Many people hoped the end of World War Two would usher in a new age of global peace and stability. Instead, the world was plunged into the Cold War. Spurred by rising ideological tensions between the US and Soviet Union, the Cold War was markedly different than the preceding conflicts. The total devastation wrought by new-age munitions, as demonstrated in the bombings Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, incentivised proxy warfare rather than direct conflict between powerful nations. On the defensive front there was one message that stood out above all else: a nation that cannot secure its skies is unable to have any security at all.
Anticipating possible attacks by long-range Soviet bombers, American defense experts and political leaders began planning and implementing a defensive air shield as early as 1947. By the mid 1950s, the Americans developed an extensive early warning radar system which acted as a tripwire to potential air attacks – giving the United States Air Force (USAF) time to scramble jets, ward off invaders and respond with strikes of their own. As USAF leaders developed further defensive plans and proposed new warning system programs, they became convinced of the logical need for extended cooperations with Canada. In light of increasing Soviet military capabilities and a growing trend of unstable international events, such as the emergence of a divided Europe and the Korean War, the USAF, and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) began exchanging liaison officers and meeting at key conferences to discuss the possible integration and execution of air defense plans.
In 1956, the Joint Canadian-U.S. Military Group recommended a formal aerospace defense agreement between the two nations. Building on previous agreements for collaborative Canada-US defense such as the Ogdensburg Declaration and construction of shared early-warning systems like DEW (Distant Early Warning) and the McGill Fence, the proposed agreement would strengthen the ability of both countries to protect their skies. On May 12, 1958, Canada and the US formally established the world’s only binational military command: the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). General Earl Partridge, USAF, was named as the first commander of NORAD and Air Marshal Roy Slemon, RCAF, the deputy commander.
Throughout its history, NORAD has rapidly grown and adapted to meet an ever-evolving threat. In the 60s and 70s, Soviet improvements in ballistic missile and anti-satellite technologies rendered many of the northern radar-warning networks obsolete. This caused the USAF to create a space-surveillance and missile-warning system that would provide worldwide space detection and tracking. The system would also classify activity and objects in space. Once these systems became operational in the early 1960s, they came under the control of NORAD.
The late 1980s saw US President Ronald Reagan expand NORAD’s role to include defense against drug trafficking as part of the “war on drugs”. NORAD was to detect and track aircraft potentially trafficking drugs by detecting light general-aviation planes that crossed into the US and Canada without filing flight plans or who deviated significantly from their route; non-compliant flights would be reported to law enforcement and appropriate unified commands.
The events of September 11, 2001, resulted in another expansion of NORAD’s role. Operation Noble Eagle, a still-ongoing air patrol mission, was launched to defend the US and Canada against terrorist aggression originating from either within or outside the continent. NORAD has also played a critical role in air defense support for National Special Security Events, such as NASA shuttle launches, G8 summit meetings and even Superbowl football events. In 2010, NORAD provided air security assistance to the Government of Canada for the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
NORAD’s impact on both national security and international cooperation has been significant. The command’s advanced radar systems, satellite technologies, and communication networks has facilitated rapid responses to potential threats. NORAD has also provided a powerful deterrent to potential adversaries, greatly contributing to stability during a period characterized by heightened global tensions, a legacy which continues into the modern era.
NORAD was created in response to the complex security environment of its time. Its joint nature and its focus on safeguarding North American airspace highlight the capacity for successful collaboration between nations in the face of shared challenges. NORAD’s legacy is a reminder of the importance of vigilance, preparedness, and international cooperation in securing the skies over North America.
Main: The NORAD Crest. (Credit: NORAD)
Government of Canada. 2022. “North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).” National Defense. Accessed August 2023. https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/news/2022/06/north-american-aerospace-defense-command-norad.html.
NORAD. 2020. “NORAD History.” Accessed August 2023. https://www.norad.mil/About-NORAD/NORAD-History/.
 Originally called the North American Air Defense Command, the name was updated to reflect the changing nature of home defense in the face of innovative technology and space exploration