Air defense was focused on the Russians. Then it was terrorists. Now it is both.
NORAD’s mission fundamentally shifted after Sept. 11, 2001, to address the threat of asymmetric terrorist attacks aimed at North America. But now North American Aerospace Defense Command is changing its focus once again, re-emphasizing advanced threats from outside the homeland. While the internal terrorism threat endures and continues to change, the last five years have seen NORAD attune itself to an increasingly capable and expeditionary Russian military.
This latest evolution of the NORAD mission also marks a return of sorts. In May 1958, the first NORAD agreement established a binational command that would allow Canada and the United States to better coordinate a common air defense of North America. “There was one threat, which was the Soviet threat, at that point,” Canadian Lt.-Gen. Pierre St-Amand, deputy commander of NORAD, told Air Force Magazine.
In the early years, NORAD was forced to “evolve with evolving capabilities,” but for decades the raison d'être of a combined air defense remained fixed on the Soviet Union. It’s no surprise, then, that the end of the Cold War brought with it a relaxation of NORAD’s posture.
One of the key findings of the 9/11 Commission Report was that the dwindling of NORAD’s once-expansive array of alert sites—there were 26 at the height of the Cold War, but only seven on the eve of 9/11—left the command inadequately prepared to respond to the attacks.
After the shock of the successful 2001 attacks on the commercial airline system, the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon, “NORAD started looking in,” said a NORAD official.
The new focus was on how to defend North America against a recurrence of similar attacks, and “we kind of relaxed our vigilance” on peer adversaries after 9/11, said St-Amand. Operation Noble Eagle and the expansion of NORAD’s alert sites and related air missions were focused on the terrorist threat, not necessarily on the threat posed by Russia or other nations with advanced air forces. These changes were defined by the threat of the moment.
Now the pendulum is swinging back.