The commander in charge of advance-warning systems for the United States and Canada said both countries are "at risk in ways we haven't been in decades" and called for a broad upgrade of NORAD's defenses in response to Russian military advances.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy, who leads the Colorado-based U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, made the remarks during a gathering of defense experts in Ottawa on Tuesday.
He said he sees "striking parallels between" the U.S.-Soviet Cold War conflict of a generation ago and the emerging military threat of Russia, which is projecting its power into the Arctic where vast amounts of oil are untapped.
"We face a more competitive and dangerous international security environment today than we have in generations and, like yesterday, our security environment is marked by the re-emergence of great power competition with an evolving balance of power, the changing nature of conflict, and the rapid evolution and proliferation of technology," O'Shaughnessy said, according to a transcript NORAD provided to KUNC. "Our competitors are analyzing our capabilities, investigating our perceived vulnerabilities, and methodically developing capabilities to erode our competitive military advantage."
NORAD is tasked with deterring, detecting and defeating aerial threats as well as aerospace and maritime warning for North America.
O'Shaughnessy recalled history, when NORAD had large resources — airplanes in the skies around the clock every day of the year — "always ready for the real possibility the Cold War could turn into World War III at a moment's notice."
"It was a time when our national security wasn't taken for granted," O'Shaughnessy said. "Our children literally practiced taking cover under their desks at school and the citizens built bomb shelters in their backyards. The Soviet threat was real. They had capability, they had capacity and the intent to hold us — the United States and Canada — at risk. In the end, we won the Cold War."
He referenced Canadian and Russian media reports that Russia has resumed fighter patrols to the North Pole for the first time in three decades.
"These patrols will be in addition to the regular bomber flights up to the edge of U.S. and Canadian airspace," he added, noting that Russia is also deploying vessels in the Arctic Sea armed with cruise missiles.
O'Shaughnessy also called attention to Russia's announcement that it is fielding hypersonic missiles that travel at incredible speeds.
"As NORAD responds to our new security environment, we must work together to regain the strategic advantage against all our competitors," he said. "We cannot afford (to fall) into the paralysis-by-analysis trap while our competitors are putting us at risk with credible threats."
Yet, he said, NORAD radars in the Canadian Arctic region use 1980s technology.
O'Shaughnessy also questioned whether enough is being done to ensure the security of infrastructure, such as roads, ports, dams and airports. He noted that power grids are important and their failure could have critical consequences for millions of people as they sprawl over vast regions, some crossing between the U.S. and Canada.
"The hardening and protection of our shared critical infrastructure must be part and parcel with any North American defense initiative we undertake," he said. "So we're looking hard at the best ways we can defend this critical infrastructure, and much of this relies on the partnerships we have not only within our militaries but within our interagency and industry."
The U.S. and Canada must elevate their abilities to detect and thwart threats from competitor nations, he said, adding that NORAD is reviewing where to best place its forces and facilities.