NORAD at 60: Odd-couple countries built successful marriage
Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - May 13, 2018 - Updated: May 21, 2018
On the international stage, America and its northern neighbor make for an odd couple.
America is known for its military might. Canada sends small groups of polite peacekeepers.
Our president is an aging, salty conservative. Canada has a youthful, svelte liberal. President Trump is a real estate tycoon. Prime Minister Trudeau is a former substitute teacher. “America first” is contrasted with bilingual globalism. We parted paths on Iraq and Iran. We fought a bloody war from 1812-14 and argued over the border for decades after.
The two nations can’t even agree on how to spell defense (U.S. style; defence Canada style).
But in Colorado Springs, the two countries couldn’t be closer, officials at the North American Defense Command say.
“At the end, we all come together and it always seems to be that way,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ed Anderson, who capped off a 39-year Army career working at NORAD. “That’s what partnerships are about.”
The binational command, the only one of its kind on the globe, spent three days celebrating its anniversary through Saturday with an air show, a gala ball at The Broadmoor and speeches from Canadian and U.S. brass.
It’s a marriage that’s lasted 60 years and several wars, cold and hot. The nations have bonded with defending the continent from Russian bombers, incoming missiles, jihadist terrorists and drug lords.
It all started with a shotgun wedding. And Russia was carrying the shotgun.
“It is a marriage of necessity,” admitted Stephane Lessard, consul general of Canada in Denver.
Shortly after World War II, Russia detonated its first atomic bomb. As Cold War tensions rose, the frigid expanses of northern Canada were seen as a key battleground – the quickest way from Moscow to Washington involves a trip over the North Pole.
The marriage started with a lengthy prenuptial agreement. The NORAD treaty outlined the major goal of the time – defending the continent from a Russian apocalypse. It also outlined roles – America would pick the commander, Canada would select the vice-commander.
Like any new couple, the command went house shopping. They were looking for a 150-bedroom bunker in the mountains.
They settled on Cheyenne Mountain after passing on a place at Blodgett Peak near the Air Force Academy.
Five years of blasting and boring created a place that includes 5 underground acres protected by 2,000 feet of granite. It comes with its own underground water supply, power generation plants and custom 23-ton blast doors.
Steve Rose, a civilian who is the deputy commander of the mountain complex, said it’s the ultimate place for a getaway.
“When we close the blast doors, we might as well be at sea,” he said.
It’s also one of the most secure places on the planet, designed to survive a near-miss by a 30-megaton thermonuclear warhead.
It’s not low-maintenance living – the tunnels are stabilized by 115,000 bolts into the rock which must be frequently checked for tightness. The 15 underground steel buildings rest on 1,300 massive springs that also require upkeep.
But the new home was just the right place to give NORAD its first 50 happy years.
American and Canadian troops focused on radar screens and satellite feeds to detect incoming missiles. The underground base was connected to the leaders of both nations, so it could shout a warning if an attack was on the way.
It’s not that the couple always got along. America marched to war in Vietnam. Canada granted asylum to an estimated 30,000 American draft-dodgers and deserters.
“Keeping a marriage going from time to time is difficult,” said Lessard, Canada’s top diplomat in Colorado.
But, even through the rough spots, the marriage has had success.
NORAD’s role drove technological leaps in the 1960s – Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station was the first place connected to a Defense Department computer network that you know today as the internet.
Through the end of the Cold War, the command proved a powerful deterrent to Russian attacks.
Through the 1990s, the command kept busy, still watching northern skies while taking a new role in the south, where NORAD’s radar proved crucial in tracking illicit drug shipments.
Then came the day that changed everything.
“NORAD’s posture before 9/11 was not to focus on threats from within,” said Lance Blythe, NORAD’s historian in Colorado Springs. “That shifted.”
On 9/11 it was a Canadian general working in Colorado Springs who ordered all passenger planes grounded after the attacks in New York and Washington.
The two nations worked together to develop a strategy to shoot down hijacked planes and to monitor the thousands of flights on the continent.
“That was a big mission shift and NORAD stepped up,” said Anderson, the retired lieutenant general, who helped plan and implement the changes.
NORAD became a top tool for leaders in Washington and Ottawa to thwart terrorism. In 17 years, both nations have seen small terror incidents, but no big blows like the 2001 attack.
Anderson said the command changed almost everything it does with a minimum of arguments between its two partners.
“I wouldn’t even consider them disagreements,” Anderson said.
In 2006, NORAD added a new role in policing the sea lanes around the continent. Again it went smoothly.
In 2008, NORAD effectively outgrew the newlywed home in the mountain. Leaders built a vast new command center on Peterson Air Force base to accommodate all the command’s new roles.
They kept the mountain place, though, now calling it an “alternate command center” – think of it as a weekend getaway.
The trouble of terrorism, leaders say, actually drew Canada and America closer.
Lessard said Canadians don’t even mind leaving their northern homes for duty in Colorado Springs. The city is home to more than 100 Canadian military families who serve in the command, often leading their American counterparts.
“The weather is great, I have to say,” Lessard admitted.
Apart from missing ketchup chips – a Canadian delicacy not stocked in local supermarkets, the foreign troops do seem to find it just fine here.
The Canadians even have a joke about life in the U.S. If your credit cards are maxed out and your garage is so full of possessions that it won’t fit a car, you’ve “gone American.”
Just as the NORAD marriage has been tested in the past, it faces a difficult future.
Rising threats from Russia and China are joined by North Korea as the troops of two nations work to keep the continent safe.
Anderson said he’s not worried about whether the romance will suddenly sour amid growing threats.
“That’s what partnerships are about,” he said.
Lessard agreed, saying Canadians know that the NORAD partnership is worth keeping.
“We built this continent together and we need to defend it together,” he said.