NORAD : Remaining Relevant

  • Michael Dawson


The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is now over sixty years old and remains one of the principal institutions in both Canada-U.S. defence relations and the bilateral relationship more generally. Through active participation with our more powerful neighbour in the defence of North America in NORAD, Canada achieves key strategic goals: "defence against help" (from the U.S.) and a voice in our own defence.


NORAD's missions have evolved with the changing geostrategic and technological contexts but remain centred around aerospace warning, aerospace control against air-breathing threats, including terrorist use of aviation and most recently, maritime warning. Two factors necessitate significant modernisation of NORAD's capabilities. First is the challenge posed by revisionist national policies in Russia, China and the so-called rogue states of North Korea and Iran. The second is the adoption in Russia and to a lesser extent in China of a new generation of precision weaponry including long range, stealthy cruise missiles and bombers, low-yield nuclear weapons and advanced conventional weapons. Russia, in particular, has articulated a doctrine of nuclear use suggesting that nuclear weapons might be used to terminate armed conflicts (through escalation) threatening the Russian homeland and neighbourhood. Both North Korea and Iran are developing long range ballistic missiles and North Korea is now a nuclear weapons power; while neither of these states is irrational, their behaviour could be unpredictable.


The ability to blunt coercive strikes directed against North America would be essential to allow time for diplomacy before retaliatory use of force might be politically necessary for a U.S. president. NORAD's existing warning systems and fighter-interceptors are reaching the end of their lives. Their replacement will pose significant policy questions, including choices of technologies, location of sensors, possible public-private partnerships and new or modernised airfields in the Far North of Canada, among others.


The Canadian Government in its defence policy statement, Strong, Secure, Engaged, has placed a high priority on replacing the existing North Warning System and the RCAF fighter fleet. Given the bi-national nature of NORAD, Canadian follow through on these commitments will be closely watched in Washington by those charged with homeland defence.

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