Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Feb. 11 found himself in a unique position: ordering a U.S. fighter plane to shoot down an unidentified object — possibly a Chinese surveillance balloon — over the country’s Yukon Territory.
Trudeau’s order was possible because Canadian and U.S. forces share the responsibility for monitoring and protecting the skies and seas of North America, in a joint command known as NORAD.
And while many people are most familiar with their annual efforts to track Santa around the globe on Christmas Eve, the men and women of NORAD usually have a far more serious mission.
Here’s what to know about NORAD:
What is NORAD?
- History: Founded following WWII as threats from long-range Soviet bombers grew, NORAD then assumed responsibility for tracking incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles, and ultimately all airborne and maritime threats to the continent.
- Headquarters: Petersen Space Force Base in Colorado Springs, about an hour south of Denver, NORAD’s U.S. and Canadian military leaders use a far-flung network of sensors and radar installations to monitor the North American airspace and oceans.
- Name: It is now formally known as the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The name originally stood for the “North American Air Defense Command” and reflects its founding mission in 1957 as the primary command to monitor and defend the airspace above North America.
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Who runs NORAD?
Under a treaty, NORAD is run by a commander from the United States and a deputy commander from Canada. The commander of NORAD is also simultaneously the head of the U.S. Northern Command, giving them the authority to issue military orders to U.S. forces.
Among the forces assigned to NORAD are fighter aircraft that can — and often do — intercept and monitor Russian long-range bombers flying near the U.S. or Canadian coastlines near the North Pole. The most recent intercept was on Monday, when four Russian military planes flew through a buffer zone in international airspace along the U.S. coastline. Four U.S. fighter jets and two support planes intercepted them and flew along with them as they transited the area, NORAD said.
How does NORAD track things?
NORAD uses an integrated network of radar installations along the coastlines, including in remote Alaska near the Russian border, along with airborne surveillance aircraft and satellites to track potential incursions.
When first established, NORAD used airplanes extensively to patrol the Bering Sea area, and later switched to remotely-operated radar systems for that area. Radar stations are based all over the U.S. and Canada, including in Hawaii, Florida, Texas, Alaska and Maine. The satellites can track heat signatures of planes or missiles.
NORAD can then share that data with military aircraft flying to intercept intruding airplanes or balloons.
Why didn’t NORAD see these balloons sooner?
The radars, satellites and other sensors NORAD uses are very sensitive, but are typically used to track what the military calls “kinetic” threats — planes or missiles, for example. In a Feb. 12 call with reporters, Defense Department officials said they had recently changed the filters they use to screen out objects they typically would ignore, which could include things like trash bags drifting in the wind, kites or flocks of birds.
“We call them velocity gates that allow us to filter out low-speed clutter,” said Gen. Glen VanHerck, the NORAD/NORTHCOM commander. “We have adjusted some of those gates to give us better fidelity on seeing smaller objects.”
Some analysts have suggested China was attempting to gather data on NORAD’s ability to track objects with low radar signatures moving with the wind or on response times by military aircraft.
Where is NORAD based?
NORAD has three main locations for operations, in addition to HQ at Peterson in Colorado:
- Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida
- Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska
- 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
All three bases keep interceptor and fighter aircraft on standby for immediate dispatch.
Because the sensors and radars are remote, by definition NORAD’s operators can perform their mission from multiple backup locations if needed, including a bunker buried beneath a mountain near Peterson.
Colorado is home to a variety of airborne and space-based military missions, including the the men and women at Schriever Space Force Base who manage the GPS satellites we use for navigation.
Does NORAD have a secret bunker?
Yes. And no.
The bunker — actually a hollowed-out mountain near Colorado Springs — isn’t a secret, and its existence has been well publicized over the years.
But most of what happens inside Cheyenne Mountain remains top secret.
NORAD built the bunker over concerns an initial nuclear attack could blind traditional command centers, leaving the United States defenseless against subsequent attacks. The mountain’s shielding means the military can remain in contact with satellites above even if workers are completely sealed inside.
NORAD no longer uses the bunker for daily operations, but maintains a continuous presence, and periodically shifts operations inside to practice for an emergency. Most of the rest of the bunker is used by the U.S. Air Force for classified missions.
Story Credit: usatoday.com