Amid tumultuous times, NORAD needs a consistent Canada-U.S. commitment

Amid tumultuous times, NORAD needs a consistent Canada-U.S. commitment

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has often competed for political and military attention.

This unique military command between Canada and the United States is currently in the spotlight due to rising tensions between the US, Russia and China. Both the 2022 US National Defense Strategy and Canada’s 2017 Strong, Secure, Engaged Policy prioritize the defense of North America, NORAD’s raison d’être.

But will that attention be fleeting, or will it last forever by upholding the treaty signed between Canada and the US in 1958?

billions to NORAD

In June 2022, the Canadian government committed nearly $70 billion to NORAD’s modernization and continental defenses – $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 significant investment in NORAD was in the 1990s with the construction of 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg, which is also where Canada’s NORAD Regional Headquarters is located.

Before that, 40 percent was invested in the North Warning System, while the United States contributed the other 60 percent in the 1980s. The last major US investment in NORAD came after 9/11, but Americans were fueled by the creation of a new combatant command called USNORTHCOM to work with NORAD.

More recently, the US paid the lion’s share of an artificial intelligence program called Pathfinder to interpret data from multiple systems for NORAD personnel.

Different engagement

NORAD has very few assets of its own. For example, it does not have its own military equipment. Instead, Canada and the United States provide NORAD with human resources and skills, meaning engagement can be subordinated to other national interests.

The current US government commitment to NORAD is unknown, and a key binational advisory board called the Permanent Joint Board on Defense (PJBD), tasked with advising on the modernization process, has met irregularly.

Liberal MP John McKay in Ottawa in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Canadian MP John McKay, who also chairs the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defense, is the Canadian Co-Chair of the PJBD and reports to Canada’s Prime Minister.

The US appointed Mara Karlin, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Capabilities, as its PJBD co-chair in June 2021.

Optimism is in the air for NORAD’s future.

In its heyday, the PJBD provided more guidance for the defense of North America, including multiple homeland-focused extensions of the NORAD Treaty to use American parlance.

However, sustained attention to continental defense has never been easy. It goes up and down.

9/11 revealed lack of focus

Conflicts in other parts of the world and an entrenched U.S. military doctrine that calls for homeland security from afar have meant that North America has often come up short.

This became painfully clear on September 11, 2001. NORAD focused on detecting airborne threats approaching North America, not within the continental United States itself.

Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, at a press conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado June 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

General Glen VanHerck, the current commander of USNORTHCOM and NORAD, has an ambitious strategy.

He wants to be aware of activities of possible concern approaching North America and within North America, not just from the air, but also from the sea, space, cyberspace and land – known as all-domain awareness.

To do this, Canada and the United States are trying to access more information from multiple sources, including allies. With advanced alerts and intelligence, they have more options to respond to potential threats.

This is a fundamental shift from deterrence by punishment (e.g. threatening a nuclear attack on North America) to what is known as deterrence by denial – in other words, deterring opponents from threatening North America by providing early warning of dangerous activities.

Read more: How Russian isolation due to invasion of Ukraine has stalled cooperation in the Arctic

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 better manage potential threats.

All of this requires both partners to pool and coordinate their efforts, which means NORAD’s modernization must go beyond new technologies. It requires upgrading runways, rehabilitating old operational sites in the Arctic, and expanding and upgrading air defense operations centers.

Antiquated thinking and procedures that assume NORAD intelligence and efforts are limited to benefiting only North America, similar to NATO’s efforts to solely protect Europe, underestimate the tremendous advantage Western allies have – each other. 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 countless internal and external challenges to overcome.

Will VanHerck’s initial momentum continue once his stint at USNORTHCOM and NORAD ends? Do both the Canadian and US militaries have the necessary procurement and digital specialists?

And what happens if the Ukraine war escalates further, the Eastern European NATO partners need reinforcements, there is a battle in the South China Sea or inflation continues to eat up defense budgets?

Most worrying for Canada is what if the United States loses faith in its northern neighbor to be a staunch, binational partner?

U.S. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden speak with the NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center in Colorado in December 2021. NORAD “chases Santa Claus” every year, but it also carries out much more serious tasks to keep North America safe. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

NORAD’s 64-year history and the logic behind its creation give cause for optimism. The impetus for establishing NORAD was the realization that continental Canadian and American airspace are functionally indivisible. With continued Russian testing of Canada and the United States’ air defense identification zones, this is as important as ever.

Russia is North America’s ongoing and imminent threat. The US needs the information gathered by the radar in Canada to protect North America and alert its allies, particularly in the Arctic.

The strategic position of Canada, the second largest country in the world with the longest coastline, is of vital importance to both countries. It needs to be watched and protected.

Canada-US relations are certainly at odds, but binational NORAD helps keep 370 million Canadians and Americans safe, not to mention millions of citizens in allied nations. NORAD must remain a top priority in both the United States and Canada.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *