The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has been at the heart of the Canada-U.S. defence relationship since 1958. NORAD is unique among defence relationships and alliances for its bi-national structure in which the Commander (traditionally a U.S. officer) and Deputy Commander (a Canadian) report to both governments. Canadian and American forces personnel work side-by-side throughout the command. Today, the strategic context is evolving because of changes in the geopolitical environment, technological developments and different understandings of the utility of nuclear weapons. NORAD is at a point where the question of its future relevance will depend upon choices made in Canada. 

Origins: Overview of the Political and Historical Context

NORAD’s deepest roots date back to August 1938. Speaking at Queen’s University, President Franklin Roosevelt stated that “the people of the United States will not stand idly by if domination of Canada is threatened by any other empire.”  Roosevelt’s words were widely welcomed in Canada. Prime Minister Mackenzie King responded that “we too have our obligations…and one of these is to see that…enemy forces should not be able to pursue their way, either by land, sea, or air to the United States across Canadian territory.”  In August 1940, King visited Roosevelt in Ogdensburg, NY. They agreed that the two nations had to cooperate to ensure the defence of the continent. That understanding established the core institution of bilateral defence cooperation, the Permanent Joint Board on Defense (PJBD). 

None of the three statements by the President and Prime Minister (Roosevelt at Queen’s University; King’s response; the joint statement at Ogdensburg) constituted an official treaty or agreement; however, their value as political statements from the highest level, has endured.

In September 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Soviet Union’s embassy in Ottawa, defected to Canada with evidence that Soviet espionage had penetrated the US nuclear weapons program. Despite the shock felt in Washington and Ottawa, bilateral military cooperation continued with little sense of urgency. Yet, only five years later, Canada and the U.S. would be deeply involved in planning extensive air defences which would soon become a joint endeavour as foreseen by the PJBD. What brought about such a sudden change?

Two events stunned the U.S. defence and intelligence establishments. First was the revelation at the May 1947 Moscow military parade that the Soviets had reverse engineered the B-29 bomber, the aircraft which had delivered the two atomic bombs on Japan. The second event, on August 29, 1949, was the successful test by the Soviets of a nearly exact copy of the “Fat Man” bomb tested in New Mexico and used against Nagasaki. Most assessments had concluded that a Soviet atomic bomb was not likely before 1951 or even 1953 but Soviet espionage at Los Alamos and elsewhere had delivered the secrets of the Manhattan Project, including the more advanced implosion weapon. The Cold War nuclear era had begun. 

By 1950, both Canada and the U.S. were developing jet interceptors (the similar CF-100 and the F-89); planners, politicians and scientific advisors were debating the location of early warning radars; and soon, air force officers began to consider integrated command and control. NORAD actually began operations in 1957 as a purely military command exercising operational control of both nations’ air defences. However, a formal inter-governmental agreement was soon negotiated. The NORAD Agreement thus dates back to May 12, 1958. Its early years were tumultuous, marked by American anger over Canadian hesitation in implementing its commitment to accept U.S. nuclear weapons for the CF-101 VooDoo and BOMARC Surface-to-Air Missile. Nevertheless, by 1965 NORAD was fully functioning as an essential component in U.S. deterrence strategy while offering a defence against surprise attack.

Today NORAD is located at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado with the alternate command centre in nearby Cheyenne Mountain. Subordinate headquarters are located at bases in Alaska, Winnipeg and Florida, each staffed on a bi-national basis.

NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command Today

Over the decades, NORAD’s air defence missions have evolved from basic air defence of ports and defence industries, to protecting the U.S. deterrent against “precursor” attacks designed to limit a U.S. counter strike, to preventing “decapitation” strikes against the U.S. command structure. Today NORAD missions are: aerospace warning; aerospace control; maritime warning. NORAD provides to the U.S. and Canadian national command authorities (the president and prime minister and their ministers of defence) unambiguous aerospace warning in the form of an Integrated Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment (ITW/AA). This part of the NORAD mission constitutes an important element in maintaining strategic stability between the two large nuclear powers.

NORAD’s present disposition reflects the North American Air Defense Modernization (NAADM) plan agreed in 1985, developed in large part to counter an emerging Soviet capability – long range Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs). These could strike key targets at considerable range, renewing concern of a “decapitation” strike against command and control and/or leadership. The NAADM entailed the replacement of the 1950’s DEW Line with the new radars of the North Warning System (NWS) and the construction of Forward Operating Locations to allow the deployment of USAF and RCAF fighters northwards to counter cruise missiles. 

The calm after the Cold War was not to last. A key policy inflection point was the Canadian decision after 9/11 not to adopt U.S. proposals for a completely integrated continental defence structure. This led the U.S. to establish Northern Command (NorthCom) in October 2002 for the defence of the U.S. The four-star U.S. general officer who commands NorthCom is “double-hatted” as Commander NORAD. 

A second Canadian policy decision, an unexpected one – to decline participation in missile defence – also shaped NORAD’s structure. After considerable discussion, it was agreed that Canadian military personnel could take part in missile warning activities under NORAD but not in the active missile defence role under U.S. Northern Command. This anomaly remains a troubling incongruity in Colorado Springs. U.S. commanders have managed to make the bifurcated NORAD/NorthCom missile warning and defence mission work, but this could become a serious policy issue in the event a future commander (or Commander in Chief) considers the arrangement undesirable or unworkable. 

A third set of policy decisions was forced upon NORAD as a result of its failure to intercept the civil airliners used as weapons on September 11, 2001. After the Cold War, NORAD’s fighter interceptors in the continental U.S. had been reduced in number and positioned primarily to identify unidentified aircraft approaching the U.S. In 2004, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States concluded that the fighters were therefore unable to intercept the hijacked aircraft. Operation Noble Eagle increased the number of alert aircraft and devised an effective geographic distribution so that every major U.S. city was within a prescribed distance of a fighter base.   

Overview of Emerging Potential Threats

Weighing the intentions of adversaries requires a broad analytic context including the adversary’s foreign policy, leadership dynamics and their own perceptions of vulnerability and opportunity. NORAD, as an operational command, focuses mostly on the capabilities available to a potential adversary, the doctrine governing their use, and indications and warnings of hostilities and intimidation actions.

The Changing Understanding of Deterrence

Deterrence has always been more complex than the simplistic invocation of Mutually Assured Destruction or the Gorbachev – Reagan declarations that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. As far back as the 1980’s, advancements in precision guidance led some strategists to observe that a new generation of precision conventional weapons could effectively strike key targets hitherto included in nuclear targeting plans. More recently, advances in very low yield nuclear weapons may have made them more useable. Defined escalation ladders have therefore been superseded by complex conventional and strategic (nuclear) escalation paths, which present new challenges to the warning systems and defences.


President Putin has articulated a revisionist foreign policy heavily influenced by NATO’s expansion, Russia’s historical memories of invasion as well as its fear of American capability to destabilise Russia through precision conventional strikes on its strategic weapons, command and control nodes and leadership and thus gain a decisive advantage in any regional conflict in its neighbourhood. In response, for the better part of a decade, Russian defence ministers and senior military officers have articulated a doctrine commonly described as “escalate to de-escalate.” 

Implementation of the Russian doctrine would begin with diplomatic warnings and exercises. Intimidation tactics, such as close approaches to national borders or even overflights might follow. At a certain point, a limited conventional strike might be employed, followed by a low-yield nuclear strike, probably on a target where few individuals would be killed. Should the desired effect not be achieved, at that point, Russia might choose to execute a limited nuclear strike with low yield weapons against military targets. Escalation to carefully selected civilian economic and infrastructure targets would arouse public opinion favouring a stand-down in the face of Russian determination.

Whatever the finer points of deterrence or escalation theory may be, Russian military modernisation has placed high priority on the necessary precision long-range conventional and nuclear weapons. In particular, the Long Range Aviation (LRA), far from being a moribund Cold War relic, has received extensive modernisations of its two strategic bombers, the Tu-95MS (NATO reporting name Bear-H) and the Tu-160 (Blackjack); the Tu-160 has been placed back into production to replace the Bears. An entirely new strategic bomber is under development. A new ALCM, with two variants, the Kh-101 (conventional) and Kh-102 (nuclear) has been deployed and allocated the NATO Reporting Name AS-23 Kodiak. The AS-23 is estimated to have 2,500 to 2,800 km range, capable of extremely precise targeting and very difficult to detect and intercept. The Russian Navy’s most modern nuclear attack submarines as well as its modern diesel-electric submarines are being equipped with the SS-N-30 Kalibr Land Attack Cruise Missile (LACM), with a range of 2,500 km.

For NORAD, the re-emergence of a potentially effective Russian threat has brought the Command full circle. The LRA’s operations in the Arctic, approaching U.S. and Canadian airspace (but not violating internationally agreed borders) appear to be realistic and systematic exercises of the LRA/AS-23 capacity to launch limited strikes against North America as foreseen in the escalation doctrine. NORAD’s capacity to warn of, and blunt limited strikes is deemed essential to provide the U.S. leadership with the opportunity to tailor a diplomatic response combined with minimal conventional retaliation rather than an immediate nuclear strike, which, however small, could accelerate the dynamics of escalation. The new concepts of escalation and deterrence, combined with technological advances, place a renewed emphasis on early warning and attack assessment, missions at the heart of modern-day NORAD that now require new approaches.


China has been pursuing a massive transformation of its large but old-fashioned military to produce a technologically advanced, agile and professional force capable of projecting power beyond China’s traditional sphere of influence.  Part of this effort is the expansion and modernization of its strategic nuclear forces with a new generation of land-based ICBMs and ballistic missile submarines. Following the example of the U.S. and Russia, China has begun a program for a long-range strategic bomber with conventional and nuclear precision strike capabilities possibly embodied in a new generation of ALCMs. This capability could allow China to conduct both conventional and limited nuclear operations with a high degree of precision as a tool in crisis management and intimidation. 

The “Rogue Nation” Threats

North Korea and Iran pose lesser threats, but the former has attained nuclear weapons status and a basic (and as yet not fully developed) ICBM capability in unknown but small numbers. Iran continues to progress in its regional ballistic missile programs but has not yet perfected an ICBM. Perhaps of more concern is the proliferation of dual capable cruise missiles to countries of concern or non-state actors.  Russia has offered for sale a cruise missile – the SS-N-30, in a shipping container. This concept could appeal to non-state actors such as Hizbollah or countries seeking an asymmetrical counter to U.S. superiority. Other arms suppliers have offered similar systems.

Finally, the terrorist threat persists. Although recent attacks in various countries have been carried out by small numbers of attackers or individuals, the 9/11 model is still a concern because of the shock effect of a mass casualty attack and the inevitable economic losses which would follow. 

Potential Policy Challenges Facing NORAD Going Forward

The Canadian Government’s intentions regarding the defence of North America, our defence relationship with the U.S. and NORAD in particular are stated in its 2017 defence policy statement, Strong, Secure, Engaged. There is no change in the priority assigned to the defence of North America and NORAD from previous defence policy documents, which is ranked second only to the defence of Canada itself. 

SSE states that Canada will ensure it has the military capabilities required to meet its NORAD obligations, including sufficient mission-ready fighter aircraft, and modernised aerospace and maritime domain awareness and aerospace control. SSE elaborates: Canada and the United States are seeking an innovative technological solution to continental defence challenges including early warning. Studies are ongoing to determine how best to replace this important capability as part of the overall NORAD modernization. New fighter aircraft for the NORAD mission and NWS modernization are included in the “new initiatives” listed in SSE, implying that funding will be available when appropriate. A decision on fighter procurement is unavoidable and it should be noted that no decision is in a very real sense, a policy decision. 

If the policy context for NORAD is amply stated in SSE, a number of subsidiary policies must be established to operationalise SSE’s intent. In particular, replacement of the surveillance capability will require decisions on bi-national cost sharing, the technological choice and location of new sensors. Although specifics are classified, references in documents such as the U.S. 2019 Missile Defense Review suggest that systems which could detect and track both air-breathing and non-air breathing threats (i.e., ballistic missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles) are receiving consideration. U.S. planners might see adoption of such dual-capable systems as essential to continuation of the missile warning function under NORAD. Moving the NWS north will probably require the construction of at least one fighter Forward Operating Location. 

Experience shows that Canadian defence policy statements should be read as aspirational, subject to Government’s fiscal contingencies and electoral politics. Differing policy outcomes from those implied in Strong, Secure, Engaged are not inconceivable. However, it must be noted that policy regarding NORAD is bi-national in nature and as such, closely watched by those elements of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Congress most concerned with homeland defence. 

A new era of state-to-state strategic competition, especially in regard to Russia, could be emerging. Should the U.S.-Russia New START arms control agreement not be extended in the aftermath of the abandonment of the INF and Open Skies Treaties, it is possible that a build-up of nuclear weapons on both sides could occur. Canada will be expected to do its part or the U.S. (following on Roosevelt’s formulation in 1938) will do whatever it takes to assure its own defence, regardless of Canadian sovereignty. 

President Trump continues to criticize NATO allies’ defence spending and it is possible that he might question the adequacy of Canada’s contribution to NORAD’s cost structure and deployed capabilities. 

Should Canada prove unable to decide on a fighter procurement, the U.S. could propose basing its own aircraft in Canada (as was the case in the 1950’s and 60’s in Newfoundland), with operational control vested exclusively in American officers. Similarly, hesitation over NWS replacement would lead the U.S. to seek a national solution, even if inferior to one using Canadian geography. In either of these cases, NORAD’s survival could be problematic. A NORAD reduced to symbolism as a subordinate command would no longer place Canadians in a bi-national chain of command reaching to the highest levels and a unique entry into U.S. decision-making would be lost. 


NORAD has now been in existence for over 60 years. Its longevity reflects its adaptability as missions have evolved from a more or less “conventional” defence against attacking bombers which any World War II commander of an air defence campaign would recognise. In the thermonuclear or  ICBM era, NORAD provided early warning and a hedge against a sudden, decapitation strike, functions vital to strategic stability at the height of the Cold War. In the years after the Cold War, NORAD took on what appeared to be “make work” missions such as tracking drug runners while failing to think as creatively as popular author Tom Clancy, who predicted in fiction (Debt of Honor, 1994) the use of a civilian airliner to attack the Capitol Building in Washington. Stung by the defeat suffered on 9/11, NORAD recovered quickly to deploy a new basing scheme as well as a detailed protocol for countering any further terrorist attacks using civilian aircraft. 

Today, with a renewed air threat and destabilising doctrine including nuclear use from Russia, NORAD has circled back to its original mission, the air defence of North America.

But there is more to NORAD’s longevity than its capacity for adaptation. NORAD also operationalises three important principles of Canadian strategy for managing its defence relations with the U.S. By accepting responsibility for the joint defence of the continent, Canada’s fundamental requirement of “defence against help” is secured. By participating in a bi-national military command serving both governments, Canada achieves a voice in its own defence. By establishing a treaty-based institution, with predictable understandings and a structure for addressing changed circumstances, Canada’s proven method of dealing with the larger neighbour to the south is extended to a key element of the defence relationship. 

For these reasons, NORAD continues to serve the national interest.      

This is an abridged version of a joint Policy Paper from The School of Public Policy, University of Calgary and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute that was originally published on It is republished here by permission.