The North American Aerospace Defense Command has long been the main unit overseeing aerospace warning and control and maritime warning for North America. But the recent rise in conflict around the world has prompted it to try to better prepare for what is ahead, according to a top official in the command.
"What we're focused on is being able to detect adversary activity that poses a risk or threat" to North America, said Canadian Lt. Gen. Christopher Coates, deputy commander of NORAD. Military.com spoke with Coates, stationed at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, during a recent interview.
NORAD gets several notifications a day that require monitoring at the command center or scrambling jets to check out the airspace.
"It's not always the same action, but we [get an alert] and investigate," Coates said.
The command responds roughly five times per week across the U.S. or Canada for tactical actions, he said. Between 2016 and 2018, it scrambled nearly 500 times, conducting 164 intercepts, according to data provided to Military.com.
"Our intercepts of foreign state aircraft average about a half dozen per year, but can get higher," Coates said, referencing Russian bombers or fighters flying into the Air Defense Identification Zone, the airspace surrounding the United States and Canada. The ADIZ stretches roughly 200 miles off Alaska's coast.
Regarding potential adversary activity, "the problem has become 360-degree for us," he said. "When we saw Russia deploy its bombers down to Venezuela, of course NORAD was very focused on that [because] it presents another vector" of global conflict.
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Both Russia and China are developing long-range missile capability, with Russian officials publicly stating the country plans to upgrade part of its existing missile inventory by increasing their range and enhancing their speed to hypersonic levels.
"The trend that we're on would lead me to believe that we need to have far more robust continental defenses in five years than we do today. Our adversaries are continuing to develop capabilities to hold the homeland directly at risk," Coates said.
"I don't believe Russia is going to launch a cruise missile tomorrow at Canada or the U.S. [But] we do have challenges with respect to new technologies that Russia and other nations are developing and fielding, and we're working with [Canadian and U.S.] defense agencies to make sure we're well positioned for the future," he said. "And the notion that I've got is that [our adversaries] believe that the best way to ensure their defense and security and interests are best met [is] by being … able to challenge us."
Operation Noble Eagle, to defend the U.S. and Canada, was launched in the aftermath of 9/11.
There have been growing requirements to partner, especially with U.S. Northern Command and Canadian Joint Operations Command, as well as interagency organizations such as the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration.
"There has been a realignment, a refocusing of effort, where there is a combination of priorities and … certain activities remain higher-priority," Coates said.
That includes security for big annual sporting events and overwatch on cities.
The command’s role was highlighted in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport incident last year. In August 2018, a Horizon Air worker stole one of the airline's Q400 turboprops aircraft. The employee, later identified as ground service agent Richard Russell, 29, flew the empty aircraft south of Seattle before crashing into Ketron Island in the Puget Sound, roughly 35 miles south of the airport. He died in the crash.
The Sea-Tac incident "completely mirrored the training events that we do," Coates said.
He called the incident unfortunate, but unique in that NORAD hadn't seen that type of hijacking since Operation Noble Eagle began.
"We're training for events ... like it on a daily basis," Coates said.
Personnel at the command control center are typically on eight-hour shifts, during which they participate in two-to-three training simulations when not responding to real-world events, he said. "We're so attuned to the notion that 9/11 was a failure of imagination, so we challenge ourselves. We challenge our [exercise planning personnel] to ensure we keep this enterprise at the very pointy edge of being ready."
Intercepts or scrambles are most often due to civilian aircraft that stray into a temporary flight restriction zone or closed off airspace. The command tracked 4,464 events of interest flagged by the FAA from 2016 to 2018.
"Fortunately, we have not had to take action in those cases," Coates said.
Defending the Homeland
He said NORAD is well-suited for the alert mission, but needs to prepare for a range of events.
"Are we well-suited for a really bad day? Perhaps less so," he said, adding that a commander's job is to do the best he can with the resources he's given, while identifying risks if he sees capability gaps or vulnerabilities across the mission.
A catastrophic event could include a mass casualty or terrorist incident that would call for air intercepts and increased air patrols, or a fight against a near-peer enemy on U.S. soil or near its borders.
Coates said the command's posture could change in the next few years to be ready for both daily homeland defense as well as a bigger fight.
The first goal is to show a formidable deterrence by North American partners, "but then be ready as well to respond to where we most believe the threat might present itself," he said.
Emerging Tech, Warning Systems
Technology is constantly evolving, and NORAD is working with its partners to determine the best surveillance systems to use against these new threats, Coates said.
NORAD watched 1,451 foreign missile events between 2016 and 2018, according to the data.
"We're reaching out and engaging with our industry partners, making sure they're aware of our requirements. We're interested in looking at the widest range of possible solutions -- whether those are land-based, air-based or space-based," Coates said.
"On the weapons side, certainly we're interested in ensuring we have sufficient numbers of effective weapons … or technologies," he added. As an example, he cited the active electronically scanned array, or AESA, radar upgrade to the F-16 Fighting Falcon fleet, which gives pilots additional situational awareness, high-performance targeting and extended range.
"That's directly related to the capabilities [we need]," he said.
The upgrades come as the Pentagon in recent years has been quietly working on a network defense system plan to intercept and shoot down low-flying missiles.
In 2017, then-NORAD commander Gen. Lori Robinson said the U.S. and Canada were working on upgrades to protect against cruise missile threats posed by countries such as Russia and North Korea -- the first substantial buildup in more than two decades.
Robinson said that the two countries had established a "binational steering group to manage the eventual replacement of the North Warning System, which is our network of surveillance radars across Alaska and northern Canada."
"That study is ongoing," Coates said. "We're not in a position yet to know what the recommendations are … [but] we're looking at … what capabilities are most beneficial moving forward."
The current warning system architecture will eventually atrophy, he said, so a comprehensive, cross-domain surveillance system is necessary.
The key is persistence, he said, as NORAD aims for advanced line of sight to monitor, track and defend against evolving hazards.
"We're looking at sensor and command-and-control systems that can synthesize information, that can sense information or sense across domains all at once and help us makes sense of" information, Coates said.
While the U.S. already uses satellites to monitor global missile activities, there is need for "technologies that will allow us to observe further, and with more accuracy and more precision -- well beyond the range of our current sensors," he said, "whether those are a combination of platforms in the air -- and maybe those are a combination of sensors ... with radars that are on [unmanned aerostats] … or some kind of an early airborne warning platform, or space-based sensors."
That could include "a combination of low and high satellites with different revisit rates over various places," Coates said. "It's not science fiction; it's taking advantage of capabilities, both those that we have today, modernized and integrated, and then the possibility of what we will need in the next decade to come."
Deterring Adversary Gains
The necessity for additional tech comes as officials anticipate more high-speed, precision-strike weapons -- below the nuclear threshold -- advanced enough to pose a threat to cities across North America.
"We've seen our adversaries develop very long-range, advanced, stealthy, hard-to-detect cruise missiles," Coates said, referring to Russian activity in Syria. "The notion that Russia or any other nation would aim weapons at North America, is [not] new."
Then in February, Putin said Russia had tested a ship-based hypersonic missile. Called "Tsirkon," the missile can travel at Mach 9 and hit sea- or land-based targets, he said during his annual state of the nation address, according to CNBC.
"We're directly involved in the aerospace warning problems that we have now, and we're thinking about the future," Coates said, referring to hypersonic weapons.
NORAD is looking for new ways to have more eyes in the sky, even if the technology might not exist yet.
"Maybe there's a capability like [tethered unmanned aerostats] that would be an option at some point for the Arctic. Maybe there's developing capabilities that allow us to keep surveillance, like an [unmanned aerial vehicle], airborne indefinitely, for days or weeks instead of hours," Coates said. "That doesn't exist, but we're certainly interested."