The NORAD scope of potential enemies has expanded beyond Cold War-era missile defense, and the US and Canadian personnel are some of the best-trained decision-makers in the Services. Robert W. Moorman reports on the Cheyenne Mountain defenders.

Consider what has happened in Russia in the past century. In 1917, the Bolshevik Party established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which ushered in decades of near isolationism (with the exception, briefly, of WW2) and mutual paranoia between the Soviets and the West.

By the mid-1980s, however, the relationship began to improve. The USSR introduced glasnost (the loosening of government control) under Mikhail Gorbachev, who also began the process of restructuring the Soviet economy, known as perestroika. This was followed by the so-called official end of Soviet communism during the tenure of Boris Yeltsin from 1991 until 1999. For a time, relations between Russia and the West seemed somewhat cordial.

Today’s Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin, however, looks a lot like the old USSR. Some historians describe the Putin-led Russia as a dictatorship masquerading as a democracy.

Consequently, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has had to evolve with geopolitical events while remaining vigilant in protecting the airspace over North America.

“History has made its triumphant return and in an unpleasant way,” said Richard Aboulafia, Vice President, Analysis for The Teal Group, an aerospace consultancy. “Dealing with peer and near-peer adversaries means upgrading the defense of US airspace as a key Air Force mission.”

Another consideration: Russia is no longer the only major threat to North America. “In addition to Russia, NORAD has random and asymmetric threats with which to contend,” added Aboulafia. Today’s list of potential enemies includes North Korea, assorted Middle East countries, religious zealots and freewheeling terrorists of all stripes.

But what significantly altered the way the US and Canada view threats through the prism of NORAD was 9/11. “The events of 9/11 fundamentally changed NORAD,” said Joseph C. Bonnet III, Director of Joint Training and Exercises for NORAD and the US Northern Command, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Bonnet – who has 40 years of national security experience – is responsible for all joint training, education and exercises for both commands and leads 160 staff in five divisions, covering Joint Exercises; Joint Training and Education; Qualification Training; Joint Resources and Readiness; and Assessor Authority Training.

Until 9/11, NORAD was outward looking in its threat assessment. Now it looks inside the two countries, Bonnet told MS&T.

Homeland defense was the principal reason why the US and Canada in May 1958 formed the North American Air Defense Command to provide aerospace warning, air sovereignty and protection for North America. In 1981, the unit was renamed the North American Aerospace Defense Command to accommodate the space mission.

Another development that factors into NORAD’s assessment of threats is the growing sophistication and investments by enemies over the past couple of decades. “Our homelands are no longer sanctuaries,” said Bonnet. “These adversaries have truly advanced what they are capable of doing. That realization forced the US government to reevaluate how we are to protect our homelands.” In 2006, because of long-range missile systems development, as well as small arms threats, NORAD added responsibilities to its charter, including maritime warning.

Day-to-day operations for NORAD take place at Peterson Air Force Base, which is adjacent to the Colorado Springs Airport (COS). A variety of organizations remain housed in the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, aka “the Mountain,” including the USNORTHCOM N2C2 Command Center and Initial Qualification Center Training, whose job it is to train US and Canadian military and civilian personnel to stand watch in the Command Center at Peterson.

NORAD has the operational capability to operate in the Mountain if the Peterson-based command were to become inoperable. The complex, which has been in use since 1965, today serves as the official alternate Command Center.

 In May, NORAD F22s and an E3 AWACS intercepted four Tu95 bombers and two Su35 fighters entering the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone.
In May, NORAD F22s and an E3 AWACS intercepted four Tu95 bombers and two Su35 fighters entering the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone.

Mission-Focused Training

Gathering specific information on training military and civilian personnel is relatively easy, typically. But, in this instance, proprietary aspects of the operational training and the multi-command, multi-national nature of NORAD make the exercise challenging, explained a NORAD Public Affairs Officer.

NORAD directs more training than it conducts. It identifies requirements to execute its mission, while the various Services train to conduct the mission.

Here is what MS&T was able to learn: The officers and enlisted assigned to NORAD are among the most experienced personnel across the various branches of the US and Canadian militaries. NORAD is not their first assignment. NORAD handpicks already trained personnel for their particular skill sets and “further broadens their capabilities to have an operational, strategic view,” said Bonnet.

Those individuals under consideration for NORAD assignment must have at least eight to 10 years in their Service and within their skill set to be a candidate, said Bonnet. As NORAD training concentrates mainly on its operational missions, Service-related skill set training is done before personnel arrive.

New NORAD personnel are given an introductory five-day familiarization course, which includes an explanation of what goes on at NORAD and how each team member fits in. NORAD’s Chief of Staff (Major General Richard J. Gallant presently) briefs the students on their roles and that of NORAD in the defense of North America. This instruction occurs within the first month of being assigned to NORAD, typically.

New personnel assigned to the watch billet (or duty station) then report to NORAD and USNORTHCOM Commander Center (N2C2) and the Initial Qualification Training unit, where they undergo a seven-week training program that covers land, maritime, air, space, missile and cyber components. After becoming qualified, personnel “stand the watch” for a year or longer. Some of these individuals later return to NORAD to be instructors.

For select Generals, who are tapped to be “assessor authorities” (as in assessing the threat), their initial 14-day training is grueling. Their proficiency is maintained during regular training exercises throughout the year. Bonnet said this executive-level training “is like drinking from a fire hose,” in terms of how much information these officers are expected to digest.

J7 (Joint Chiefs) provides initial and continuation training for NORAD and USNORTHCOM's two-, three- and four-star general and flag officers, who will decide what action to take. These diverse authorities can order military aircraft to engage with civilian aircraft which pose security threats. They also can order early warning assessments for missile and military aircraft threats.

 The Cheyenne Mountain Complex was built on five acres beneath 2,000 feet of granite and remains the only high-altitude facility able to sustain a nuclear electromagnetic pulse.
The Cheyenne Mountain Complex was built on five acres beneath 2,000 feet of granite and remains the only high-altitude facility able to sustain a nuclear electromagnetic pulse.

The J7 team works closely with other Command experts at Headquarters, Region and Sector levels to train these executive officers to handle threats by challenging them with ambiguous scenarios. The officers receive academic instruction in the classroom and scenario-based training that involve operators at various locations in the Continental United States (CONUS), Canada and Alaska.

Separately, mandatory training of NORAD personnel can involve online learning, small group instruction, simulation exercises and team training. Some courses take days to complete, but there are a few long courses taught because NORAD is an operational command, and personnel need to be ready quickly, said Bonnet. The advent of long-range cruise and ballistic missiles compelled NORAD to train against those capabilities because “these adversaries today are far less predictable, and far more lethal,” he said.

Several NORAD mission partners are located around the world, which makes it challenging to schedule blocks of training time during which these partners can participate. “Still, we prioritize training as much as operationally practicable, because we recognize the need to develop and maintain the skill sets required to support NORAD’s missions,” according to a NORAD official.

NORAD uses modeling and simulation, crew procedures, plus command and control systems to detect and counter these threats. In what might be described as advanced training or dress rehearsals for an actual threat operation, NORAD routinely participates in numerous exercises throughout North America, which can include various military branches, communities and government entities, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), among others.

NORAD routinely conducts exercises using a variety of scenarios, including hijackings, airspace restriction violations and responding to unknown aircraft entering US or Canadian airspace. “This training offers a valuable opportunity to practice a critical skill for the defense of the homelands,” said General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, Commander NORAD and US Northern Command. “Working with our other combatant commands enhances our collaborative efforts to function as a global force with a unified purpose – to deter, detect and, if necessary, defeat any threat to North America.”

On April 2 this year, NORAD conducted exercises in the greater Miami, Florida area, flying NORAD F15 fighter jets and civilian aircraft. The exercise was conducted to test responses, systems and equipment related to protecting the homeland.

In mid-March, NORAD and the US Northern Command conducted “Vigilant Shield,” a semi-annual command and control battle staff exercise created to train US and Canadian forces and assess joint operational readiness across all of NORAD and USNORTHCOM’s mission areas.

In May, NORAD successfully simulated an aircraft intercept over Canadian airspace. Royal Canadian Air Force CF18 fighter aircraft intercepted a B52 long-range bomber which was acting as the enemy, as the bomber crossed into airspace over the province of Alberta.

NORAD conducted air defense exercise “Falcon Virgo” in June over the Washington DC metropolitan area using US Air Force F16s and a US Coast Guard MH65D Dolphin helicopter and Civil Air Patrol Cessna 182T aircraft.

NORAD “must balance the need to periodically train across numerous potential scenarios with the sustained operational tempo our crews experience already,” according to a statement from NORAD.

These exercises are necessary and can be timely. For example, from May 20-22, NORAD was involved in three successive real-world intercepts. On May 21, two F22 fighter jets, along with an E3 Airborne Early Warning and Control System aircraft, intercepted two Russian Tu95 bombers and two Su35 fighter jets entering the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The bombers and the Su35s departed, then re-entered the Alaska ADIZ. NORAD dispatched two additional F22s and E3 to relieve the other aircraft. The Russian aircraft remained in international airspace and at no time entered US or Canadian sovereign airspace.

NORAD has intercepted an average of six Russian sorties entering its ADIZ annually since that country resumed long-range aviation patrols in 2007.  

5G & 6G = Quicker Threat Response

NORAD protects US and Canadian airspace by employing a network of radars, satellites, information technology (IT), fighter and transport category aircraft to “identify and determine the appropriate response.” Like other military commands, NORAD is in the process of utilizing new technology to help fulfill its mission.

Adopting fifth-generation (5G) and the faster, not-yet defined 6G high-speed wireless technology to enhance data transfer could help accelerate NORAD’s defense against air threats. Cost and availability of next-generation speeds are an ongoing concern of the US Department of Defense (DoD). Yet, the swiftness of data transfer is important to homeland defenders, particularly when one considers the lightening rate at which transcontinental and transoceanic-capable missiles travel.

A guide to using 5G and 6G wireless technologies, and what it would mean in protecting North America, is being developed by the US government, as is a cost-benefit analysis. Said Bonnet: “At this point, we’re at the nascent stage in the 5G realm.” If and when 6G becomes viable, the technology will likely contain “terahertz-frequency networks and spatial multiplexing,” commented Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, at a wireless industry conference.

If NORAD adopts 5G, it would likely include an in-depth training component. Training young, inexperienced enlisted and officers to operate new technology to protect North America doesn’t seem to faze Bonnet. In fact, being young can be an advantage. “They grew up in a digital age,” he said. “Their ability to manipulate data with their thumbs and send it quickly is eye-watering.”

This shift toward an all-digital age has helped revolutionize how the Command delivers training in a very distributed way. Regardless of past academic excellence, NORAD wants fast learners, who are used to IT and distributed training, concluded Bonnet.

Originally published in Issue 4/5, 2019 of MS&T Magazine.