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What is the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is an organization which is responsible for promoting the safety and sovereignty of North America. It is a binational command, including both Canadian and American representatives who protect the mutual interests of these nations. The organization is sometimes known colloquially as Cheyenne Mountain, in a reference to the command center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.

The groundwork for NORAD was laid in the Second World War, when American and Canadian leaders met and expressed an interest in information and patrol sharing responsibilities. Since both nations were allies and both presumably had a vested interest in not being invaded, a cooperative effort was logical. After the Second World War, concerns about the growing Soviet threat led to a desire for a more coordinated and centralized cooperation, and NORAD was born in 1958 as the North American Air Defense Command.

By convention, the Commander of this organization is American, and he or she is also in charge of the United States Northern Command. The deputy commander is Canadian, and each is answerable to both governments. The United States Air Force manages day to day operations in Cheyenne Mountain, and support is also provided by Canadian military personnel.

NORAD has a variety of functions. The most obvious is the identification and assessment of potential airborne threats, such as missile launches. It also administers warning systems throughout the United States and Canada, and it monitors air traffic over North America. It is authorized to respond to credible threats to the United States, and it maintains an insulated bunker at the command center for use in the event of a major aerospace attack.

The central command of NORAD collects data from across North America, supported by bases in Manitoba, Florida, and Alaska. Like other military organizations, it is constantly evolving to respond to new threats and global issues. For example, the organization places less focus on concerns about missile attacks than it did during the Cold War, and more energy is spent monitoring air traffic to avoid a repeat of 11 September, 2001, in which four commercial airliners were hijacked and used as bombs.

Because NORAD employees are responsible for the safety and security of the North American continent, they undergo stringent background checks. Employees are selected from the Canadian Forces Air Command and the United States Air Force. These employees are also responsible, incidentally, for tracking Santa Claus every December, with the assistance of a large network of civilian volunteers.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Orehnjaca — On Dec 05, 2012

North American but no Mexico? Why not?

By titans62 — On Oct 24, 2012
@kentuckycat - I agree, and I feel that NORAD has changed its focus over the years simply because of the changes in society and the world in general in regards to threats.

Unlike a few decades ago, there is not as much of a threat to nuclear war as opposed to an airborne terrorist attack or a hijacking.

NORAD still focuses on missile defense, but also look at the airspace in general, as well as making sure there is not an airborne military assault on American soil.

By kentuckycat — On Oct 24, 2012
I really think that NORAD's focus has changed a lot since 9/11 and they focus more on potential terrorist threats and maybe even problems with airplanes, as opposed to what it was originally designed for, which was as a missile defense system during the Cold War.
By JimmyT — On Oct 23, 2012
@TreeMan - That is true, and people need to keep in mind that at the time of 9/11 there had not really been a terrorist attack where a plane was hijacked and purposely flown into a building.

I guarantee that even the military, had they known of the hijacking in time, would not have thought for that they may fly the plane into a building and probably thought that it was either done for ransom money or for the purpose of killing the passengers as their terrorist act.

Some plans are so well executed and planned that it is impossible for people to respond to in time and 9/11 is one of them and unique in history.

By TreeMan — On Oct 22, 2012

@ebrz56 - I think that it was not so much a failure by NORAD, as opposed to a well executed terrorist attack.

Keep in mind that 9/11 happened over a matter of a few hours and the two planes that hit the World Trade Centers left from Boston and it took probably only a half hour for them to make it to New York City.

Although NORAD does oversee things like airplane hijackings, it is very difficult in order to analyze the situation and figure out what to do in such a short time.

I am betting this happened so fast that Air Traffic Control may have only known about the first couple hijackings for a few minutes before the attacks happened and even then NORAD and the military have to make sure whether or not they need to shoot down a plane or if it is a hostage situation and they need to negotiate.

By ebrz56 — On May 13, 2009

What caused the failure of norad to identify and intercept the 4 hijacked planes on 9-11-2001?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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