This week, the Minister of National Defence of Canada Harjit Sajjan and the Secretary of Defense of the United States Lloyd James Austin III issued a joint statement on the current efforts between the two NATO partners to enhance the ability of the North American Defense Command (NORAD), which will allow it to better execute its mission.

“As an integral part of ongoing work to strengthen the security and defense of Canada and the United States, we reaffirm our commitment to supporting NORAD’s ability to detect, deter, and defend against aerospace threats and to detect maritime threats to North America, today and in the future,” the joint statement read. “In particular, NORAD must be able to detect and identify those threats earlier and respond to them faster and more decisively, including aerospace threats transiting our northern approaches.”

History of NORAD

In the early 1950s, there was a wave of low budget science fiction films that warned viewers to “look to the skies.” It wasn’t so much invaders from another world that was the actual threat at the time, but rather an attack from the Soviet Union that had concerned lawmakers and military leaders. It was believed that it would be necessary to defend against a possible attack by long-range, manned Soviet bombers.

It was determined that the newly created United States Air Force would be the center point of this defensive effort. Under it, the Air Defense Command (ADC) was first created in 1948, briefly inactivated and then reconstituted in 1951 at Ent Air Force Base (AFB), Colorado. Its mission was to provide the air defense to the continental United States.

By 1954, as Soviet capabilities increased, a multi-service unified command that involved Army, Navy and Air Force units was created – becoming the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). This led to cooperation with the Canadian military, which included the building of radar networks throughout our neighbor to the north, which then was followed up by proposed integration and execution of air defense plans. In 1957, the Joint Canadian-U.S. Military Group recommended that a North American Air Defense Command be established.

Known as the North American Air Defense Command until 1981, it now operates as the North American Aerospace Defense Command – and more commonly is known simply as NORAD. It is headquartered at Peterson Space Force Base in El Paso County, outside of Colorado Springs, CO. Under an agreement dating back to 1958, NORAD’s commander and deputy commander (CINCNORAD) are, respectively, a United States four-star general or equivalent and a Canadian three-star general or equivalent.

Modernization Efforts

As with many now long-established commands within the U.S. military, modernization efforts are often needed to address the changing capabilities from our would-be enemies. As the United States has begun to pivot to potential conflict with near peer adversaries, including Russia and China, the focus again has shifted to more traditional threats including aircraft and ships.

As a result of this new reality, the two partner nations also called for efforts to modernize, improve, and better integrate the capabilities required for NORAD to maintain its persistent awareness and understanding of potential threats to North America in the aerospace and maritime domains.

This includes new investment in sensing and command and control capabilities that could better help protect North America from new ballistic mission threats. This will include replacing NORAD’s main sensors with far more advanced ones that will be located in a variety of domains from under the sea to in earth’s orbit, which could provide the ability to detect traditional threats from traditional combat aircraft and larger missiles to far smaller objects such as cruise missiles or even unmanned aerial systems (UAS)/drones.

The two partners have also announced efforts to conduct joint research, as well as the need to establish those new command and control systems as a way to better enable a common operating picture.

North Warning Systems

The joint statement also addressed that even as significant progress has been made to identify solutions for detecting, identifying, characterizing, and tracking new conventional threats to North America, Canada and the United States still share a desire to coordinate in fielding new capabilities to complement and eventually replace the North Warning System (NWS) with more advanced technological solutions as soon as possible.

When NWS was first designed, it was able to detect high-flying bombers that had to fly far from their home airspace to drop a gravity weapon. The situation has changed considerably since the end of the Cold War, which is why more advanced solutions are required. This could include next-generation over-the-horizon radar systems that could greatly improve the early warning and persistent surveillance of North American airspace and approaches.

Such upgrades may not come cheaply however.

James Fergusson, the deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, suggested in a paper last year that the cost to modernize the NWS could be $8 to $11 billion, which would likely be split 60/40 between the U.S. and Canada.

Watching the Skies of the 21st Century

On Tuesday at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event, U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the commander of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), explained that the modernization efforts of the NSW should align with the ,DoD’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control, which could quickly process data from a variety of sources in real time.

This would replace what VanHerck has described an analog system, where radar or sensor operators use telephones to pass on warning data to operators at a command center.

“Ideally, we would like to go to an advanced system–over-the-horizon radar,” said VanHerck of the NWS modernization. “The North Warning System is limited in its distance…which doesn’t allow us to see far enough out away from the homeland. There’s proven technology today that would give us domain awareness. I think it’s crucial, as we create new systems, that we don’t make them singularly focused. Any new systems that we create must be able to not only detect bombers, but cruise missiles and even small UAS, to be affordable and usable.”

It may be decades since NORAD was established, yet it seems that the need to look to the skies will certainly continue. And for that reason the technology to watch those skies must be updated and enhanced accordingly.



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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at