By Dr Brian Laslie
Editorial Note: This weekend, 12 May, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the Bi-National defense command between the United States and Canada (and yes, the same organization that tracks Santa every Christmas Eve) is celebrating its 60th Anniversary. As such, we here at From Balloons to Drones wanted to share a portion of the history of this unique organization. The following comes to you from the NORAD History Office and our Assistant Editor Dr Brian Laslie, who is also a historian at NORAD.
With the beginning of the Cold War, American defence experts and political leaders began planning and implementing a defensive air shield, which they believed was necessary to defend against a possible attack by long-range, manned Soviet bombers. By the time of its creation in 1947, as a separate service, it was widely acknowledged the Air Force would be the centre point of this defensive effort. Under the auspices of the Air Defense Command (ADC), first created in 1948, and reconstituted in 1951 at Ent Air Force Base (AFB), Colorado, subordinate US Air Force (USAF) commands were given responsibility to protect the various regions of the United States. By 1954, as concerns about Soviet capabilities became graver, a multi-service unified command was created, involving US Navy, US Army, and USAF units – the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). USAF leaders, most notably Generals Benjamin Chidlaw and Earle Partridge, guided the planning and programs during the mid-1950s. The USAF provided the interceptor aircraft and planned the upgrades needed over the years. The USAF also developed and operated the extensive early warning radar sites and systems which acted as ‘tripwire’ against air attack. The advance warning systems and communication requirements to provide the alert time needed, as well as command and control of forces, became primarily a USAF contribution, a trend which continued as the nation’s aerospace defence matured.
As USAF leaders developed plans and proposed warning system programs, they became convinced of the logical need for extended cooperation with America’s continental neighbour, Canada. US-Canada defence relationships extended back to the Second World War when the two nation’s leaders formally agreed on military cooperation as early as 1940 with the Ogdensburg Declaration. These ties were renewed in the late 1940s with further sharing of defence plans in light of increasing Soviet military capabilities and a growing trend of unstable international events, such as the emergence of a divided Europe and the Korean War.
Defence agreements between Canada and the United States in the early 1950s centred on the building of radar networks across the territory of Canada – the Mid- Canada Line (also known as the McGill Fence), the Pinetree Line, and the famous Dew Line. This cooperation led to a natural extension of talks regarding the possible integration and execution of air defence plans. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and USAF exchanged liaison officers and met at critical conferences to discuss the potential of a shared air defence organisation. By 1957, the details had been worked out, and the top defence officials in each nation approved the formation of the NORAD, which was stood up on 12 September at Ent AFB, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, home of the US CONAD and its subordinates, including USAF ADC. General Earl Partridge, USAF, who was both the ADC and CONAD Commander, also became commander of NORAD, and the senior Canadian RCAF official, Air Marshal Roy Slemon, who had been the critical Canadian delegate in most of the cooperation talks, became deputy commander, NORAD. Nine months after the operational establishment of the command, on 12 May 1958, the two nations announced they had formalised the cooperative air defence arrangements as a government-to-government bilateral defence agreement that became known as the NORAD Agreement. The NORAD Agreement and its associated terms of reference provided the political connections which would make possible the longevity of the Canadian-US aerospace defence relationship into the future years. The NORAD Agreement, with its requirement for periodic review, ensured flexibility to adapt to a changing defence environment as would be evident by the events that would soon face the fledgeling command.
Within one year of its establishment, NORAD began the process of adapting its missions and functions to ‘a new and more dangerous threat.’ During the 1960s and 1970s, the USSR focused on creating intercontinental and sea-launched ballistic missiles and developed an anti-satellite capability. The northern radar-warning networks could, as one observer expressed it, ‘not only [be] outflanked but literally jumped over.’ In response, the USAF built a space-surveillance and missile-warning system to provide worldwide space detection and tracking and to classify activity and objects in space. When these systems became operational during the early 1960s, they came under the control of the NORAD.
In NORAD’s 60-year history, perhaps the most notable symbol of the command has been the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (CMOC), often referred to as simply ‘Cheyenne Mountain.’ This vast bunker complex, which became fully operational in 1966, sat more than 1,500 feet underground and consisted of 15 buildings, which comprised the central collection and coordination facility for NORAD’s global-sensor systems.
Throughout the 1970s, the ballistic missile threat caused policymakers to reassess the effectiveness of the air defence system. This meant the potential demise of the arguments for enhanced traditional air defence and moved NORAD to focus on such challenges as an improved warning of missile and space attack, defence against the ICBM, and more significant protection and survival of command, control and communication networks and centres. This resulted in a reduction of the USAF interceptor forces and closure of various portions of the radar network. Modernization of air defence forces became a hard argument. Because of changes in US strategic policy, which had come to accept the concept of mutual vulnerability to ICBM attack, the need to spend about $1 billion a year on air defence was challenged. In 1974, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger stated the primary mission of air defence was to ensure the sovereignty of airspace during peacetime. There followed further reductions in the size and capability of the air defence system. By the late 1970s, the remaining components – some 300 interceptors, 100 radars and eight control centres – had become obsolescent and uneconomical to operate.
Over the years, the evolving threat caused NORAD to expand its mission to include tactical warning and assessment of possible air, missile, or space attacks on North America. The 1975 NORAD Agreement acknowledged these extensions of the command’s mission. Consequently, the 1981 NORAD Agreement changed the command’s name from the North American ‘Air’ Defense Command to the North American ‘Aerospace’ Defense Command.
The 1980s brought essential improvements for the aerospace defence mission. Again, NORAD demonstrated adaptability to meet these changes. In 1979, the US Congress ordered the USAF to create an air defense master plan (ADMP). The ADMP, modified and upgraded, became the US administration’s outline for air defence modernisation and the foundation for NORAD cost-sharing discussions between Canada and the United States. The modernization accords signed in 1985 called for the replacement of the DEW Line radar system with an improved arctic radar line called the North Warning System (NWS); the deployment of Over-the-Horizon Backscatter radar; greater use of USAF Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft; and the assignment of newer USAF aircraft, specifically F-15s, F-16s, and CF-18s, to NORAD.
The late 1980s witnessed another expansion of the NORAD mission. On 29 September 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that involved the US Department of Defense, and specifically NORAD, in the campaign against drug trafficking. The command’s role in this mission was to detect and track aircraft transporting drugs and then report them to law enforcement.
On 11 September 2001, terrorists hijacked four passenger airliners, two of which obliterated the World Trade Center, in New York City, while another shattered part of the Pentagon. One of the four aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania before hitting its target, apparently either the US Capitol or the White House. The event made it clear that attacks on the homeland would not necessarily come only from across the poles and oceans which buffered the North American continent.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, NORAD began Operation NOBLE EAGLE. The purpose of this still-ongoing air patrol mission was to defend the United States against terrorist aggression originating from either within or outside the nation’s air borders. NOBLE EAGLE missions were executed primarily by the USAF First Air Force, a NORAD unit under the command of the Continental NORAD Region (CONR), located at Tyndall AFB, in Florida. By June 2006, NORAD had responded to more than 2,100 potential airborne threats in the continental United States, Canada, and Alaska, as well as flying more than 42,000 sorties with the support of USAF AWACS and air-to-air refuelling aircraft.
NOBLE EAGLE’s response has become institutionalised into daily plans and NORAD exercises through which the command ensures its capability to respond rapidly to airborne threats. USAF units of NORAD have also assumed the mission of the integrated air defence of the National Capital Region, providing ongoing protection for Washington, D.C. Also, as required, NORAD forces have played a critical role in air defence support for National Special Security Events, such as air protection for the NASA shuttle launches, G8 summit meetings, and even Superbowl football events.
In recognition of the changing threat environment of the post-9/11 world, the United States Department of Defense stood up, in October 2002, US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) as a joint service command to execute the mission of homeland defense across all domains. With NORAD already executing the air defense mission of North America, it was a logical step to co-locate the headquarters of NORAD and USNORTHCOM in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and to retain a dual-hatted commander relationship between NORAD and the new US joint command.
As NORAD looked to the future, past threats re-emerged. In 2014, Russian long-range aviation and maritime activity reached levels not seen since the Cold War: more sorties, supported by more tankers, and more sophisticated linkages between air and maritime intelligence collection than ever before. This activity underscored an aggressive Russian military enjoying new prosperity, proficiency, and ever improving capabilities that had NORAD focused on the Russian Bear once more. NORAD’s three operational regions in Alaska, Canada, and the Continental United States, routinely responded to incursions by Russian long-range aviation aircraft entering the North American Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) or the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone (CADIZ).
As NORAD celebrates its 60th this weekend, we here at From Balloons to Drones send a very ‘Happy Anniversary’ to both America and Canada and to the Command itself for providing 60 plus years of aerospace warning, control, and defense to the Homeland. We know that you have the watch!
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: A USAF F-22 Raptor of the 3rd Wing escorts a Russian Air Force Tu-95 Bear bomber near Nunivak Island, c. 2007. This was the first intercept of a Bear bomber for an F-22, which was alerted out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s Combat Alert Center. (Source: US Department of Defense Images)