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How NORAD Works

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NORAD Now
One of the 25-ton blast doors that protect the NORAD Cheyenne Mountain complex
One of the 25-ton blast doors that protect the NORAD Cheyenne Mountain complex
Robert Nickelsberg/AFP/Getty Images

NORAD has changed in many ways since the end of the Cold War. While tracking drug smugglers helped keep it relevant in the 1990s, the terrorist attacks of 2001 drastically changed NORAD. Since its inception, NORAD's very nature has been to monitor the North American airspace for threats coming from other nations. An airborne attack from within U.S. borders was not expected. In fact, when Air Force fighters were first sent into the air on Sept. 11, 2001, some of them followed predetermined mission plans that sent them out to sea to intercept incoming attackers [source: Colorado Springs Gazette].

Following the attacks, NORAD turned its watchful eyes inward, intently scanning U.S. skies for threats. When a civilian plane crashed into a New York City apartment building in October 2006, NORAD sent Air Force fighters into the skies above New York and other major North American cities within minutes [source: Colorado Springs Gazette].

In 2005, NORAD adopted a new system using low-intensity lasers to warn commercial airline pilots when they've entered restricted airspace above Washington, D.C., near military installations and other sensitive areas. The system is more effective and less expensive than the previous method of sending fighter jets to intercept the plane [source: Airline Industry Information]. NORAD's systems and communications have been better integrated with the Federal Aviation Administration's oversight of civilian air traffic. This includes FAA officials working directly with NORAD [source: Calgary Herald].

Canada has also recently moved its NORAD operations -- headquarters are now in an aboveground building near the North Bay bunker .

What does the future hold for NORAD? The United States and Canada will probably always need a way to monitor the skies for potential threats, and those threats will continue to evolve. The methods used to accomplish NORAD's mission will change with technology, always shifting to meet the needs of national security, just like they have since the 1950s.

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