake claims and push commerce through a relatively ice-free Arctic Ocean, which would provide an express lane for sea traffic between Europe and Asia.

"For NORAD, the Arctic is an avenue of approach," St-Amand said.

The general said leaders are working to figure out what's going on the Arctic as ice melts. Questions remain as to whether sea traffic is increasing there, he said.

With a rising Russian military, St-Amand said NORAD has had to dust off Cold War skills to intercept Russian planes approaching the continent.

"In many ways, it is back to the future," he said.

Canada has kept its air defenses strong, with 75 modern CF-18 fighters patrolling its skies. The plane is a variant of the Hornet flown by the U.S. Navy.

Like their American counterparts, those Canadian planes have been on alert since 9/11 to intercept suspected terrorists threats, too.

"We are adamant that we will prevent that," St-Amand said of 9/11 type threats.

But Canada hasn't joined the U.S. in its ballistic missile defense.

Controlled from Colorado Springs, the U.S. has interceptors in Alaska and California that could shoot down incoming nuclear warheads.

Canada looked at signing onto the effort in 2005, but that effort died in Parliament. In 2014, Canada again began examining whether it should join in America's anti-missile system.

St-Amand couldn't comment on policy proposals, but said much will be on the table as Canada examines its defenses.

And that examination is taking place in the light of Canada's view of its place in the world.

"Canada wishes to be a player," St-Amand said. "Canada wishes to contribute."

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©2016 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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