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US, Canada Eye Ways to Counter Cruise Missile Attacks

The head of U.S. Northern Command last week said the U.S. and Canada are working on upgrades to protect against cruise missile threats posed by countries such as Russia and North Korea -- the first substantial buildup in more than two decades.

Gen. Lori J. Robinson, also the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command, told audiences at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute in Ottawa that the two countries have established a "binational steering group to manage the eventual replacement of the North Warning System, which is our network of surveillance radars across Alaska and northern Canada."

"For the first time ever, the United States has agreed to do a binational analysis of alternatives with Canada to explore surveillance systems for all domain situational awareness of the northern approaches to the continent," she said Feb. 16.

"Because we need to create persistent long-range surveillance to enhance our indicators and warnings against air breathing and sub-maritime threats, we also need to increase our ability to detect, track, ID and if necessary engage cruise missiles," she said.

Robinson said the defense strategy comes at a time when "Kim Jong Un is unpredictable and volatile," and that Russia remains a "game changer" because "Russian cruise missiles can reach us from ranges we're not used to. No longer do they have to enter or come close to North American air space and hold us at risk."

Additional adversaries such as China and Iran are also "constantly probing and looking for chinks in our armor" to dismantle both hardwired and intangible defenses, she said.

The Pentagon in recent years has been quietly working on a network defense system plan to intercept and shoot down low-flying missiles, according to a 2015 DefenseOne analysis. The plan would access additional radars that -- in a blitz-style attack -- would tip fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles or sea-based missile to locate and "shoot down fast and low-flying missiles," DefenseOne said.

Simultaneously, the radars would communicate with sensor-equipped aerostat balloons, such as the JLENS, or Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, which could have more eyes on the target. A JLENS, for example, could hover near U.S. cities to detect and lock onto the cruise missile, passing critical data to a fighter jet, for instance, DefenseOne said.

The U.S. and Canada together operate the North Warning System -- formerly the Distant Early Warning, or DEW, line -- consisting of 47 unmanned long- and short-range radar stations that stretch across Newfoundland to Alaska. The DEW line was established during the 1950s to protect the northern territories from Russian missile advances.

The latest analysis "will inform decisions in both Washington and Ottawa on appropriate technology investments to give NORAD the next generation of multi-domain surveillance capabilities," Robinson said.

"We're looking at things such as what should the next investment in infrastructure be. We're also considering non-material solutions. We're trying out new strategies and new concepts, and together we're conducting binational exercises based on those plans," she said.

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