Strategic Air Defense


NORAD at 40
Historical Overview



Roots of US-Canadian Cooperation

In 1957, Canada and the United States (US) agreed to establish the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) as a binational command for air defense against the Soviet bomber threat. In fact, the antecedents of defense cooperation between the two countries extended back to World War II, when the threat of German and Japanese incursion into Alaska and the Maritime Provinces brought Canada and the US together for mutual defense. In August 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King issued the "Ogdenburg Declaration." It voiced the concept of joint defense and sanctioned the establishment of an apparatus to carry it out. The Canada-US Permanent Joint Board on Defense (PJBD), a binational working group for continuous high level consultations on common defense matters, was formed. At war's end, collective security for continental defense remained of vital interest to both nations. In February 1947, Ottawa and Washington announced the principles of future military cooperation including consultation on air defense issues.

The Origins of NORAD

The growth of Soviet long-range aviation in the late 1940s, and the test of a Soviet atomic bomb in 1949, brought Canada and the US for the first time under direct threat of nuclear attack, and hastened closer cooperation in continental defense. In the early 1950s Canada and the US agreed to construct a series of radar stations across North America. The first undertaking was the Pinetree Line of 33 stations built across southern Canada and completed in 1954 at the cost of about $50 million. The Pinetree Line provided continuous warning and intercept control from coast to coast. However, low altitude gaps in the line and its shallow coverage remained major system defects. To correct these deficiencies, a joint Canada-US Military Study Group recommended in 1953 that two more radar networks be built. By 1957, a Mid-Canada Line, or McGill Fence, was completed about 300 miles north of the Pinetree Line, generally along the 55th parallel. The Mid-Canada Line consisted mainly of Doppler radars which created a microwave radar fence for detection, but not tracking, of low-flying aircraft. This second line, financed entirely by Canada, cost about $227 million. The third and most challenging joint air defense undertaking of the 1950s was the construction of a transcontinental line along the 70th parallel about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The network of 57 stations, completed in July 1957, was called the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line). The US paid the approximately $350 million construction costs.

Completion of the three-tiered radar defense line gave the population centers of the US and Canada two to three hours warning of bomber attack, sufficient time to identify and intercept the enemy aircraft. Should the enemy have attempted to circumvent the three lines and approach from either the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, they would have encountered offshore barriers composed of airborne early warning aircraft, Navy picket ships, and offshore radar platforms called "Texas Towers." Since the operation of this extensive and complex network required daily coordination on tactical matters and the merging of plans to a greater extent than ever before, the logical next step was to establish a formal structure for operational control.

Joint planning had already been put into practice by the two air defense establishments. In 1949, the Canada-US Military Cooperation Committee prepared an outline plan for emergency defense that included provisions for more detailed plans by the air defense commands in the two countries. Early in 1951, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) placed a liaison group at Ent Air Force Base, Colorado, home of the USAF's Air Defense Command (ADC), to facilitate such planning work. Working cooperatively, they produced a detailed air defense plan in 1952 and updated it every year thereafter. However, it became increasingly obvious that the most effective air defense required common operating procedures, deployment according to a single plan, the means for quick decision, and authoritative control of all weapons and actions. In the spring of 1954, the RCAF Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal C. Roy Slemon, and the head of the USAF Air Defense Command, General Benjamin Chidlaw, met to discuss the best means for providing defense for North America. On the basis of these talks, their staffs prepared a plan which called for a combined air defense organization under a single commander. In late 1954, General Earle E. Partridge, commander in chief of the newly formed joint US Command, Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), directed another detailed study of North America defense issues. The results again pointed to the establishment of a combined air defense organization.

Over the next two years, there were consultations between the military leaders of both countries. On 1 August 1957 these talks culminated in an announcement by US and Canada of the establishment of an integrated command that would centralize operational control of all air defense. On 12 September, NORAD operations commenced at Ent AFB, Colorado with General Partridge named as commander in chief and Air Marshal Slemon as his deputy. A formal NORAD agreement between the two governments was reached on 12 May 1958. NORAD commanded both US and Canadian air defense forces which included Canadian Air Command, USAF Air Defense Command, Army Air Defense Command, and Naval Forces CONAD/NORAD.

The next several years saw a dramatic growth in air defenses. By the early 1960s, a quarter of a million Canadians and US personnel operated a multi-layered and interlocking complex of sites, control centers, manned interceptors, and surface- to-air missiles which constituted a formidable defense against a potential bomber attack.

NORAD and The Changing Threat

During the 1960s and 1970s the character of the threat changed as the Soviets focused on creating intercontinental and sea-launched ballistic missiles, and developing an anti-satellite capability. The northern radar warning networks could, as one commentator put it, "...not only (be) outflanked but literally jumped over." In response, a space surveillance and missile warning system was constructed to provide worldwide space detection and tracking and to catalog objects and activity in space. When these systems became operational during the early 1960s, they came under the control of Commander-in-Chief, NORAD (CINCNORAD). The evolving threat broadened NORAD's mission over the years to include tactical warning and assessment of a possible air, missile, or space attack on North America. The 1975 NORAD Agreement acknowledged these extensions of the command's mission and the 1981 NORAD Agreement changed the command's name from the North American "Air" Defense Command to the North American "Aerospace" Defense Command.

The ballistic missile threat prompted policy makers to reassess the effectiveness of the air defense system. Economy moves begun in 1963 reduced aircraft fighter-interceptor forces and closed portions of the land based radar network. There were some efforts at improvements, however, which helped reduce the vulnerability to ICBM attacks. Two hardened underground combat operations centers were set up; one, inside Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, and an alternate Combat Operations Center at North Bay, Ontario. These facilities became the nerve centers for integration and assessment of data gained from the broad network of early warning systems being established.

By the early 1970s, as a result 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 defense was challenged. In 1974, US Secretary of Defense Schlesinger stated the primary mission of air defense was to ensure sovereignty of air space during peacetime. This shift in mission was accepted by Canada and confirmed in the 1975 NORAD Agreement. There followed further reductions in the size and capability of the air defense system and delays in its modernization. By the late 1970s, the remaining components--some 300 interceptors, 100 radars and eight control centers--had become obsolete and uneconomical to operate.

Modernization and the Evolving Threat

In May 1978, at the recommendation of the Canadian Minister of Defence, the two nations undertook a Joint US-Canada Air Defense Study (JUSCADS) to determine the air defense threat through the end of the 20th century and what resources might be available to meet that threat. The study, completed in October 1979, identified the weaknesses of the existing system and emphasized the need for incremental improvements. As a follow-up to the JUSCADS study, the US Congress in 1979 directed the USAF to prepare an air defense master plan (ADMP). The ADMP, modified and upgraded, became the US administration's blueprint for modernization of air defenses and the basis for cost-sharing discussions between Canada and the United States.

The main features of modernization programs which followed upon the heels of the issuance of the JUSCADS and the ADMP were: 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 (OTH-B) radar; the assignment of F-15s, F-16s, and CF-18s to NORAD, and the greater use of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft. On 18 March 1985, President Reagan and Prime Minister Mulroney, at the Shamrock Summit in Quebec City, concluded a memorandum of understanding on air defense modernization which contained most of the recommendations of the previous studies.

The Reagan-Mulroney 1985 summit established the foundation for a continued Canadian-US partnership in North American air defense, particularly with regard to the bomber and cruise missile threat. Cooperation in the increasingly important area of space-based surveillance, warning, and defense against ballistic missiles was also under review. Binational discussions and concerns about space defense and ballistic missile defense were addressed during the formation of the new United States Space Command (established in September 1985). The new command would provide NORAD missile warning and space surveillance capability, but would not be a component of NORAD. The activation of US Space Command, however, in no way diminished CINCNORAD's responsibility to provide the national command authorities of both Canada and the United States warning and assessment of an aerospace attack on North America.

The military capabilities of the Soviet Union remained a significant concern in the late 1980s. 1987 was a peak year for Soviet military aircraft testing the peripheries of the North American continent. The Soviets continued to enlarge its air-launched-cruise-missile capability. The missiles were capable of flying over long ranges at low altitude and sub-sonic speed and could avoid radar coverage. This posed a serious challenge to the defense of the North American continent. NORAD air defense fighters could attack aircraft and missiles with air-to-air missiles, but early detection and successful interception were critical requirements. In response to the cruise missile threat, NORAD announced the selection of five Forward Operating Locations from which to defend against the air-breathing threat. These austere bases allowed NORAD aircraft to intercept cruise missile-equipped bombers, or the missiles themselves before they could strike North American targets.

The End of the Cold War : Consolidation and Modernization for the 21st Century

The end of the Cold War brought about major changes for the command. NORAD faced the same reduction in funding as other US and Canadian agencies. NORAD reassessed its mission and refocused its resources to meet emerging threats. In 1989, Congress assigned the Department of Defense a role in the US counterdrug effort. With Canadian ratification of the counterdrug mission, NORAD operations expanded to include tracking small-engine aircraft, the primary means of smuggling drugs. Ground radars, Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS), and Over-the-Horizon, Backscatter radars were used to detect possible drug smuggling aircraft. The command also developed procedures to coordinate counterdrug activities with Canadian and US law enforcement agencies. These efforts demanded the utmost diplomacy as the command delved into delicate civil and diplomatic areas normally not included in day-to-day military affairs.

Several critical upgrades to the surveillance systems contributing to the NORAD mission of aerospace warning were well underway by the early 1990s. The replacement of the older DEW line sites began with the installation of the North Warning System radars in 1986. While resource constraints scaled back the original program, approved in 1985, by 30 March 1995 the North Warning System achieved initial operational capability. In 1987, the USAF began replacement of the old BMEWS (ballistic missile early warning) radars with newer phased array radar technology. The Cheyenne Mountain Upgrade program since the 1980s installed new technology in order to modernize the command and control centers located there. Also, follow-on space-based early warning surveillance systems were planned to replace the able, but aging Defense Support Program system which supported NORAD's warning requirements. Not all upgrade requirements were fully achieved, however. The planned goal of four Over-the-horizon, Backscatter radars locations was reduced to only one fully tested site at Bangor, Maine. In 1994, that site was moved to warm, and later cold storage.

As part of the effort to consolidate and modernize its command and control procedures, NORAD also participated in the US Joint Staff's directions of closer cooperation among the services. This involved enhancing connection of its command, control, and communications systems to those of the US Army and US Navy. Army Air Defense Artillery and the diverse Navy systems directed radar information to Cheyenne Mountain as part improved identification of airborne threats to North American air sovereignty.

The existence of the North American Aerospace Defense Command for 40 years has provided a model of international cooperation. The first NORAD Agreement in 1958 cemented the union, and each subsequent renewal has continued to shape the partnership to meet new challenges. Members from both armed forces watched over the vast stretches of air space in and around the continent, while working together in Canadian and US facilities. Both countries have shown a great deal of flexibility in carrying out the command's charge. Initially designed to provide warning against long-range bombers, NORAD later accepted the duty of sounding the alarm in case of a ballistic missile attack on Canada or the US. The command has also adapted to changes in the international arena. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 reduced the threat of nuclear annihilation, but new threats like drug trafficking and weapons proliferation presented themselves to NORAD commanders. NORAD's success has shown how two sovereign nations can coordinate defense needs and maintain vigilance for the common good of both countries.