A Low-Cost Way to Defeat Adversaries? Israel and Air Power in the Second Lebanon War

A Low-Cost Way to Defeat Adversaries? Israel and Air Power in the Second Lebanon War

By Major Jared Larpenteur

At 9:05 am on 12 July 2006, Hezbollah initiated Operation TRUE PROMISE at the Lebanese-Israeli border. They kidnapped two Israel Defense Force (IDF) reserve soldiers and sparked the Second Lebanon War.[1] Israel restricted large ground operations and instead turned to the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to win the war for them. Over the next 34 days, the IAF carried out tens of thousands of sorties but failed to achieve the decisive result sought by Israel.

No stranger to conflict, Israel has fought for survival since the establishment of the country in 1948. From 1948 to modern day the IDF has undergone multiple transitions to keep its military in line with the modern battlefield. Some of these transitions came at the cost of extensive amounts of blood and treasure. Despite a relatively successful air campaign in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel’s societal perspective led to paying a high cost to discover essential lessons regarding the importance of joint warfare on the modern battlefield.

Since 1982, the IAF had dominated the skies of the Middle East. However, by the 2006 Lebanon War, they had become accustomed to an uncontested environment and employment in the counter-insurgency environment. Leading up to the Second Lebanon War, two intifadas, the first from 1987-1993 and the second in 2000, drew the Israeli military away from high-intensity conflict.[2] The first intifada occurred in 1987 and made the IDF shift focus from manoeuvre warfare to riot control to handle massive civilian uprisings. The second intifada in 2000 saw more violent clashes including suicide bombings in Israeli territory resulting in over 135 Israelis killed.[3] The two intifadas prompted the IDF to transition to a more counter-insurgency approach to warfare but also degraded public opinion as the Israeli populace became war-weary. At the same time, Israel observed the United States use of a heavy air power approach during Kosovo in 1999 and the initial Iraq invasion in 2003 to help limit casualties.

Israel had developed an aversion to casualties but still faced instability within the region. According to Frans Osinga, Israeli military leaders came to see air power as ‘a low-cost way to defeat adversaries such as Hamas and Hezbollah.’[4] Adversaries like Hezbollah watched, adapted, and understood the power of the IAF. Hezbollah understood Israel’s transition and according to their leader believed ‘the Israeli Achilles heel was the society itself.’[5]  By 2006, Hezbollah planned for a future war with Israel under the assumption that Israel would rely on air power and limited ground forces to reduce the risk of casualties.

When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Chief of Staff General Dan Halutz (an IAF general), and Defense Minister Amir Peretz met shortly after the July 2006 abductions to discuss options their perspectives became apparent when they decided not to send a large ground force into Lebanon, but instead, rely on airstrikes and limited ground raids.[6] The resulting conversation led to Israel’s three political objectives: first, the release of the abducted soldiers to Israel unconditionally; second, stop the firing of missiles and rockets into Israel territory; lastly, enforce United Nations Resolution 1559, which pressured Lebanon to control Hezbollah, disarm militias, and secure its southern border.[7]

Fueling all fighters
An Israeli Air Force F-15I from No. 69 Squadron moves away after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over Nevada’s test and training ranges during Exercise RED FLAG 04-3 in 2004. (Source: Wikimedia)

On 12 July, mere hours after the war began, the IAF launched Operation SPECIFIC WEIGHT. This air campaign targeted Hezbollah’s rocket sites, runways at the Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport, interdicted the Beirut-Damascus highway and attacked the al-Manar Television Station (a Hezbollah-operated media source).[8] General Halutz assumed that it would only take two or three days to achieve the objectives because of the effect of precision-guided munitions on specific targets. These specific targets carried the planning assumption that air strikes would damage Hezbollah, pressure the Lebanese government, resulting in the release of the captured soldiers, and strengthen Israel’s military deterrence.

Two days later, Israeli intelligence assessed the strikes as successful. This led the IDF General Staff to target the town of Dahiye, a southern Beirut suburb that housed Hezbollah’s headquarters. The General Staff believe that Dahiye would deliver a symbolic blow to Hezbollah represented the beginning of a change of focus. With the soldiers still unreturned, the strikes on Dahiye appeared to expand the war aims to cause damage and pain to Hezbollah.[9]

By the end of the war, the IAF had carried out 19,000 sorties, averaging 200 sorties a day. The IAF attacked around 7,000 targets to include Hezbollah command posts, bridges, traffic intersections, and rocket launchers. The IAF used 19,000 bombs and 2,000 missiles of which 35 per cent of the ammunition were precision-guided munitions. The IAF racked up more flight hours in the Second Lebanon War than during the Yom Kippur War.[10] Despite the air effort, Israel began to realise that the air campaign alone would not achieve their political objectives as Hezbollah continued to launch an average of 90-150 rockets into Israeli territory every day.[11]

On 12 July, shortly after the air campaign began and keeping with the limited ground force approach Israel deployed several special operation units to recover the two kidnapped soldiers instead of large manoeuvre force. However, the special operations units did not anticipate the resistance from Hezbollah, while the IAF remained primarily focused on its strategic objectives. The IAF never prioritised integration and support for the ground offensive. Major General Benjamin Gantz, commander of the IDF army headquarters, stated:

By exploiting the air war, we could have gotten in simultaneously in full force and taken over the entire area, cleansing it from within. But that would have required […] decisive ground-maneuver warfare, not the stage-by-stage operations that were ultimately executed.[12]

However, the IDF entered southern Lebanon under the assumption that the destruction of targets by the IAF placed significant effects on Hezbollah.

To circumvent the use of air power and draw the IDF into attritional warfare Hezbollah developed large bunker and trench systems in southern Lebanon that could protect its arsenal of 122mm Katyusha rockets from air strikes. Additionally, Hezbollah integrated bunker systems inside of villages, towns, and surrounding terrain to draw the IDF closer rendering air support useless. As stated by an IDF lieutenant in southern Lebanon, ‘[Hezbollah] have so many places to hide from the air strikes, so we have to send in the infantry. It can be dangerous.’[13] For example, the IDF found a bunker complex in southern Lebanon 40 meters underground covering an area of two kilometres, with firing positions, operation rooms, medical facilities, and air conditioning.[14]

As the reports of Hezbollah’s resistance flooded in, it became clear that Israel needed a more significant force to secure the established political objectives. In response, the IDF launched its first large-scale ground force on 17 July to seize Maroun al-Ras and was surprised by Hezbollah’s preparation and fighting skills. Despite the effort, Maroun al-Ras remained unsecured as Hezbollah successfully outmanoeuvred the IDF with integrated mortar, rocket, and anti-tank weapons.[15] The realisation that intelligence did not match the reality on the ground hit hard as the first of the IDF ground elements manoeuvred into southern Lebanon. With the limited ground approach, the IDF faced massive resistance from Hezbollah. One IDF officer stated, ‘We expected a tent and three Kalashnikovs, that was the intelligence we were given. Instead, we found a hydraulic steel door leading to a well-equipped network of tunnels.’[16]

With the reports of limited success, Olmert and Halutz decided to deploy the Israeli reserves on 21 July. Despite the call for the reserves, Halutz’s ground plan remained the same without a consolidated effort between the IAF and IDF to achieve military objectives that linked to national objectives. By 5 August, three weeks after the start of the war, the IDF had roughly 10,000 soldiers in Lebanon four miles from the border. By 8 August, Israel realised it had been pulled into what they wished to avoid, a large-scale ground operation with dozens of casualties.[17]

Despite the scale of air power involved, Operation SPECIFIC WEIGHT did not have the intended effect. It only impacted around seven per cent of Hezbollah’s military resources.[18] Hezbollah still maintained the ability to manoeuvre and fire rockets, the two captured IDF soldiers were never returned to Israel, and the Lebanese government had no more control over Hezbollah than they did at the start of the war on 12 July. What changed the war and resulted in some semblance of partial Israeli success was not the massive air campaign but the eventual ground offensive.

For the US Military, Operation SPECIFIC WEIGHT provides several stark and valuable lessons. First, air power alone cannot achieve decisive results. Air and ground forces must act together whether in counter-insurgency, large scale combat operations or as in 2006 when facing a hybrid threat. On the modern battlefield, the integration of air and ground elements become imperative for success to achieve military and political objectives.

Second, as air and ground power integrate the release authority for munitions should be delegated down to lower echelons. In the Second Lebanon War, the IDF General Staff held the release authority which created lag times in fires and medical evacuation procedures. These lag times directly led to friendly fire incidents and enhanced pressure from the enemy. For example, near the town of Bint J’beil, an IAF attack helicopter inadvertently fired on IDF ground forces during a firefight barely avoiding fratricide.[19] Additionally, Israel learned that integration of the air and ground domain requires extensive training. That training should entail calling for fire, air-ground coordination, and target acquisition.

Lastly, the use of air power in the targeting process should focus more on desired effects to achieve decisive results rather than the destruction of specific targets. In the targeting cycle, the IAF uses a quantitative approach that focuses on the destruction of specific targets, with the assumption that effects placed on the target will bring decisive results.[20] The US Air Force uses a qualitative effects-based concept which focuses on the desired effects rather than a specific target.[21] During the Second Lebanon War, the air campaign attacked specific targets such as bridges over the Latini River, known Hezbollah positions, TV stations, and Lebanese airfields, with the assumption that destroying these targets would have the intended effect of achieving decisive outcomes. However, once the ground forces arrived in southern Lebanon, it became apparent that destroying these targets did not have the desired effect.

Israel paid the price in blood and treasure to learn the hard lessons of integrating air power on a modern battlefield. The Second Lebanon War resulted in the death of 66 IDF soldier, $55 million in loss of infrastructure, and $443 million in loss of economic activity.[22] The Second Lebanon War shows the importance of understanding the effective use of air power and the need to integrate air power across all operating domains. Israel learned the cost of getting air power integration wrong in 2006. In 2019 the US must avoid such costly schooling.

Major Jared Larpenteur is an Infantry Officer in the United States Army and currently a student at the School for Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, KS. He is a 2003 graduate of Louisiana State University with a BA in History and commissioned through the ROTC program. He has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan and has experience in mechanized and light airborne infantry units. He received his masters from Kansas State University in Adult Learning and Leadership. He can be found on twitter at @jlarpe1 or email at jlarpe1@gmail.com. Views are his own and not representative of DoD or the US Army.

Header Image: An Israeli Air Force General Dynamics F-16C Barak of No. 110 Squadron departs on a mission during the ‘Blue Flag’ exercise on Ovda Air Force Base, Israel, on 27 November 2013. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, 34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 12–3.

[2] Intifada translates as ‘shaking off’ meaning grassroots resistance across the Middle East, see: Bethan McKernan, ‘Intifada: What Is It and What Would a Thrid Palestinian Uprising Mean for Israel and the Middle East?,’ The Independent, 7 December 2017.

[3] Giora Eiland, ‘The IDF in the Second Intifada,’ Strategic Assessment, 13:3 (2010), p. 31.

[4] Frans Osinga, ‘Air Strike’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Air Power (New York: Routledge, 2018), p. 102.

[5] Cited in Scott C. Farquhar, Back to Basics: A Study of the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2009), p. 7.

[6] David E. Johnson, Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011), p. 56.

[7] The United Nations Security Council, ‘United Nations Resolution 1559.’

[8] Harel and Issacharoff, 34 Days, p. 86.

[9] Ibid., p. 100.

[10] Johnson, Hard Fighting, p. 62.

[11] Ibid., p. 65.

[12] William M. Arkin, Divining Victory: Airpower in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 2007), p. 133.

[13] Benjamin S. Lambeth, Air Operations in Israel’s War Against Hezbollah: Learning from Lebanon and Getting It Right in Gaza (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011), p. 51.

[14] Arkin, Divining Victory, p. 21.

[15] Johnson, Hard Fighting, p. 68.

[16] Uzi Mahnaimi, ‘Humbling of the Supertroops Shatters Israeli Army Morale,’ The Times, 27 August 2006.

[17] Farquhar, Back to Basics, pp. 15-7.

[18] Ibid., p. 14.

[19] Lambeth, Air Operations in Israel’s War Against Hezbollah, p. 51.

[20] Johnson, Hard Fighting, p. 33.

[21] US Air Force, Air Force Doctrine Document No. 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 2003), p. 18.

[22] Raphael S. Cohen et al., Lessons from Israel’s Wars in Gaza, Brief: Summary of From Cast Lead to Protective Edge (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017), p. 8.

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part Two

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part Two

By Dr Peter Layton

Editorial Note: In the second part of a two-part article, Dr Peter Layton explores the evolution of the armed unmanned aircraft from its first use in the Second World War through to the First Gulf War. The first part of this article can be found here.

In retrospect, during the Cold War, the dice were stacked against armed unmanned aircraft.  Improving aircrew survivability in a major war – the primary requirement – involved operating in a very hostile, sophisticated air environment in the presence of extensive jamming that could defeat the data links necessary to control unmanned aircraft. Furthermore, the computers, aircraft systems and onboard sensors needed to make such an aircraft work were all big, cumbersome, unreliable and costly. Even when cost was not an issue as in the case of Advanced Airborne Reconnaissance System project of the late Cold War, the unmanned aircraft designs ended up being very large, technically challenging, of doubtful effectiveness and somewhat inflexible in operation.

In the 1990s the stars radically realigned to favour armed unmanned aircraft. In the early 1990s, armed violence erupted in Yugoslavia. The conflict was slow paced with a need for protracted surveillance rather than episodic reconnaissance, but none of the existing systems seemed quite right. Manned aircraft lacked persistence while satellites had predictable orbits and known overhead times, could not easily be repositioned to survey new areas and were impacted by bad weather. Meeting the new requirements driven by the wars in the Balkans was however eased somewhat by the air environment now being permissive with little threat from air defences. In the winter of 1992, the US Joint Staffs and the Office of the Secretary of Defense initiated a quick reaction program for a long-endurance unmanned aircraft. First flight came within six months of contract award, and a year later the General Atomics Predator unmanned aircraft was in operations over Bosnia.

Seemingly quick, the Predator’s rapid entry into service exploited some 15 years of DARPA experiments, trials, partial successes and utter failures. The overall airframe design was point-optimised for the particular mission with a slender fuselage with pusher configuration, long sailplane-like wings, inverted V-tails and a ventral rudder. The engine was a horizontally-opposed, liquid-cooled, four-stroke, geared piston engine with a minimal frontal area that offered high power at a moderate rpm, very low fuel consumption and very low vibration. The Vietnam-era unmanned jet aircraft saved weight by not being fitted with an undercarriage but were difficult to launch and recover. Predator’s used a tall, lightweight fixed undercarriage that gave considerable ground clearance.  This design meant that the Predator had a maximum speed of only some 120kts, but they could loiter for almost a day flying at 70kts at an altitude of 12-15,000 ft. This performance was adequate – if not sparkling – for the new requirement for long persistence albeit useless for the earlier Cold War type missions where survivability was critical.

In design terms, the airframe and engine were skillful but somewhat primitive having more in common with the 1944 TDR-1 unmanned aircraft (see Part One here) than a 1990s military aircraft. The real innovations that addressed the big technological challenge – how to fly and operate an unmanned aircraft in combat for 24 hours or more without on-board humans – lay in the electronics. Computer advances now allowed dramatic increases in computing power, speed and reliability while communication advances connected the Predator literally to the world, changing everything.

Controllability was addressed using a purpose-built flight control computer more powerful than that used in the F-16 fighters of the time. This made the Predator stable in flight in all weathers and easy to control remotely especially during the problematic take-off and landing phases. Navigation was addressed using the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS). Earlier unmanned aircraft had significant navigation problems with Vietnam era aircraft often missing their planned target by some 10-12 kilometres. GPS was a real breakthrough that provided an off-board, ubiquitous, highly accurate navigation method. However, it was new communications technology that made armed unmanned aircraft practical.

Over its first few years of operational service, the Predator system took advantage of and was integrated into, the rapidly advancing online world. It broke away from being dependent on line of sight control with the fitment of high bandwidth satellite communication data links. This has made the armed unmanned aircraft both remarkably flexible and remarkably useful.

Remote Split Operations endowed remarkable flexibility. A small team at a forward airbase launched a Predator using a line-of-sight wireless link and then transferred control to operators located anywhere globally who used satellite communications links. These remote operators then flew the long-duration operational part of each sortie, changing crews throughout the mission as necessary. After the mission, the Predator was handed back to the small forward deployed team which landed the aircraft and turned it around for the next mission. This way of operating meant the forward team was small, requiring only very limited support and minimising the people and equipment needed to be deployed.

The second aspect – that of being remarkably useful – was made possible using modern communications technology that allowed data from the unmanned aircraft to be sent worldwide in near-real-time.

By the late 1990s, sensor technology had considerably advanced allowing relatively small high-quality daylight and night television systems to be made for an affordable cost. Moreover, these, when combined with a laser rangefinder and the onboard GPS navigation system, allowed an unmanned aircraft to now very accurately determine the location of the object being looked at. Such pictures and the position data though were of limited use if access to them had to wait for the aircraft’s return to base. Now with high-bandwidth satellite communication systems, full-motion video tagged with its accurate location could be sent to distant locations. Multiple users worldwide could access real-time imagery of events as they occurred.

The impact of this was that not just the aircrew controllers could see the video and make use of it. Now local land, sea and air commanders could have instant access to the imagery allowing more active command and control of assigned forces. High-level commanders and government ministers at home could also gain an appreciation of the tactical events unfolding. These live feeds from the world’s battlefield were compelling viewing; the term ‘Predator Porn’ was coined – you cannot take your eyes off it.

As importantly, imagery analysts and other exploitation specialists at locations worldwide could now bring their expert skills to bear to provide instantaneous advice on niche aspects to the complete command chain, including the operators controlling the Predator. The satellite communications links allowed many skilled people to be ‘onboard’ the unmanned aircraft flying in some distant theatre of operations, making its operations much more useful than a manned aircraft traditionally could be.

A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper awaits maintenance 8 December 2016, at Creech Air Force Base. The MQ-1 Predator has provided many years of service, and the USAF is transitioning to the more capable MQ-9 exclusively and will retire the MQ-1 in 2018 to keep up with the continuously evolving battlespace environment. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The final technological piece in the armed unmanned aircraft jigsaw came together with the fitment of air-to-ground weapons. On operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, Predator’s provided imagery that was used to cue manned aircraft to essential targets, so they could deliver weapons on them. This worked well but sometimes the manned aircraft were not readily available and hours might elapse before they were overhead. This delay meant that hostile forces could group and attack civilians or friendly forces before defensive measures could be taken.  To overcome this, lightweight, small-warhead Hellfire missiles were fitted to the Predators that could be fired by the remote aircrew controllers against time-urgent targets. The range of weapons that could be fitted greatly expanded in later Predator developments but the fundamental constraint of needing to be lightweight to allow the unmanned aircraft to fly long-duration missions remained. Manned aircraft were still necessary for the battlefield situations and targets that required large warhead weapons.

In the early part of the 21st Century, armed unmanned aircraft finally came of age. This occurred with the coming together of several factors. Firstly, in the operational circumstances of the time, the air environment was much less hostile allowing simple aircraft to survive and potentially undertake meaningful roles. Secondly, there was now a pressing operational need for persistent surveillance; a task manned aircraft were unable to meet. Thirdly, aircraft technology has sufficiently mature to allow an unmanned aircraft to be controllable, navigate successfully, carry suitable sensors and incorporate satellite communications equipment. Lastly, in the internet age, once a video stream was received anywhere, it could be sent worldwide to allow anybody with an authorised computer terminal to access and use it.

After more than half-century of development, the aircraft was the easy bit. It was the electronics onboard and overboard, the ground controlling equipment, the complex support base and the large numbers of skilled staff involved at every level that made the whole operation work. It was not surprising then that defence forces pivoted to talk less of unmanned aircraft and towards terminology such as Unmanned Air Systems. Predators and their ilk were a system of systems, mostly ground-based but with one element that flew.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

Header Image: An MQ-1 Predator, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, on a combat mission over southern Afghanistan, c. 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)

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NORAD at 60

NORAD at 60

By Dr Brian Laslie

NORAD tracks Santa (Source: Author)

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.

Four US Air Force Convair F-106A Delta Dart fighters from the 5th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, Minot AFB, fly over Mount Rushmore, on 27 July 1981. (Source: Wikimedia)

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.

NORAD Map 1960s

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.

Entrance to Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center complex. (Source: Author)

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.

NORAD Commanders have even turned up in the funny pages! Here the NORAD commander, who bore a striking resemblance to actual NORAD commander General Laurence Kuter, briefs Steve Canyon (Source: Author)

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)

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