Hey there, military industrial complex. Each year you try to be good. You’re nice to your parents and prime contractors. You share your toys with brothers and sisters, an approved list of industry competi-mates and allies from the Five Eyes. And then, in return, each Christmas Eve you log on to NORAD’s Santa tracker to get situational awareness on the Man in the Red Suit.
But this holiday season let’s not forget the two tenets of Department of Defense acquisition: 1) The threat is evolving and 2) Because the threat is evolving, the Pentagon needs to upgrade its capabilities from outdated, legacy systems.
With that in mind, the Pentagon should prepare for a stark reality: tracking Santa could cost billions, if not tens of billions, of dollars in the future.
Here are four ways the Pentagon wants to improve its capabilities to watch St. Nick fly overhead:
Radars. Currently, NORAD relies on a series of early warning radars that make up what’s known as the North Warning System. The 47 installations are strung across Canada and Alaska. Already, the head of U.S. Northern Command, Gen. Lori Robinson, has said she expects the two countries to finish a study on potential replacements for the system in spring 2018. That system could cost billions of dollars. “NORAD makes a point of checking the radar closely for indications of Santa Claus leaving the North Pole every December 24,” the agency said in a press release.
Satellites. Today, the Defense Department uses two constellations of missile-warning satellites to help track Kris Kringle. This includes the Defense Satellite Program and the Space-Based Infrared System satellites, both of which are in geosynchronous orbit. Those satellites are equipped with infrared sensors that can see heat. While Air Force officials have been circumspect about exactly the level of heat the satellites can detect, NORAD said “Rudolph’s nose gives off an infrared signature similar to a missile launch. The satellites detect Rudolph’s bright red nose with no problem.” To date, SBIRS program cost about $19 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office. The Air Force is considering the next generation of satellites to replace SBIRS and plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars, for the effort.
SantaCams. While NORAD reports that staff there use “ultra-cool, high-tech, high-speed digital cameras that are prepositioned at many places around the world,” it’s difficult to discern a clear modernization program because this is not an official program of record in the Defense Department’s unclassified budget.
Fighters. NORAD also uses fighter jets — namely U.S. Air Force F-15s, F-16s and F-22s and Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornets — to escort Santa’s sleigh through North American airspace and provide situational awareness of his journey. NORAD even notes that “Santa flies faster than any jet fighter,” meaning that Rudolph and the other reindeer must be working pretty hard to exceed the F-15’s top speed of 1,650 miles per hour.
Although the U.S. Air Force has finished procuring all three of those fighters, it plans to spend billions on upgrades to keep the fleets flying. The F-16, for instance, is slated to get a new active electronically scanned array radar from Northrop Grumman. Earlier this year, the Air Force awarded Northrop a $243.8 million contract for the APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar, which will equip 72 Air National Guard F-16s operating in the U.S. Northern Command area of responsibility. The service is also considering AESA radar upgrades for the remaining F-16s in the U.S. inventory.
Current plans also include modernizing the F-15 with a new electronic warfare system called Eagle Passive/Active Warning Survivability System. If the Air Force moves forward with production, the entire program could be worth upwards of $4 billion.
But before U.S. Air Force pilots escort Santa through U.S. airspace, Canadian CF-18 pilots take off from Bagotville, Quebec, to “welcome Santa to North America,” NORAD stated.
The Royal Canadian Air Force will be pouring billions into its own fighter fleet over the coming decades as it replaces its aging CF-18s Hornet fleet. To do that, it plans on buying used Hornets from Australia. The government has also launched a competition to procure 88 new fighters at a price tag of about $14 billion.
The RCAF originally planned to purchase new Super Hornets from Boeing, but the Canadian government cancelled the sale due to Boeing’s ongoing legal dispute with Canadian aerospace company Bombardier.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good fight!
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.