US and Canada embark on a mission to modernize NORAD

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Most people think of Santa Claus when they think of NORAD. But NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, in reality has a crucial and enduring mission and one that is ever evolving as threats evolve. Now NORAD is embarking on a modernizing effort aimed at better situational awareness and deterrence. For details, Federal Drive with Tom...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Most people think of Santa Claus when they think of NORAD. But NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, in reality has a crucial and enduring mission and one that is ever evolving as threats evolve. Now NORAD is embarking on a modernizing effort aimed at better situational awareness and deterrence. For details, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the commander of NORAD and of the U.S. Northern Command, Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Gen. VanHerck, good to have you on.

Glen VanHerck: Tom, it’s an honor to talk with you today and appreciate you having me on to talk about really important issues and that’s defense of North America and our homeland.

Tom Temin: And let’s begin just between the differentiation of NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command. I know you’ve probably explained this a million times, but just for those of us listening in, if you would reiterate that.

Glen VanHerck: Absolutely. So I’m the 26th commander of NORAD. NORAD has been around since 1958. And in the commander of NORAD hat, I work for the chief of the Defence staff there in Canada and I also work for the secretary of Defense, primarily in the role of aerospace control and maritime warning to North America. I like to say that the commands are separate on the NORTHCOM side, I do work for the secretary of Defense to the president of the United States. But I also think that the commands are inseparable in the defense of our homelands, and the defense of critical infrastructure. And I think that Canada and the U.S. are going to be tied together, whether it be undersea, to air, to space, to cyberspace domains in the defense of North America and our homelands. And so I think the commands are inseparable.

Tom Temin: And there is a joint statement on NORAD modernization and the joint is between Canada and the United States. So just outline how Canada and the United States fit together in the NORAD context.

Glen VanHerck: Well it is a binational command with the two countries. We’re responsible for the defense of North America, not defense of U.S. and Canada, it’s a defense of North America. And so as an agreement in the past, historically, the U.S. has funded 60% or so of NORAD, and Canada 40%. Certainly Canada has done their part maintaining the North warning system. But as we go forward with the threats that have evolved today, and the changes and challenges that are presented in North America, it’s going to be crucial that we work together both Canada and the U.S. to modernize and move forward in the defense across all domains of North America.

Tom Temin: And let’s get to that modernizing effort and the joint look that the two nations have at this. I mean, what are some of the newer threats emerging that NORAD, or I guess, really the defense establishment, perceives to be coming to North America?

Glen VanHerck: Well as a commander at NORAD I see multiple threats, simultaneous challenges across every domain from below the surface of the sea, to space and cyberspace. I think it’s really important to point out that the threats that we see today, and you’ve seen some of them here in the news recently, expand across every domain. Recently, we’ve seen a lot of activity with hypersonic glide vehicles and maneuvering capabilities. You’ve seen that from China. I’d also point out that Russia has already fielded a hypersonic capabilities with their Avangard. North Korea, they claim to be testing maneuvering and hypersonics. The intel community hasn’t confirmed that but we’ll see where that goes. And I expect to see others but it’s much more than hypersonics. Sub-sea threats, vessels such as submarines as Russia continues to evolve their capabilities, they’re going to present a significant challenge in the undersea domain, just as China will about the next decade or so, including advanced cruise missiles, not only from the submarines, but from surface-based sea vessels, as well as bombers. I would also point out that Russia has already modernized their nuclear force. China is in the great expansion of their nuclear force. Rogue nations continue to seek capabilities to hold our homelands at risk as well, so that the challenges are significant. And it’s time that we take a look closely at our ability to counter those not only from a defensive standpoint, but really from a deterrence standpoint, and specifically, integrated deterrence across all of our governments utilizing every lever of influence that we have to first of all, not even get in a crisis or conflict to stay out of that, Tom.

Tom Temin: Sure. So the modernization, then, what do you envision that needs modernizing? For example, the ability to detect some of these things, and as you mentioned, the ability to counter them. So it’s pretty broad range of capabilities it sounds like.

Glen VanHerck: Yeah, absolutely. So the first thing I would say, it’s really hard to deter and certainly defeat something that you can detect. And so really, I have four priorities. The first one would be domain awareness. What that means is sensors capable of detecting threats not only in a defensive posture, or in a crisis, but day to day so that we give our nation’s senior leaders more decision space. And so domain awareness I think starts with a space based capabilities. It also starts with terrestrial based capabilities, such as over the horizon radars that give us a longer range to see potential threats such as those cruise missiles that I talked about or potential bombers but it also extends to capabilities for undersea warfare, such as the integrated undersea surveillance system, which Canada is a part of with the United States to give us more domain awareness, not only in the Atlantic, but as China evolves and other nations in the Pacific. But something that a lot of folks don’t think about is domain awareness in the cyber domain, to understand where those threats are, that may be threats to our key critical infrastructure that could have significant impacts on force projection capability, threat warning, as well as attack assessment, those kinds of things.

Tom Temin: Got it. We’re speaking with Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck. He’s commander of NORAD and of the U.S. Northern Command. And so it’s probably early to say then what specific technological needs you might have, you just realize that these are the domains that there’s some new capabilities needed? Is that a fair way to put it?

Glen VanHerck: Yes, I would say that we do have an idea of some of the technological types of things. So I mentioned over the horizon radar, it’s a proven technology today, it’s not something that you have to develop, it’s a matter of fielding in a lot of cases and figuring out where you’re going to put them, as well as integrating them into current capabilities. When you talk about domain awareness, so I mentioned I have four priorities, domain awareness is the first. And oftentimes it’s not about new capabilities, Tom, it’s actually about taking capabilities that exist today, that may exist in stovepipes, where the information is not shared. And so for example, the North warning system is still a usable system. But oftentimes that data is not shared in a timely manner for senior leaders to make decisions. And so taking that data and information and sharing it into a cloud based architecture, where you can then apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to process that data where today, sometimes it takes hours, if not days to process data, to give our leaders decision criteria or decision material to make decisions on, we want to do that faster to get further left. As I said, I don’t want to end up defeating cruise missiles over Ottawa or Washington, D.C., I actually want to give our senior leaders deterrence options ahead of that. So they can de-escalate every day, if we need to, and certainly create deterrence. I hope that makes sense. And that to me, the third priority is decision superiority. And that’s about taking that information, what I call information dominance and distributing it to the right senior leader, to allow them to make decisions. And that’s key. And the final thing, Tom, I would tell you, no problem anymore is a regional problem or a single domain problem. They’re all global and all domain. And so my defense plan for North America doesn’t start in North America. It starts forward with allies and partners. It starts forward with my fellow combat commanders and CJOC [Canadian Joint Operations Command] being able to create day to day deterrence options, and de escalation options, and if required, defeat, but not defeat in North America, defeat forward. And that’s key. And you have to have that data and information to do that.

Tom Temin: And I imagine it also maybe starts with other U.S. components, even Homeland Security and the intelligence community, because they also have a kind of global view for their own purposes.

Glen VanHerck: Yeah, Tom, I agree with that. And that’s why I say integrated deterrence is so important. And layered defense is so important. And those are not Defense Department only. They’re across all levers of influence, where we have to share data and information to be able to react sooner and give that decision space to our senior leaders.

Tom Temin: And as you build in capabilities to these four major priorities that you outlined, do you also see a human capital staffing, talent issue that would have to be brought along also?

Glen VanHerck: I’m not sure I would say a human capital staffing/talent issue, what I would say is it’s digital transformation. It’s changing our culture. And that’s what we’re doing here at NORAD United States Northern Command is evolving to a digital culture, where the value of data and information and sharing that data and information is recognized by everybody, and we share it much sooner, and we utilize it for our benefit. I would say the key is it actually frees up human capital to focus elsewhere. And that’s more efficient and effective in our operations overall. Now, I would like to say that we’re not allowing machines to make decisions, humans are still making those decisions. But things happen faster, analysts can apply their talents somewhere else to help us get to where we need to go much sooner.

Tom Temin: And with a vision of a modernized NORAD, then do you translate this into say a POM, a program objective memorandum? And then how does that get translated into spending priorities in years ahead?

Glen VanHerck: So that’s a great question. So we have provided, or NORAD has provided what we think those capabilities are, where those gaps and seams are, where we need capabilities to fill them. Very encouraged by the prime minister and the president, their talk about NORAD modernization in their statement. The next step in my mind is for the secretary of Defense and the minister of National Defense to sit down and come up with a framework that moves both Canada and United States forward within our departments on how we would talk about fielding of these capabilities, the agreements for who’s going to pay for what, what capabilities. That in my mind is the next step, Tom.

Tom Temin: And is there a generalized sense of how long this might take?

Glen VanHerck: Well, as far as how long I think we can field some of these capabilities in short years. Others may take five or six years, but I believe within a year to five or six years, many of the requirements and capabilities we can field. Now I would tell you with regards to the use of data and information, through our experiments here called Global Information Dominance Experiments, we’ve demonstrated the capability to utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning today. That exists right now. So the challenge becomes actually taking that data and information and sharing it with the users and those that need that information to make key decisions and then distributing that data so our senior leaders have it in a timely manner to make decisions.

Tom Temin: And I guess maybe on the philosophical level, if you convert to a more digital and artificial, intelligence driven, data driven organization, then in that way, the process of modernizing becomes almost continuous, as opposed to the 50s and 60s when you put in big hardware-based systems, and they sat there and did their thing for 25 or 30 years.

Glen VanHerck: Yeah, Tom, I couldn’t agree with you more. We’re organized, what I would say for an industrial age to field, you know, capabilities, such as airplanes, tanks, ships, those kinds of things. As you transition to a digital environment, the processes and the culture and the way we approach training and testing will have to change as well. And I’ll give you an example: So we’re set up on a FYDP, a fiscal year defense plan. That’s a five year spending plan, with annual budgets, but we’re able to update software and capabilities in a two-week time cycle, 14 days. The process is not set up to do that. So we have to think about how do we take advantage of new environment where the capability to update and move quickly on feeling of capabilities exist within days and weeks and not years timeframe.

Tom Temin: So you need some managerial and fiduciary agility to keep up with the technical agility?

Glen VanHerck: Yeah, I agree with that, we have to look at policies and laws in place that will challenge our ability to stay relevant for fielding of capabilities in a timely manner. And the utilization of money within an annual budget cycle, where today sometimes money can’t cross between different types of money designated for fielding of different types of capabilities. When you field software based capabilities, we need to go assess that and ensure that our policies and laws don’t hinder us in the fielding of those capabilities.

Tom Temin: All right, anything else we need to know about this initiative?

Glen VanHerck: Well, we’ve been very aggressive talking about the use of data and the use of information. And we’ve brought in key allies and partners such as Canada to that discussion. I think he or she in the future with the right data and the right information at the right time, whether it be in day-to-day competition, in crisis or in conflict, will win. And it gives our nations’ senior leaders, both Canada and U.S., decision space to keep us out of crisis and conflict. And I think that’s where we’re focused. But with that said, we do have to figure out what we must defend from a policy standpoint, there are some key things that are crucial to us, that we must defend and field those capabilities as well as creating the decision space that I alluded to.

Tom Temin: But it sounds like if you have a modernized NORAD, and the enemies know what its capabilities are, that itself is kind of a deterrent to keep things over there and not coming over here.

Glen VanHerck: That’s exactly right. And that’s the foundation of integrated deterrence. And what’s crucial behind deterrence, whether it be strategic deterrence, integrated deterrence is a messaging that goes with it. And messaging can be the demonstration of resiliency, resiliency not only in our Defense Departments but across our nation with our key critical infrastructure, our readiness, our capability, our ability to respond in times of crisis. We’re doing that right now with regards to COVID. We’re doing that right now in the U.S. with allies welcome and Canada has been a part of that as well. All of those in my mind contribute to deterrence because they show our capability to adapt, they show our readiness and our responsiveness as well.

Tom Temin: And will you still always track Santa on Christmas Eve?

Glen VanHerck: Absolutely. The plan is to continue tracking Santa as we move forward. That’s a no-fail mission for NORAD and we look forward to continuing to do that each and every year.

Tom Temin: Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck is commander of NORAD and of U.S. Northern Command. Thanks so much for joining me.

Glen VanHerck: Thanks, Tom. I appreciate the opportunity.

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