The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has often struggled for political and military attention.
This unique Canada-United States military command is in the spotlight right now because of growing tensions among the U.S., Russia and China. Both the U.S. National Defense Strategy of 2022 and Canada’s 2017 Strong, Secure, Engaged policy prioritize defending North America, NORAD’s reason for being.
But will this attention be fleeting, or will it endure in perpetuity by upholding the agreement signed between Canada and the U.S. in 1958?
Billions to NORAD
In June 2022, the Canadian government pledged nearly $70 billion to NORAD modernization and continental defence — $4.9 billion on a cash basis for the first six years, and then $38.6 billion over 20 years on an accrual basis. This is an unprecedented amount.
The last time Canada made a substantial investment in NORAD was in the 1990s to build the 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg, which is also home to the Canadian NORAD Regional Headquarters.
Before that, there was a 40 per cent investment in the North Warning System, with the United States contributing the other 60 per cent in the 1980s. The last major U.S. investment to NORAD came after 9/11, but the Americans were driven by the creation of a new combatant command known as USNORTHCOM, twinned with NORAD.
More recently, the U.S. paid the lion’s share of an artificial intelligence program called Pathfinder to interpret data from multiple systems for NORAD personnel.
Varying levels of commitment
NORAD has very few of its own assets. It does not have its own military equipment, for example. Instead, Canada and the United States lend personnel and capabilities to NORAD, which means levels of commitment can take second priority to other national interests.
The current amount pledged by the U.S. government to NORAD is unknown, and an important binational advisory board called the Permanent Joint Board on Defense (PJBD), which is supposed to advise on the modernization process, was meeting irregularly.
Canadian MP John McKay, also the chair of the House of Commons’ standing committee on national defence, is the Canadian co-chair of the PJBD and reports to the Canadian prime minister.
The U.S. appointed Mara Karlin, the assistant Secretary of Defense for strategy, plans and capabilities, as its PJBD co-chair in June 2021.
There is optimism in the air about the future of NORAD.
In its heyday, the PJBD provided more guidance on the defence of North America, including multiple renewals of the NORAD agreement, with a focus on the homeland, to use American parlance.
Sustained attention on continental defence, however, has never been easy. It peaks and wanes.
9/11 exposed lack of focus
Conflicts elsewhere in the world and an ingrained U.S. military doctrine that calls for homeland protection at a distance means North America has often received short shrift.
This was painfully obvious on Sept. 11, 2001. NORAD was focused on detecting air threats approaching North America, not within the continental United States itself.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, the current USNORTHCOM and NORAD commander, has an ambitious strategy.
He wants to be aware of potentially concerning activity approaching and within North America, not only from the air but from the sea, space, cyberspace and over land — known as all-domain awareness.
To achieve this, Canada and the United States seek to access more information from multiple sources, including from allies. With more advanced warnings and information, they’ll have more options to respond to potential threats.
This is a fundamental shift away from relying on deterrence by punishment (for example, the threat of a nuclear attack against North America) to what’s known as deterrence by denial — in other words, discouraging adversaries from threatening North America via advanced warning of dangerous activities.
This shift explains the announcement of new over-the-horizon radar systems in Canada, new satellite systems and the linking of these systems in a cloud structure to get a better handle on potential threats.
All of this requires both partners to contribute and co-ordinate efforts, meaning NORAD modernization must go beyond new technologies. It requires upgrading runways, refurbishing old Arctic operating locations and expanding and improving air defence operations centres.
Antiquated thinking and procedures that assume NORAD information and efforts are limited to benefiting North America only, similar to NATO’s efforts to protect Europe exclusively, discounts the enormous advantage that western allies have — one another. NORAD, NATO and western allies plan to share more information, intelligence and capabilities in the future.
VanHerck has called for a fundamental rethink of what it means to defend North America. But there are myriad internal and external challenges to overcome.
Will VanHerck’s initial momentum be sustained when his posting at USNORTHCOM and NORAD ends? Do both the Canadian and U.S. military have the procurement and digital specialists needed?
And what happens if the Ukraine war continues to escalate, or eastern European NATO partners require more reinforcement, or if there’s a skirmish in the South China Sea, or if inflation continues to consume defence budgets?
Most concerning for Canada, what if the United States loses confidence in its northern neighbour to be a stalwart, binational partner?
NORAD’s 64-year history and the logic behind its creation are cause for optimism. The impetus for the creation of NORAD was the recognition that continental Canadian and American airspace is functionally indivisible. That’s as important as ever given Russia’s continued tests of the air defence identification zones of both Canada and the United States.
Russia is North America’s persistent and proximate threat. The U.S. needs the information collected from radar in Canada to protect North America and warn its allies, especially in the Arctic.
The strategic position of Canada, the second-largest country in the world with the longest coastline, is vital to both countries. It needs to be watched and protected.
The Canada-U.S. relationship is uneven to be sure, but the binational NORAD contributes to the security of 370 million Canadians and Americans, not to mention millions of citizens in allied nations. NORAD needs to remain a top priority of both the United States and Canada.