How NORAD Works

Alarm Levels and Joint Operations

The NORAD command center in the late 1960s/early 1970s
The NORAD command center in the late 1960s/early 1970s
Photo courtesy North American Air Defense Command, Public Information Division

NORAD's highest level of alert during the Cold War was Alarm Level 1. Fortunately, it was never activated, but a Level 1 contact would have played out like this:

The Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) detects something flying within its radar range. The computer systems check and don't recognize the object. It appears as a colored light on an electronic map of North America, and Alarm Level 3 is activated. The computers begin making predictions -- if the object is a missile, where might it be aimed, and how long will it take to get there?

Once the BMEWS starts tracking the object, it will be able to tell where it's heading. If it's moving toward or into North America, NORAD moves to Alarm Level 2. At this level, a series of checks are run to make sure the object isn't a bad signal or something harmless. If nothing checks out, NORAD moves to Alarm Level 1.

Strategic Air Command (SAC) squadrons have already been notified and are scrambling -- now they can be released into the air. Missile launch sites are on alert and preparing to launch. Meanwhile, computers continue tracking and refining the missiles' estimated impact sites. Once everything has been fully confirmed, all possible mistakes are ruled out and NORAD commanders know for certain that the United States is under attack, they then reach for the Presidential hotline. This special phone connects directly to the President without delay. Only with his authorization can military elements be fully activated to attack and launch their missiles.

Joint Operations

NORAD is a rarity -- an ongoing joint defensive military operation between two countries. The U.S. and Canada realized in the 1950s that any Russian threat posed to one was also going to be faced by the other. In the interest of working together to detect and stop such threats, the two nations signed an agreement to form NORAD on May 12, 1958 [source: National Defence of Canada]. It was originally known as North American Air Defense Command, but "Air" was changed to "Aerospace" to reflect the expanded duties brought on by satellites and other space-born threats.

NORAD's commander is appointed by (and answers to) the U.S. President and the Canadian Prime Minister. An American Air Force general is usually chosen to be NORAD commander, with a Canadian deputy commander. The NORAD agreement has been steadily renewed over the years, though the two countries have disagreed on the funding of facility construction and maintenance. Most of NORAD's functions are accomplished by the two nations' air forces, but because it is a binational agency, it is not technically a part of either air force.

In the United States, the 21st Space Wing of the U.S. Air Force provides missile warning and space control functions to NORAD. And various air wings throughout the United States provide the actual air-combat presence of NORAD. The Royal Canadian Air Force operates Canadian NORAD bases.

On the next page we'll learn about how NORAD works today and how it has changed with the end of the Cold War and the new threat of terrorism.