Retiring NORAD: Time for a New Kind of Continental Security Cooperation

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2006 Volume 27 Issue 1

Prime Minister Harper and President Bush are reportedly set to sign a new Canada-US security pact—essentially a revised version of the North American Aerospace Defence Agreement (NORAD). The current agreement is due to expire May 12, 2006 and there are indications that the new arrangement will be extended indefinitely (not for the usual five-year term that has been the recent pattern). There is also speculation that NORAD’s tactical surveillance and warning functions will be expanded to include the maritime environment.

All this appears to have an air of inevitability to it, but changes in the military command structures in Canada and the US, as well as changes to the security environment, should make public debate and a serious parliamentary review prerequisites to action. The new Canada Command (Canada COM) is now responsible for all domestic and continental operations of the Canadian Forces (DND 2006), begging the question of how NORAD’s joint air defence command structure is to fit in. In practice NORAD has essentially evolved into a Canada-US tactical early warning, or situation awareness, organization to monitor the air and space, and soon sea, environments.
These developments create the opportunity to redefine Canada-US defence relations—ending the joint air defence command in favour of a shared continental (including Mexico) surveillance system, supported by independent national enforcement arrangements operating within their respective national chains of command, with provisions for cooperation in crises.

The imperative of cooperation

That neighbours should cooperate on security matters is self-evident, but when that cooperation is between the proverbial elephant and mouse it gets complicated—which is why Canada has traditionally pursued security cooperation with the United States within broader international contexts, such as NATO, and has appealed to, and helped to build, a rules-based international order to help manage bilateral arrangements on a playing field that is far from level.

Level playing field or not, the first obligation of neighbours is to not threaten each other and to provide credible assurances that threats to the security of the neighbour will not emerge undetected from within home territory. That’s the famous pledge that Mackenzie King made to President Roosevelt in World War II. Beyond that, neighbours should as a matter of principle cooperate in security matters, but within the basic understanding that a) it is the sovereign responsibility of each state to retain a capacity for independent threat assessment, informed by its own interests, values, and understanding of the security environment; and b) it is also the prerogative and responsibility of each state to independently determine appropriate defence or enforcement responses to identified threats, again according to national values and interests and to international obligations.

Cooperation obviously includes respect for a neighbour’s fears, even if they are not fully shared, but there will always be a fine line between being sensitive to a neighbour’s security imperatives and being true to national threat assessment and action priorities. The ballistic missile threat is a case in point. Canada might largely share US concerns about the emerging threat, but the two countries differ on how imminent it is and on the efficacy of ballistic missile defence (BMD) as a response. Canada has regarded North Korean and Iranian threats as worrying possibilities, but certainly not imminent, and has assumed that the wisest and most effective response to that potential is through multilateral nonproliferation efforts, including missile technology controls. A Canadian approach that focuses on arms control can still respect an American preference for ballistic missile defence, and make a commitment not to obstruct Washington’s efforts to implement it, but that doesn’t mean that Canada is obliged to embrace or actively support an enforcement response that is not a national priority or that is not found to be compelling.

In some extraordinary circumstances joint or collective defence may be called for. Canada and the United States are both members of NATO for that very reason. There is no need for a bilateral mutual defence agreement, because each is already committed to aiding the other through NATO. After the September 11 attacks on the US, NATO states gathered to invoke Article V—acting on their commitment to mutual defence.

In response to less dramatic threats there are requirements for agreed protocols to cover contingencies along the Canada-US border, such as Canadian forces tracking an unauthorized or unidentified aircraft within Canadian territory that is heading for US airspace. Do Canadian Forces continue to follow it into American airspace, and under what circumstances? On the West Coast in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, for example, search and rescue protocols are needed to permit cross-border assistance in the case of disasters when lives are in danger. Planning for such contingencies is consistent with good neighbourliness and mutual respect for the other’s sovereignty, but does not lead logically to the kind of joint command structure that NORAD represents.

Joint early warning

For each country to give credible assurances that threats to their neighbour are not emerging undetected from within their own territory, Canada and the United States both obviously need to know what is going on within their respective territories. Indeed, both are well served by cooperation in surveillance and situational awareness efforts linked to early warning because the surveillance data is available simultaneously to both. Air surveillance of the perimeter of the continent has already been made a shared responsibility through NORAD, using national coastal radars in each case, these days focusing on light aircraft suspected of smuggling operations. In addition, the radars of the North Warning System, while not at the northern perimeter, are designed to detect aircraft approaching from the north (the focus here being the now all but gone Russian bomber threat). Post-September 11, 2001 the importance of surveillance of domestic airspace in each country, not only the approaches, has become clearer and the Armed Forces in each country are working with civilian traffic control systems to expand surveillance capacity and make data available to NORAD.

As it has for decades, NORAD performs missile detection and tracking, using US satellites and radars. The indications are that maritime surveillance will also become a NORAD function. Integration of the maritime environment into the NORAD early warning role, using Canadian national data collection assets—including land radars, Aurora aircraft, ships with helicopters, and submarines—is a sensible step in the development of a full and integrated picture of the tactical continental environment. In fact, extending maritime surveillance to a joint Canada-US mechanism could become quite interesting in the Arctic if Canada were to install under-ice sonar systems to facilitate NORAD tracking of the movements of submarines, including US submarines, through sonic checkpoints in the Northwest Passage.

The joint element of continental surveillance is in the integration of the data at NORAD headquarters through its Integrated Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment (ITWAA) system. The ITWAA role is to gather all the surveillance information and integrate it into a single situational awareness picture which it then makes available to both countries. Such shared early warning cooperation builds confidence that assurances of the absence of threat can be trusted, and that emerging threats will be quickly identified.

To have a truly continental situation awareness or early warning operation, Mexico should be involved. In the Cold War there was some logic to NORAD as a strictly Canada-US only organization, since the Cold War nuclear threat was definitely a northern threat (the Cuban missile crisis notwithstanding). But today domain awareness that is focused on human and drug smuggling is at least as important in the South as it is in the North, making the participation of Mexico a logical addition to continental security cooperation.

National enforcement

Responding to such warnings, to the tactical situation data, should be the responsibility and prerogative of each country. Enforcement is a national function because it goes to the heart of how a country understands and interprets the information provided and what it regards as an effective response. These are judgments made on the basis of national interests and values and lessons learned through the national experience.

In the early years of the Cold War, NORAD was formed to carry out joint and coordinated enforcement and became a bi-national joint response mechanism through an integrated command structure. NORAD made sense in the context of the Cold War bomber threat inasmuch as it was in the interests of both countries to detect and intercept any Soviet bombers as far north as possible. Under normal circumstances US aircraft were not based in Canada, but in a crisis American aircraft were authorized to deploy to bases in Canada under agreed circumstances. The joint command arrangement was a means of preserving Canadian sovereignty in the face of potential US military operations on Canadian territory.

But that active air defence was soon downgraded and gave way to deterrence (the threat of counterattack) as the primary response to a warning of nuclear attack. Missile technology was on the scene from the beginning of NORAD and within a very few years missiles were regarded as the primary threat. And while it had been at least theoretically possible to intercept bombers, it was not possible to intercept missiles, making deterrence the primary response to the bomber and missile threat. These deterrent forces were definitely not under joint command. The information on which deterrent or retaliatory decisions would be based came through the bi-national NORAD, but action was to be taken nationally.

That, by the way, is precisely the current arrangement on missile defence. Warning of an attack and the information on which missile defence decisions would be made would come from NORAD, but the missile interception effort would be, and was always intended by the US to be, strictly a national matter using US-only assets and a US-only command structure.

Maritime enforcement is also carried out under strictly national command, and that will continue even if the maritime early warning function is brought under NORAD. Indeed, Vice-Admiral J.C.J.Y. Forcier (2005), the Commander of Canada Command, was adamant in telling a Parliamentary Committee that NORAD’s maritime function should not go beyond situational awareness or early warning: “I would not want NORAD to take over control of maritime operations. In other words, if something happened in Canadian waters or in our territorial waters involving the national interest, Canada will make any decision which needs to be taken. I [as Commander of Canada Command] will be in charge through one of the coastal commanders. It will not be a decision taken by the Americans.”

The armies in both countries also operate entirely under national command. In the absence of military threats, the key domestic role for national armies in Canada and the United States is consequence management—keeping order after a catastrophic event. There should obviously be scenarios and protocols developed for mutual assistance in extraordinary events in which local forces might be overwhelmed. For example, there has been cross-border military assistance in fighting forest fires; the US military provided heavy lift helicopters in the famous ice storm of 1998 to help lift heavy generators and transformers into place; and Canada offered the US assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Bilateral cooperation rather than bi-national command

A clear distinction between surveillance and enforcement roles has developed in Canada-US security cooperation. While surveillance benefits from cooperation to generate a clear continental domain awareness picture, none of the enforcement activities of the two countries requires a bi-national Canada-US command structure. Here too, there is potential benefit from bilateral cooperation—but the distinction is important. A bi-national operation is one in which the personnel and assets from the two countries are brought together to operate under a single chain of command. In a bilateral operation, there is cooperation between two forces operating under separate national chains of command.

A logical principle to follow would be for surveillance and defence/enforcement operations to be institutionally and structurally separate, as is already the case in space and is contemplated for the maritime environment—that is, for surveillance operations to be under a bi-national structure while enforcement operations are run under separate national structures that provide for bilateral cooperation in special circumstances. In enforcement arrangements that are national with bilateral cooperation elements, each country acts within its own territory. In extraordinary situations cross-border operations are provided for through special protocols and agreements, with the host country handling the tactical command of the operations while the visiting forces remain within their own national chain of command.

At present, the enforcement elements of NORAD operations are under a bi-national structure, rather than bilateral cooperation. There could thus be circumstances in which Canadian forces in Canada would be commanded by an American, just as American forces were commanded by the Deputy Commander of NORAD, always a Canadian, who happened to be in the chair on September 11, 2001 when NORAD was called on to respond to the attacks in the US.

Changing circumstances mean that NORAD’s bi-national command structure is now largely irrelevant. NORAD isn’t needed for the Russian bomber threat and it isn’t needed for a conventional air threat—primarily unauthorized small aircraft challenging national borders. Admiral Forcier’s forceful declaration of independent command and control in the maritime environment begs the question of why the same independence would not be as important for the air forces.

The case for an integrated bi-national command in air defence, even though land and sea forces are not under such a joint command, is based largely on the claim that the air environment is fundamentally different from land and sea environments. In the air events obviously occur at much greater speeds. When tracking an aircraft, decisions need to be made quickly without a lot of consultation time. When tracking a ship, there is lots of time to consult, to assess intelligence reports, and to hand off the tracking to the other country’s forces when boundaries are crossed. Of course, such realities face all neighbours, not just Canada and the United States, and joint command arrangements are not the conventional response.

The Canada-US joint command arrangement came out of the Cold War, and vestiges of that situation do remain. Russians still do exercises with long-range bombers, which are being modernized. NORAD continues to monitor such events, but even during the Cold War active bomber defence was a token gesture and it certainly is not now a rationale for the joint command arrangement.

Ample mechanisms for bilateral security cooperation between Canada and the United States exist. At the policy and planning level are the Permanent Joint Board on Defence, the Military Cooperation Committee, and Canada-United States Planning Group (DND 2003).

At the operational level the two countries now maintain parallel command structures. In the United States, Northern Command (NORTHCOM) is an integrated command mandated to deal with military threats to the United States, while the Department of Homeland Security deals with national crime, terrorism, national disasters, and other domestic non-military crises. The Canadian parallels are Canada COM and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (PSEPC). These are the four basic elements of Canadian and American continental defence and are also the basis for any bilateral cooperation that may be needed in extraordinary situations.
Admiral Forcier (2005) told the House of Commons Committee that “Canada Command will become the primary operational point of contact with the US Northern Command for combined continental operations, with one exception, NORAD.” Officials declare unambiguously that Canada COM and NORTHCOM will never go under joint command, leaving NORAD as the increasingly unconvincing exception.

In fact, NORTHCOM commanders are said to wonder why NORAD is needed at all, if Canada COM and NORTHCOM can coordinate using all the same assets that are available to NORAD. In Canada, DND (2006) is also quite pointed in stating that Canada COM “is responsible for all domestic and continental operations.” There are informal acknowledgments that if security cooperation were to start from scratch today, no one would be contemplating the creation of NORAD for joint defence operations. The NORAD enforcement roles are products of history, not of contemporary necessity. NORAD is the proverbial fifth wheel as an enforcement command. Converted to a surveillance organization, it would serve as a source of early warning data to the four basic elements of continental defence.

Cost implications

One of the enduring claims about NORAD is that it provides savings to Canada, because if we weren’t defended by NORAD we would have to do it ourselves. In fact, virtually everything that NORAD does for Canada is done by Canada using Canadian forces and equipment. For example, Canadian maritime surveillance and enforcement are already done by Canada. To run the maritime surveillance data through the NORAD integrated tactical warning and attack assessment system would be largely cost neutral. Officials say that no capital purchases would be required to integrate the monitoring of the marine environment into NORAD.

If NORAD were to get out of the enforcement business altogether and restrict its joint or bi-national role to early warning, Canadian air defence costs would increase. Canada would likely have to keep additional fighter aircraft on standby. Currently Canada maintains only four F18s on alert and none of these fighters is normally based on the west coast. Under a joint command arrangement an American fighter can do the identification in Canadian airspace. But without joint command, alert aircraft might need to be stationed at the Comox base on Vancouver Island, for example. However, Ottawa already has a surplus of fighter aircraft and so would certainly not need to buy more. At present the costs of maintaining northern radars and forward operating bases are shared with the United States. These costs could all shift to Canada in a new arrangement based on bi-national surveillance and bilateral enforcement.

The costs under a new arrangement of separating bi-national surveillance from national enforcement roles would not involve the purchase of additional capital equipment by Canada and the increased operating costs would be manageable.


The inevitable conclusion is that it is time to hold public debates and parliamentary hearings to consider a new institutional framework for multilateral security cooperation in a North America that includes Mexico.

Collective surveillance of the North American security environment might logically lead to a formal North American Integrated Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment organization. The acronym would be a challenge, but cooperation would make sense. This three-nation joint early warning system would then inform the national enforcement forces of all three states, allowing for bilateral and trilateral cooperation as needed, and giving both Mexico and Canada the opportunity to sit at a larger, and at least somewhat more balanced, continental security table.



Forcier, Vice-Admiral J.C.J.Y. Forcier. 2005. Testimony, House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs, November 22.

Department of National Defence. 2003. Canada-United States defence relations. Backgrounder BG-03.009, January 8.

———. 2006. New Canadian Forces operational commands take charge of domestic, special and international operations. News Release NR-06.002– January 31.

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