For many, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command) conjures up old Cold War nostalgia, complete with DEW lines and SAC bombers hovering just outside Soviet airspace, ready to deliver their deadly nuclear payloads at a moment’s notice.
Thankfully none of us ever woke up to a 20 megaton sunrise airbursting over a major population centre during the darker moments of the Cold War. The fear and anxiety of those decades has almost been forgotten by younger generations, and those children of the early ‘60s who might have helped their dad construct a fallout shelter in their basements or backyards have almost morphed into comical caricatures like a scene out of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Admittedly ridiculous civil defence advice like ‘duck and cover’ had become the butt of endless jokes, and only a few years ago the threat of nuclear warfare rated well below most other dire threats to humanity in the minds of most North Americans.
Only a few lonely voices on the fringe were warning of the escalating threat of nuclear proliferation, the increasing pinpoint accuracy of targeting technology involving ICBMs, the prospects for a “dirty” bomb as a terrorist action, a shift in nuclear theory to small-scale tactical battlefield devices (arguably making it more likely for a nuclear device to be deployed), and speculation about supposedly missing nuclear stockpiles in the wake of the Soviet collapse in 1991 – the list could go on and on.
But with the advent of the Ukraine-Russia conflict last year, all of that rapidly began to change. With Putin rattling the nuclear sabre to a degree not witnessed since the height of the Cold War – virtually threatening the West with nuclear annihilation on a number of occasions – the nuclear boogeyman has returned with a vengeance.
Up until that time, NORAD – a combined organization of the United States and Canada that provides aerospace warning, air sovereignty, and protection for North America – often seemed like an anachronism, a Cold War legacy military organization attempting to establish renewed purpose in a modern world more worried about planes slamming into skyscrapers than tiresome Russian bombers playing cat and mouse just outside our frigid Arctic airspace. That, of course, was merely a perception – NORAD’s role has always been a vital one, even post-Cold War, in protecting shield-shaped North America from the aerial threats of less hospitable neighbours, like Russia.
In recent weeks and days, that role is again moving to the forefront. With mysterious “UFOs” and Chinese surveillance balloons penetrating North American airspace and being downed by military jets over Canadian soil, the current threat to our North American airspace would seem to be real and immediate. Anyone who has traveled slightly off the beaten path in Montana and come across the tell-tale signs of missile silos that dot the countryside doesn’t need to speculate very much about just what the Chinese might have been interested in as their balloon passed over the region.
And while NORAD’s response to this threat and others has been seemingly adequate, critics and analysts have been arguing that years of neglect have left the organization in a less than ideal position to confront many modern airborne threats. Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18 fighter jets – now finally slated for replacement with the F-35 – are a prime example of successive governments putting aerospace defence on the back burner. And we should never forget that across the icy wastes of the high Arctic lies Russia right on our doorstep, a country whose current war effort we are actively engaged in undermining.
With all that in mind, it’s high time governments on both sides of the 49th parallel invested in a major overhaul of NORAD and our aerospace defence capabilities.