The US and Canada are updating a Cold War-era system to keep an eye on Russian and Chinese missiles. Experts say they need to add a lot more territory too.

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Thule Air Base in Greenland
Thule Air Base in Greenland in November 2006.

  • The US and Canada are modernizing NORAD to look ahead to Russian, Chinese, and North Korean missiles.
  • To actually enhance its protection, NORAD ought to develop to embody Greenland, two researchers say.
  • That form of integration may gain advantage every nation’s safety, however there are complicating components. 

During the Cold War, the North American Aerospace Defense Command was guardian in opposition to nuclear annihilation and a reminder that such annihilation was just one order away.

After the demise of the Soviet Union, NORAD’s star waned, however as China, Russia, and North Korea subject more superior ballistic, cruise, and ultimately hypersonic missiles, North America faces a rising risk that looks as if a reprise of the Cold War.

As a outcome, NORAD is getting more consideration within the type of technological modernization. At the identical time, some consultants argue that the command ought to develop past North America to embody Denmark and its North American territory, Greenland.

‘Greater and more complicated’ threats

Russia NORAD F-22 Tu-95
A US F-22 intercepts a Russian Tu-95 bomber north of Alaska in August 2019.

The US and Canada based the North American Air Defense Command in 1958 in response to fears that Soviet bombers — and later ICBMs — would arrive over the North Pole and devastate the North American heartland.

By the early Sixties, NORAD comprised a quarter-million personnel and an elaborate system of radars, missile-warning satellites, command facilities, jet interceptors, and anti-aircraft missiles.

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NORAD’s attain grew all through the Cold War. The risk of Soviet submarine-launched missiles and fractional orbit bombardment programs, which might method from the south reasonably than the north, led to the command taking on a world remit.

The improvement of space-based weapons prompted a identify change in 1981. North American Aerospace Defense Command, because it’s now identified, can be chargeable for detecting and monitoring North Korean missile launches.

“Canada and the United States have long benefited from the protection afforded by North American geography,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said in August 2021. “However, growing strategic competition, rapid advancements in technology, and ongoing changes in our climate are eroding that protection, including by exposing North America to a greater and more complex conventional missile threat.”

NORAD Canada North Warning System
The North Warning System depicted in a 1987 Canadian protection coverage doc.

The US and Canada, which collectively run NORAD, pledged to change the growing older North Warning Network — a chain of air-defense radars throughout the far north of the US, Canada, and Greenland — with next-generation, long-range over-the-horizon radar.

The nations additionally agreed to embrace a complete “system-of-systems approach” that included a community of sensors “from the sea floor to outer space” and more built-in command-and-control programs.

But the North Pole continues to be a dagger pointed at North America.

“Since the shortest airborne routes from Russian, Chinese, or North Korean territory to North America transit Arctic and sub-Arctic areas, those more directly northern routes have always been particularly important to NORAD,” RAND Corporation researchers Michael Bohnert and Scott Savitz wrote in a recent commentary.

Bohnert and Savitz additionally supply a provocative argument: make Denmark a member of NORAD, turning it into a tri-national group.

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It would not be a lot of an growth. As the 2 researchers level out, Greenland is a a part of North America and the US has lengthy maintained early-warning radar stations there to detect missiles and bombers coming over the Arctic.

military tracking antenna at Thule Air Base in Greenland
A monitoring antenna at Thule Air Base in July 2016.

“From a military perspective, Greenland dominates the northeastern approaches to the continent,” Bohnert and Savitz write. “NORAD nations have long recognized the criticality of Greenland, which hosts a U.S. airbase in Thule, as well as various smaller facilities and radars.”

Politically, Greenland is a a part of Denmark, which complicates issues.

“U.S. military operations in Greenland are overseen by the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), rather than the U.S. North American Command,” write Bohnert and Savitz, noting that the present standing displays Greenland’s significance to EUCOM as a vantage point to monitor Russian ships and submarines crusing between the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans.

But formal integration with NORAD and forces in North America “could enable greater resource sharing, enhancing the early-warning capabilities of the United States and Canada while providing Danish forces with expanded access to NORAD data,” the researchers write. “This could improve the security of all three nations, without requiring additional forces or bases.”

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Arctic intrigue

China Xue Long icebreaker Nuuk Greenland
Chinese icebreaker Xue Long within the waters off of Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, in August 2017.

Still, there are some complicating components.

Denmark is a European nation with its personal safety pursuits distinct from North America, and Greenland is a self-governing country inside the Kingdom of Denmark, although the Danish authorities retains management in some areas, together with protection and overseas affairs. Copenhagen additionally rebuffed the Trump administration’s overtures about buying the territory in 2019.

Some Greenlanders need full independence, nonetheless. Could curiosity in NORAD growth embroil the US in Danish home politics? Bohnert thinks that is unlikely to be a downside.

“Integration of Denmark via Greenland into NORAD would give the US and Canada direct engagement with both Danish and Greenlandic authorities,” he informed Insider. “Regardless of any domestic decisions, this structure would provide a vehicle to maintain continuity.”

In any occasion, the significance of the Arctic is rising. Melting Arctic ice has spurred a number of nations — together with Russia and China — to eye newly accessible mineral sources and delivery routes, and military activity there is increasing. The protection of North America continues to be on NORAD’s radar.

Michael Peck is a protection author whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy journal, and different publications. He holds a grasp’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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