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At 50, NORAD turns its eye from the Soviet threat to homeland security

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NORAD celebrates 50 years of U.S.-Canadian partnership May 12, 2008. (Courtesy of NORAD)

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A pilot sprints to an F-15 standing alert at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. (Photo courtesy of NORAD)

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F-15 Eagles fly over the Pacific Ocean Aug. 9 during Exercise Valiant Shield. (Photo courtesy of NORAD)

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An F-16 Fighting Falcon from flies away after refueling. (Capt Tana R.H. Stevenson)

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NORAD and NORTHCOM commander Gen. Gene Renuart gives an update briefing at headquarters. (Photo courtesy of NORAD)

Fifty years ago, Cold War-era America was gripped by the fear of a Soviet nuclear attack. School children huddled under desks during “duck and cover” drills, basements became bomb shelters, and neighbors banded together in Civil Defense brigades. The first manmade satellite, Sputnik, winked from space as NORAD radars watched the sky for Soviet war planes.

Today, the Cold War has been largely relegated to the nostalgia bin. Civil Defense is long gone. “Duck and Cover” is a popular YouTube video, and it's easier to find an iconic black-and-yellow fallout shelter sign on eBay than on Main Street. But NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, is still watching the skies.

“A lot of people perceive NORAD as being kind of a legacy operation of the Cold War,” said Maj. Jason Proulx, an officer with the Canadian Air Force stationed at NORAD’s command center in Colorado. “Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we’re probably more relevant now than we have ever been.”

For half a century, NORAD, a bi-national Canadian and American military command, has been responsible for North American air defense. On May 12, NORAD will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the pact that formalized the two countries’ partnership.

NORAD’s mission—air defense--has not varied much since 1958, but the command itself and its operations have had to constantly evolve to keep pace with new technologies and, more importantly, new threats. The most significant changes have come since the attacks of 9/11. NORAD’s chief focus is now on potential terrorism coming from within North America’s borders, rather than bombs from outside. The shifting national defense landscape has also brought political, bureaucratic and diplomatic fissures that, some say, raise questions about NORAD’s long-term future.

NORAD was created during the Cold War as a deterrent to the Soviet Union, which had demonstrated nuclear capabilities. With an early-generation radar system at its command, NORAD was charged with detecting enemy planes heading for North America, warning against a possible attack, and intercepting them with U.S. and Canadian fighter jets.

With both a space race and an arms race underway between the United States and the Soviets, upgrades were in the works almost immediately, and NORAD’s responsibilities soon expanded. The first change, according to NORAD's official historian, Dr. Tom Fuller, came when the Soviet Union unveiled long-range ballistic missiles.

“There began to be worries about ‘how do we protect ourselves against missile attack?’” said Fuller. “Our defense could be outflanked or jumped over by missiles, all of these radar lines and interceptors could be checkmated by a missile attack.” In response, NORAD installed large missile warning radars along the Arctic Circle.

After Soviet Russia put satellites into orbit in 1957, NORAD countered with sensors to catalogue and track objects in space, and in the mid-1960s, added aerospace defense to its responsibilities. Around the same time, NORAD’s command center went 2,400 feet underground, into the granite walls of Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain. It was widely known in those days as the world’s largest bomb shelter.

When the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down in the 1980s, NORAD’s focus shifted away from the Soviet Union, according to U.S. Air Force Col. Danny Frisby-Griffin.

“After the wall fell, it became a transition toward the future and not focusing on any one country, but trying to identify any of the unknowns that approached North America,” Frisby-Griffin said.

The events of 9/11 forced NORAD’s focus inward, and it began looking more closely at North American airspace. Now, if a plane flies over Canada or the United States and fails to identify itself, follow its flight plan, or follow instructions from the Federal Aviation Administration or other authorities, NORAD will identify it, track it, and, if necessary, divert or intercept it with F-16 fighter jets. In the six years since 9/11, NORAD has scrambled fighters more than 2,100 times, officials said.

Also since 9/11, NORAD has been tapped to provide integrated air defense over the national’s capital in Washington and air security for special events like the Super Bowl.

NORAD has authority to take down threatening aircraft, if necessary, but so far that order has never been given.

NORAD recently added maritime surveillance to its list of responsibilities. The command watches for potential threats to North American ports, coasts, lakes and inland waters, and communicates warnings to the appropriate authorities, like the U.S. and Canadian navies.

In the aerospace arena, NORAD still warns against potential danger, such as incoming missiles, but does not have authority to order interception by ground-based missiles. That is left to the U.S. military’s Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, another outgrowth of 9/11.

Although the U.S. and Canada renewed the NORAD pact in 2006 and agreed to extend it indefinitely, the partnership has been somewhat weakened by post-9/11 policy decisions on both sides of the border. In 2005, Canada declined to participate in the United States ground-based missile defense program, raising the question of whether the responsibility to warn against incoming missiles should remain in NORAD’s hands, according to a former State Department official, Joseph Jockel, now a professor of Canadian Studies at St. Lawrence University

“The nature of air defense has changed, but the balance of responsibility between warning and air defense has not changed, which means NORAD’s future is really in doubt,” said Jockel, who last year wrote a book about Canada’s role in NORAD. According to Jockel, the United States was ready after 9/11 to make NORAD a broad North American defense command, but Canada hesitated. Instead, the two countries created their own separate homeland defense organizations. NORTHCOM, Jockel says, can thus be viewed as a domestic competitor to NORAD, which may cause policy-makers to wonder whether a bi-national command like NORAD is still appropriate and necessary.

Internally, NORAD officials say NORTHCOM is a partner, not a competitor. They share a commander, Gen. Gene Renuart, and soon they will share facilities, as NORAD moves out of Cheyenne Mountain and into a new combined NORTHCOM/NORAD operation center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

That arrangement will enable better information sharing between the commands, says Lt. Cmdr. Gary Ross, spokesman for both NORAD and NORTHCOM.

“It’s a team effort,” said Ross. “Their roles complement, not compete, with one another, so it’s easy to fit the two into an integrated command center and in the same building.”

Meanwhile, NORAD says it has no plans to mothball Cheyenne Mountain. That facility will remain on what the military calls “warm standby,” in case of a threat that warrants sending operations back to the bomb shelter.

E-mail: dlm2142@columbia.edu