NORAD celebrates 90 years of air defense and safety

Written by Khushboo Narayan, CNN

Norad, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. The critical partner for US and Canadian military operations from oceans to the north pole, its mission is still to ensure the safety of civilian aviation across the continent.

But its mission has remained unchanged — and in many ways has become more vital — over the past decade. Russian military expenditures, cyber threats and an ever-growing China are devouring ground forces and compromising missile targeting — all of which create more opportunities for Norad and its immediate commander, Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, to cover the international waters and skies of North America.

Norad’s mission remains the same in response to changing threats, but its infrastructure has been modernized to cope with the increased technological and geopolitical pressures.

To accomplish the ultimate goal of deterrence and protection — the relatively small but strategic airspace and coastline — needs to be policed, from the sky and in the air. Airpower is imperative.

Ahead of the United Nations meeting of countries to discuss air space in October, O’Shaughnessy shared the duties and responsibilities he receives from his Defense Department, which operates under different regulations.

As commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command, General Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, Jr. exercises his space commander role during an exercise at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. CNN

At the operational level, “What we’ve done in the past several years is realized that we can use the global footprint that NORAD has, and the sort of best practices that we have,” he said.

This range of aerial assets, including fighter aircraft, unmanned aircraft systems, a refueling tanker and various sea vessels, enhances the defensive aspect of NORAD’s missions.

“We’re able to move a lot of that information down (to the operation centers) and react, so the [North American Aerospace Defense Command Operational Warning System] T-squads can mitigate threats faster and prevent collisions and mitigate threats,” O’Shaughnessy said.

The latest category of defense systems, including the U-2 spy plane and Global Hawk drone, help monitor the shores and skies of Canada and the United States, as well as patrol various oceans.

“The Great Lakes area was a new area that we basically had to learn about,” he said. “I was actually (there) last week, and people are amazed that we were conducting a regular exercise up there.”

O’Shaughnessy’s other main focus is the increasing threats of cyber attacks. To reduce the vulnerabilities and maximize the U.S. military’s ability to operate in this domain, a new command has been established, U.S. Strategic Command. The command is being integrated with NORAD and other U.S. military forces as a joint force command, including Special Operations Forces.

“Our cyber and space capabilities are all linked together,” O’Shaughnessy said. “We provide cyber layers (as part of) our defense platform, when we should, and when we shouldn’t, to protect assets in the cyber domain.”

Fighters conduct a simulated intercept of a suspicious drone over the California coast in 2015. CNN

Another new element of the NORAD mission is preventing conventional conflict from spreading to the skies above Canada and the United States.

Though larger economies such as the United States and China have the second and fourth highest military budgets among developed nations, the shared North American airspace needs to remain undisturbed by their political disputes, so both states can manage their separation from each other.

These conflicts are currently falling back to the European and Middle Eastern theater of operations, O’Shaughnessy says.

“We’re almost pushing (politics) off to the world of traditional allies and partners, as that’s where the primary operations are taking place,” he said.

The current state of the world and American military defense expenditures are threats that also require action in the sky.

“As an organization we’re now ready, able and willing to provide a significant contribution (to solving) these global security challenges that are out there,” O’Shaughnessy said.

“The greatest challenge we have to answer is how do we best utilize the resources we have, which we do.”

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