NORAD – 50 Years of Trust

15 March 2008

2008 marks the 50th anniversary of the most significant military agreement between Canada and the United States – the North American Aerospace Defence Command, more commonly known throughout the world as “NORAD.”

Created during the Cold War to defend North America against possible air invasion, this agreement was to become a symbol of trust and cooperation between two nations. Originally named the “North American Air Defense Command,” it underwent a name change in 1981 to reflect the growing importance of space defence and missile warning. Not only its name, but NORAD’s structure and complexity have evolved throughout the years, particularly in response to the 2001 Word Trade Centre attacks.

The current mission of NORAD is to provide aerospace warning and aerospace control for North America through the command center at NORAD-U.S. Northern Command in Colorado and three regional headquarters: 1 Canadian Air Division/Canadian NORAD Region inside 17 Wing (Winnipeg); Alaskan NORAD Region (ANR) inside Elmendorf Air Force Base; and Continental NORAD Region (CONR) inside Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

“NORAD was created in 1957, but it really became legitimate in 1958,” notes defence expert Joseph T. Jockel, author, professor and director of Canadian Studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. May, 12, 1958 is recognized as the date when the ­formal NORAD agreement was signed by the U.S. and Canada.

“It started as an air defence command when the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) had nine squadrons – just for air defence,” explains Jockel when discussing Canada’s long ­history as a partner in NORAD. “And then there was the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line in the North – Canada maintained the Mid-Canada Line, and the line in the south (Pinetree Line). They envisioned that there could be this vast air defence ­battle, and the threat shifted to missiles, and NORAD turned into more of a warning and assessment command. That is still one of its key roles – warning and assessing.”

Despite its long history, the overall public perception of NORAD is somewhat vague. “Most people think of the Cheyenne Mountain, the Cold War, shooting down missiles, nuclear defence,” says Jockel noting, however, that “NORAD has become a short-hand term for Canada-U.S. cooperation. Many countries have bi-national agreements, but NORAD stands out because the intensity of the integration has continued for such a long period of time.”

The early days of NORAD.

Canadians might be surprised at the extent of the cooperation between the two countries, particularly during the Cold War. From 1965 to 1984, a Canadian could effectively order the use of nuclear weapons in U.S. airspace for defending North America under attack. “It’s the metaphor of the red telephone,” says Jockel. “In the Cold War – in the unlikely event that Russians would have attacked – it could have been a Canadian on the phone. I don’t think that the U.S. would trust another officer ally in any other position.”

Three main events stand out in NORAD’s history: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the Yom Kippur Alert of 1973, and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre.

“NORAD was created to warn and watch for – defend against – an attack from outside North America. After September 11, there was a lot of scrambling to provide air defence coverage within North America,” recalls Jockel.

Colonel Christopher Coates, the current Director of Air Operations for 1 Canadian Air Division/Canadian NORAD Region Headquarters can speak with first-hand knowledge about the post September 11th changes in NORAD.

“We’ve developed procedures and means to look inward, to extend our air defence capabilities over the continent,” says Col Coates. “Operationally, our ­protection used to start at the edge of our continent – we focused outward and tried to keep the threats at a distance. We’ve now learned to integrate our ­military air defence with the civilian air traffic control, and so we’ve developed links with domestic agencies. It’s a whole set of capabilities that didn’t exist prior to September 11th – both in personnel and procedures.”

LCol Bob Chmara, Deputy Director of Operations, and Maj Dhrur Jagat (right) man their stations. Exercise Vigilant Shield 07 included about 275 CANR personnel in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and North Bay, Ontario, from December 4-14, 2007. The 10-day exercise tested NORAD responses to a variety of threat scenarios.

Another major outcome of 9/11 has been the implementation of “Operation Noble Eagle” also known in military ­circles as “O-N-E.” The mission of Operation Noble Eagle is to look for potential air threats from within the continent, particularly by civilian aircraft and assist with homeland defence.

“Since 9/11,” says Col Coates, “we will investigate suspicious activity within our country, sometimes with fighter aircraft, or by other means.”

Additionally, NORAD has also taken on a special public responsibly for providing air defence coverage for special events inside North America.

“Air defence for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics will be similar to what NORAD has done for other significant events since 9/11,” says Col Coates. “NORAD has provided air defence for recent events such as the Super Bowl competition in Phoenix, Arizona and the North American Leaders’ Summit in Montebello, Quebec.”

With its long and complex history, and new threats occurring continually throughout the world, it is difficult to imagine what NORAD will look like in the next 50 years. Nonetheless, with the strong backbone of the first five decades behind them, the future of NORAD ­definitely looks bright for both Canada and the United States “The strength of NORAD comes from a team – a bi-national command – it increases the voices of both countries,” says Col Coates. “NORAD will continue to evolve to meet the needs of Canada and the U.S. as we face the threats of the future – whatever they may be.”
Karen Christiuk is the communications advisor for 1 Canadian Air Division/Canadian NORAD Region Headquarters in Winnipeg.
Joseph T. Jockel has recently authored a book on this topic called Canada in NORAD 1957-2007: A History (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007).
© Frontline Defence 2008