This weekend the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) celebrates its 60th anniversary. On May 12, 1958, Canada and the US officially signed their most significant bilateral military accord.
The Cold War agreement was supposed to defend the two countries from an invasion by Soviet bombers coming from the north. But, the Berlin Wall fell three decades ago and NORAD continues. In fact, the agreement was renewed indefinitely in 2006.
Initially NORAD focused on radar and fighter jets. As technologies advanced, the Command took up intercontinental ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and space-based satellites.
Thousands of Canadian military personnel support NORAD’s operations. One hundred and fifty Canadians are stationed at NORAD’s central collection and coordination facility near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Hundreds more work at regional NORAD outposts across the US and Canada and many pilots are devoted to the Command. A Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) general is deputy commander of NORAD and its commander-in-chief is a US Air Force general.
In the lead-up to its establishment newly elected Prime Minister John Diefenbaker faced “heavy pressure from the military” to back the agreement. Then chairman of the chiefs of defense staff, Charles Foulkes, later admitted to a House of Commons defense committee that “we stampeded the incoming Conservative government with the NORAD agreement.”
Before NORAD’s creation the RCAF had been expanding ties to the US command in Colorado Springs and misled the politicians about the scope of these efforts. In Dilemmas in Defence Decision-Making: Constructing Canada’s Role in NORAD, 1958-96 Ann Crosby points out that the RCAF pursued NORAD discussions secretly “in order to address the politically sensitive issues without the involvement of Canadian political representatives.”
While the Canadian Forces frame the alliance as an exclusively military matter, NORAD’s political implications are vast. The accord impinges on Canadian sovereignty, influences weapons procurement and ties Canada to US belligerence.
External Affairs officials immediately understood that NORAD would curtail sovereignty. An internal memo explained, “the establishment of NORAD is a decision for which there is no precedent in Canadian history in that it grants in peace time to a foreign representative operational control of an element of Canadian Forces in Canada.” Under the accord the Colorado-based commander of NORAD could deploy Canadian fighter jets based in this country without any express Canadian endorsement.
For over a decade the US commander of NORAD effectively controlled nuclear tipped Bomarc missiles based near North Bay, Ontario, and La Macaza, Québec. According to the agreement, the Canadian battle staff officer on duty in North Bay would receive authorization from the Colorado Springs commander, “allow[ing] for the release and firing of nuclear armed Bomarc missiles without specific Canadian government…