This May, Washington and Ottawa renewed the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) agreement for the first time ever without an expira- tion date. Nevertheless, NORAD’s future is in doubt.

The recent negotiations on the future of the premier Canada-US bilateral defence arrangement had special sig- nificance. For the NORAD agreement had not been renewed since the September 11, 2001, attacks and the beginnings of the global war on terror, in which the US has elevated the priority of homeland defence to a level not seen since the early days of the Cold War nuclear era. Prompted by the new threat, the US created the Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) in 2002, twinned it with the bi-national NORAD and gave it an explicit mandate to pro- vide for the defence of the continental United States. Washington also finally moved ahead with the deployment of a national ballistic missile defence, first funded by Congress under the Clinton administration in 1998. There was also much discussion in the US about the need to attend to the maritime dimension of homeland defence. Officers from the United States Coast Guard, which has been designated the lead agency in this task, assumed posi- tions in the USNORTHCOM headquarters.

Canada, for its part, did not stand still since the last time the NORAD accord had been renewed in 2000-01. In NORAD, it joined with the US in the reconfiguration of continental air defence, with the intent of preventing another 9/11–style attack. In 2002, Canada and the US created a ”œBi- national Planning Group,” with NORAD’s Canadian deputy commander at its head, to formulate plans for continental defence at sea and on land. It got half into missile defence in 2004, and then decided in 2005 to stay half out. In addi- tion, in 2006, Ottawa created its own military homeland defence structure, Canada Command (Canada COM).

The NORAD renewal did little to deal with the implica- tions of all of these developments. It did make some changes to the accord, which, however, further reinforce its unfinished character. The two most important were giv- ing NORAD new responsibility for ”œmaritime warning” and the extension without expiration date. ”œIn perpetuity” is how some officials describe it. There is, however, provi- sion in the renewal for a joint review of the accord within at least four years, or at the request of either government. Given that this most recent renewal left many important issues unresolved, and that much uncertainty remains as to the future overall architecture of US-Canada defence relations in the era of terrorism and homeland security, it is highly likely that both Washington and Ottawa will wish to avail themselves of the review provision shortly after the storied bi-national com- mand marks its first half-century. When it takes place, the review will probably entail the most thorough, intense, and skeptical bilateral exami- nation of NORAD since the command began to function in 1957 and the accord was first signed in 1958. For while the 2006 renewal appeared to go rather smoothly, the reality is that NORAD is under fairly intense pres- sure to change. The 2006 renewal simply postponed dealing with this.

Ultimately, issue is how much of the command- and-control of homeland defence in the terrorist era the US and Canada will want to keep in national structures, and how much they will wish to continue to entrust to the bi-national NORAD. Classic bureaucratic politics will undoubtedly affect how the two countries deal with the question, now that NORAD is faced with the two recent- ly created national homeland defence commands.

USNORTHCOM is unhappy with the division of responsibilities between it and NORAD; it argued for a two-year renewal of the NORAD agreement this time, so that this could be rethought. It will have more to say about it at the upcoming review. The two commands share a commander ”” currently Admiral Thomas Keating of the US Navy ”” a headquarters in Colorado Springs, and several staffs. USNORTHCOM reports solely to the Pentagon. It has a broad mandate for the defence of the United States and for what Canadians call aid to the civil power, although it has very few forces under its standing operational com- mand. As with all US unified com- mands in whatever region of the world, USNORTHCOM is charged with promoting ”œtheater security cooperation” with countries in its Area of Operational Responsibility. This means that it seeks to engage both Canada and Mexico across a wide range of defence issues.

NORAD’s responsibilities remain limited to aerospace warning and con- trol for North America, to which has been added the new, but, as discussed below, limited role in maritime warn- ing. It was originally created as an air defence command to deal with Soviet long-range bombers, and later acquired broader, missile- and space-related responsibilities over the course of the Cold War, as the technology developed with which North America could be attacked. North American air defence still falls operationally to NORAD and not to USNORTHCOM. After 9/11, under the rubric of Operation Noble Eagle, NORAD’s air defence efforts were reconfigured to deal with threats both approaching and arising within the continent. These efforts include such sensitive tasks as the air defence of Washington, and of the president when he is at home in Texas or travelling to or from there. It is only understandable, therefore, that USNORTHCOM, as the American national homeland defence command, would want the mandate for the air defence of the United States.

At the same time, NORAD’s posi- tion, and with it the positions of the Canadians at Colorado Springs, is weakening as the value of the com- mand’s longstanding core function, warning of and assessing a ballistic missile attack on North America, or in NORAD parlance, ”œITW/AA” (integrat- ed tactical warning and attack assess- ment), diminishes. This is not because missile ballistic warning and assess- ment is no longer important, but rather because the United States gradu- ally will perform this function more and more on its own, without depending on NORAD’s ITW/AA role. This trend has profound implications for the future of NORAD as a bi-national command, because ITW/AA places the Canadians at Colorado Springs at the very heart of the aerospace defence of North America, even though no sys- tem to detect or track ballistic missiles has ever been located in Canada or operated by the Canadian Forces. But as part of its BMD system, the United States is developing ballistic missile warning and assessment capabilities that may surpass and are separate from those providing NORAD ITW/AA.

It will come as no surprise whatso- ever to anyone who has followed Canadian politics over the past two years that the Martin government’s 2005 decision not to participate direct- ly in North American missile defence threatens ITW/AA, and with it, NORAD. It needs to be added immedi- ately that that same government saved NORAD in the short run with its pre- vious 2004 decision, encapsulated in the form of an amendment to the NORAD agreement, that the NORAD ITW/AA mission could continue alongside, and in support of, the US missile defence. Launch authority for the interceptors is to be in the hands of USNORTHCOM. The then-Canadian ambassador in Washington, Frank McKenna, got it right when he said that that 2004 decision meant that Canada had already become part of missile defence.

Had the Liberals decided that Canada could have no involve- ment whatsoever with missile defence, including providing warning, there probably would not have been a 2006 NORAD renewal at all. The problem for NORAD now, however, is that the US will be gradually bringing online new missile detection and tracking sys- tems that are directly linked to the missile defence, and not ITW/AA. So they are off limits to Canadians, as things now stand, after Paul Martin’s 2005 ”œno.” As a result, ITW/AA will be devalued, and at some point in the not so distant future keeping this a NORAD role will be open to question.

USNORTHCOM sees Canada COM, with its fairly broad mandate for military operations in the defence of Canada and its approaches (including the US), as its natural partner for transboundary cooperation. By con- trast, NORAD is an aging aerospace defence command. The newer com- mand, headquartered in Ottawa, is not quite ready to return USNORTHOM’s interest fully. At the time of the NORAD renewal, it had been in operation for a little over three months. Canada COM is part of a package of structural changes under- taken at the initiative of the energetic chief of the defence staff, General Rick Hillier, intended to transform the mil- itary. Upon its creation, wags immedi- ately dubbed it ”œtrue NORTHCOM.”

The military takes such issues of nomenclature seriously; having decid- ed that its own original acronym, ”œCANCOM” was too flip and insuffi- ciently patriotic, it replaced it with the awkward ”œCanada COM.” The com- mand has had to sort out its relation- ship with a new strategic joint staff created at the same time in National Defence Headquarters, as well as with the navy, army, and air force.

How Canada COM relates to NORAD and to the Canadian NORAD Region (CANR) headquarters in Winnipeg will also have to be worked out. Aerospace defence cooperation with the US has always been the Canadian Air Force’s bailiwick. Thus, it not only has a particular interest in promoting NORAD, but for those air force personnel and units dedicated to NORAD, a renewed Canadian interest and investment in aerospace defence might serve to balance the attention afforded the Canadian Army in General Hiller’s particular transforma- tional vision. They can be expected to argue for this.

Yet as an Ottawa-based inter-serv- ice command, Canada COM does not at all fit neatly into the longstanding bi-national structure. Recognizing this, Hillier gave
the commander of Canada COM at the command’s inception authority for all military operations in Canada except for operations under NORAD’s command or those the chief of the defence staff might personally command. This situation may not last for long. Canada COM is bound to find the CANR headquarters as an inconvenience, much as USNORTHCOM now tends to see NORAD. In fact, one of the Canadian military’s key planning documents in establishing Canada COM anticipates just this. It predicts that once Canada COM ”œdevelops into the sole operational HQ responsible for the Canadian theatre of operations it will likely absorb CANR and its NORAD requirements and will thus become the sole operational connection with US military authorities. The evolution of a Canada Command will in turn lead to the development of close ties between it and USNORTHCOM.”

USNORTHCOM has already infor- mally circulated several different mod- els for future North American defence cooperation, some including Mexico. A range of these made it into the March 2006 final report of the Bi- national Planning Group, although in the discussion of these models Mexico is only alluded to. Two involve what would be a downgrading of NORAD from its current status as a full-fledged bi-national command, with a four-star commander and a three-maple-leaf deputy commander, reporting to the chief of the defence staff in Ottawa and the secretary of defence in Washington. In one, the command would be replaced with a ”œcombined joint task force” supporting both USNORTHCOM and Canada COM. In the other, there would be a ”œcombined joint interagency task force, support- ing not just the two national com- mands, but also the two lead civilian agencies in each country responsible for homeland security, namely Public Security and Emergency Preparedness Canada and the Department of Homeland Security.” At the time of the Bi-national Planning Group’s creation there were plenty of bets (and some fears) that, embedded as it was in Colorado Springs, it had been put in place to smooth the way toward NORAD enhancement. It is ironic that its final report turned into a vehicle for the public consideration of the com- mand’s diminution or replacement.

To be sure, still another model on the Bi-national Planning Group’s list involved not a downgrading of NORAD, but an upgrading: its conver- sion into a full-scale ”œNorth American Defence Command,” with air- , sea- , and land-related responsibilities. Even here, the two national home- land commands would remain in place to respond unilaterally to threats against their respective coun- tries. The beefed-up NORAD would provide warning of attack and stand ready to respond in situations where the two countries wanted to act joint- ly. As the Bi-national Planning Group had to admit, though, such a NORAD would run ”œcounter to the prevailing trends in Canada and the United States towards the strengthening of their national defence Commands.”

Creating something along these lines seems to have been a strong possibility in late 2001 and early 2002, when, right after the September 11 attacks, the US was moving to revamp its command structure for homeland defence.

The FunctionaryThere’s a lot going on in the public service.

Stay in the know with veteran reporter Kathryn May. Sign up for routine and out-of-the-ordinary news about the public service with The Functionary, our new newsletter.

While all indications are that the US was open to the idea, in Ottawa there was no consen- sus in either the bureaucracy or the military; the Canadian Navy especially had its doubts.

The ever-cautious Chrétien government was not about to leap in. Any proposal for turn- ing NORAD into a broad bi- lateral homeland defence command must have been seen by Jean Chrétien as being on a par with the calls being made about the same time to reach a deal swiftly with the US to establish a continental security perimeter and to reduce or even elimi- nate controls along the common bor- der, effectively ”œSchengenizing” North America above the Rio Grande. That went nowhere with him, either.

Momentum toward doing some- thing to expand NORAD did not entirely run out, however, in the face of Ottawa’s reluctance to do anything extensive. Pressure appears to have come from the Martin government to show that, despite its decision on missile defence, it nonetheless was committed to an enhanced continen- tal defence relationship ”” of sorts ”” with the US. With the May 2006 deadline impending, the incoming Harper government had little time to formulate a new position. Maritime warning for NORAD is all the enhancement there is, beside the renewal ”œin perpetuity.”

Maritime warning for NORAD seemed to fit in, too, alongside NORAD’s longstanding ITW/AA role in aerospace. The Bi-national Planning Group worked on the issue almost from its creation. It is quite limited in its scope. As the text of the 2006 renewal makes explicitly clear, NORAD has not been given any responsibility for ”œmaritime surveillance and con- trol” ”” in other words, for almost all of the work of naval forces in protect- ing the continent. The US and Canadian navies were opposed to that, as was Admiral Keating, and he said so in public. Surveillance and control will remain fully outside NORAD and fully in national hands, although the two countries are also free to continue to coordinate bilaterally.

To provide maritime warning, a new cell at NORAD will have the responsibil- ity for gathering existing information where it can in the two countries, espe- cially from the intelligence and naval establishments, concerning maritime threats to the continent, and then sifting and comparing it. As the 2006 agree- ment puts it, NORAD’s task here ”œcon- sists of processing, assessing and disseminating intelligence and informa- tion related to the respective maritime areas and internal waterways of, and the maritime approaches to, or attacks against North American utilizing mutual support arrangements with other commands and agencies responsible for maritime defense and security.”

Although skeptics abound who contend that Colorado Springs is not the right place for this, the new mission could well enhance bilateral maritime homeland security efforts by adding an additional degree of analysis, synthesis, and information- sharing. Nevertheless, NORAD’s new warning mission is a far cry from some earlier speculation that the command might soon operationally control the forces that guard the sea approaches to the continent, much as it has con- trolled the defence of the air approach- es for almost fifty years.

Yet, in another sense, it is not too surprising that NORAD’s new maritime role is a modest one. When senior American naval leaders spoke during the past few years of ”œmaritime NORAD,” they were not calling for an expanded role for NORAD in the mar- itime defence of North America. Rather, by adopting the global, forward projec- tion view of the United Sates Navy, what they had in mind was a series of regional maritime security arrange- ments with overseas US allies, designed to provide comprehensive maritime domain awareness, warning and inter- ception capabilities against a variety of threats ranging from terrorism and pira- cy to environmental dangers. As explained by the current US Navy’s chief of naval operations, the goal is to establish a ”œglobal network of maritime nations for a free and secure maritime domain,” the ”œ1000-ship Navy.” Within this USN-led maritime coalition involving different countries and differ- ent maritime forces, bilateral Canada- US maritime cooperation would just be one component and not even the most important element. And because the warning function serves precisely to gather together this global network of maritime awareness and intelligence, this type of assignment may be better suited to the form of maritime security the US Navy envisions.

In short, while NORAD has been given a limited new responsibility, its core aerospace warning and assessment role will probably leach away and it will be faced with two formida- ble, national bureaucratic competi- tors, one of which is now openly covetous of its responsibilities. It is easy to imagine NORAD being replaced by a task force.

The 2006 accord, inconclusive as it ultimately is, is hardly unique in lagging behind developments or duck- ing the issues. Indeed, it seems that from its inception, NORAD has been just one step ahead of changes in tech- nology and strategy that threatened to end the command’s utility for the United States.

At the start, the military did not think a NORAD diplomatic agreement was even necessary, and the command was already up and running in 1957 when the Department of External Affairs and the opposition Liberals convinced the Diefenbaker govern- ment to negotiate one. And just as NORAD was getting underway and Cheyenne Mountain being hollowed out for NORAD’s famous operations centre, the era of the bomber was com- ing to an end and the missile was becoming the principale threat ”” a threat against which Canadian territo- ry was not relevant and Canada con- tributed no assets. The first renewal in 1968 bizarrely described NORAD’s functions as if it were still only an air defence command, even though by then it had been tracking missiles and satellites for several years. So did the 1973 renewal. The 1968 renewal did include, though, a grandstanding and useless ”œABM clause,” which had no legal or practical effect but still bedev- iled and confused public debate about NORAD for years. The 1975 renewal talked soothingly of ”œenhancement of mutual deterrence,” just as the US was putting into place a strategy that included limited nuclear options. Not until 1981 did Ottawa dare to allow a renewal to put ”œaerospace” into NORAD’s name. The last renewal, in 2000/01,was in this tradition, too. There were several issues to address, notably Canada’s role in the NORAD space surveillance program and NORAD’s role in Canada-US space cooperation. With a US decision on missile defence looming, though, the two governments simply decided instead in 2000 to renew quickly the 1996 text as it was, well before it expired in 2001.

In part, NORAD was able to stay one step ahead of trends in US strategy and posture that threatened its demise as a bi-national command because its continuation did not fundamentally undermine or impede such American trends, and therefore as long as Ottawa was willing to renew, Washington was prepared to go along. Contrary to the great debates that sometimes raged in Canada over NORAD’s renewals, the United States favoured successive renewals precisely because they were not controversial. One could argue that NORAD’s perpetuation as a bi-national command was the result of the asym- metry in the importance to which Ottawa and Washington assigned each renewal. Intensity on the Canadian side, combined with favourable, yet decidedly benign indifference on the American side, allowed it to survive to the verge of its fifth decade.

But a mid-life crisis seems to be at hand. History may well finally catch up with NORAD as it approaches its 50th anniversary. The cumulative impact of the Canadian decision on missile defence and the creation of USNORTHCOM, combined with what has always been weak bureaucratic sup- port for NORAD as a bi-national com- mand within the American national security establishment, especially in the Pentagon, could mean that this time not even indifference on Washington’s part will be able to save NORAD. If one adds to the American considerations what appears to be a decided change in Canada’s (or at least the Canadian Forces’) estimation of the importance of maintaining NORAD as a bi-national command and the center- piece of Canada-US defence relations, then predictions of NORAD’s death may be, Mark Twain notwithstanding, not all an exaggeration.

Still, NORAD must not be counted out just yet. It can make the case that air defence still belongs in a bi- national command, especially as the two countries gear up to deal with the emerging threat of cheap sea-launched cruise missiles. Downgrading NORAD would be a symbolic step with which Ottawa would certainly have trouble; it would pose some difficulties for Washington, too. A reversal of the Canadian missile defence decision by the Harper government, once it has safely acquired a majority, could reju- venate NORAD as an aerospace com- mand. Ottawa expects to launch in a couple of years a satellite ””, dubbed ”œSapphire” that will restore Canada’s once longstanding direct participation in NORAD’s space surveillance mis- sion. Moreover, both USNORTHCOM and Canada COM represent significant new departures from how both coun- tries have organized their homeland defences; the value of these two new commands has yet to be tested. It is not inconceivable that the US will reorganize its unified command struc- ture again, and that USNORTHCOM will be eliminated and its missions assumed by other commands or indi- vidual services. That is what happened to NORAD’s last ”œtwin,” US Space Command, which once looked like such an integral element of the US command structure. It is gone, while NORAD is still around. And, after the cur- rent push for ”œtransforma- tion” of the Canadian Forces loses some steam, the idea of single command for all operations in Canada may be reassessed,

Most important, in the next few years Washington is likely to find itself pre-occupied with other, more immediate defence and security issues, especially those involving overseas oper- ations, leaving little time, attention or inclination to formally disestablish NORAD, even if the ITW/AA core mis- sion migrates in whole or in part to other US entities. Moreover, on Ottawa’s part, with new evidence of terrorist cells in Canada and the 2010 Olympics just around the corner, for which NORAD will be providing special ”œNoble Eagle” air defence protection, now may not seem to be the best time to downgrade or dismantle a long-standing element of continental security cooperation.

This does not mean that perpetu- ity is forever when it comes to NORAD’s future. For even if, despite all the pressure to the contrary, the bi- national command survives the com- ing round of negotiations on its fate and enters its second half century, it undeniably will do so as an dimin- ished instrument and symbol of close Canada-US defence cooperation. 

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License