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International cooperation

PM and President

DFAIT Photo by Dave Chan-PMO

On 1 December 2004, Prime Minister Paul Martin and United States President George Bush greet the masses at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Canada-US Defence Cooperation:
Where to from here?

Building on strengths, understanding each other, expanding horizons

by Lieutenant-General (ret’d) George Macdonald

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NORAD crest Canada and NORAD – A Bilateral Success Story

For almost 50 years, the foundation of the Canada-US defence relationship has been NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defence Command. It has evolved from inception in 1957 as a response to the Soviet Cold War bomber threat to a sophisticated partnership dealing with a range of threats from airline hijacking to warning of ballistic missile attack to the monitoring of space-based assets. As the threat has changed and evolved over the years, so has NORAD, quietly adjusting to the world situation and generally being taken for granted by the citizens of both Canada and the United States. Arguably, NORAD has been the most successful military alliance ever, in that it constitutes the integration of bi-national resources and people to accomplish a common mission. As equal partners, Canadians and Americans work side by side to provide the aerospace warning and control necessary to our common defence and independent sovereignty.

For many years, whenever Canadians have been polled to assess their support for the NORAD partnership, some 70 per cent to 80 per cent have consistently responded positively. Canadians recognize the benefits of NORAD, especially as they become more knowledgeable about this alliance. Even for those less familiar, the events of 11 September 2001 brought NORAD operations to everyone’s attention. Although the lead time provided for alerting fighters to respond was inadequate on that particular day due to the unexpected source and nature of the threat, NORAD was instrumental in asserting airspace control in the hours and days that followed. Work began almost immediately to expand the NORAD area of responsibility to include threats that originate domestically. Now, some three and one-half years later, NORAD has an extensive capability to monitor the thousands of daily aircraft movements that occur within, between and through our two countries. However, it has also regressed to its usual posture of being taken for granted, only recently returning to public view in the context of the high profile media coverage of the ballistic missile defence issue.

In Canada, the BMD debate, or lack thereof, has been characterized by a widespread misunderstanding of the real issues. Many of the public statements made on this subject have been sensationalized well beyond reason.1 Interestingly, media coverage since the 24 February 2005 announcement by Prime Minister Martin2 has become more focused on the downside elements of Canada’s decision not to participate. The government has been accused of reneging after 65 years of participating in defence cooperation and of becoming a ‘free rider’ in BMD.3 This free rider status is seen to apply to Canada in two ways, morally and substantively. Morally, Canada has purportedly given up its sovereign responsibility to defend itself against ballistic missiles, while substantively, it is argued that Canada will now be dependent upon the US to provide that defence at US discretion and on US terms. Participation in BMD was an opportunity to strengthen NORAD cooperation and would have been consistent with the traditional mission carried out by the partnership. For an air-breathing threat, such as an airliner or a bomber, the capability already exists to detect, intercept, assess and, if necessary, engage using NORAD resources. However, in the case of a ballistic missile threat, the extent of capability has been to simply detect, assess and provide warning. The imminent addition of an ability to defend against a ballistic missile will complete the spectrum for this threat and would have been a natural extension for NORAD, given its involvement in the “detect, assess and warn” portion of the mission. While the decision not to participate is supported by a majority of Canadians, we should not be surprised if the United States finds our position puzzling or if they wonder how committed we are to NORAD and mutual aerospace defence.

Ships on exercise

DND photo IS2005-0057 by Sergeant Alain Martineau, DGPA/J5PA Combat Camera

On 24 May 2005, an American Sea Hawk helicopter flies over a formation of Canadian and American ships on exercise off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The USS McClusky sails in the foreground, with the USS Shoup (right), HMCS Protecteur (center) and the Tanu of the Canadian Coast Guard. This exercise, called Trident Fury, is aimed at advancing Canada’s ability to respond to offshore threats and unlawful acts from within a coalition environment.

Uncertainty in a New Security Environment – Understanding Perspectives

We should also appreciate that differences in perception have developed elsewhere within the realm of Canadian-American security. During the past few years of the ‘new security environment,’ the terrorist threat that was manifested in the attacks on 11 September has diminished in the eyes of most Canadians. In recent polling, international terrorism was rated third among threats by Canadians at 49 per cent. Potential epidemics (AIDS, Ebola) were considered to constitute the most serious threat (60 per cent) with global warming (52 per cent) in second place. Conversely, 75 per cent of Americans considered terrorism to be their greatest threat well beyond all others.4 This potential threat is taken very seriously and is manifested every day in various NORAD activities, where the US routinely launches fighters to provide air cover at major events, such as the 2004 conventions of the two major political parties. In the recently released National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, its Executive Summary states: “America is a nation at war. We face a diverse set of security challenges... We will give top priority to dissuading, deterring and defeating those who seek to harm the United States directly, especially extremist enemies with weapons of mass destruction.”5

For right or for wrong, Canadians clearly are of a different mindset. “It might have been reasonable to assume also that the events of 11 September 2001 would have sensitized all Canadians to growing insecurity at home,” the report states. “Nevertheless, a very large percentage of Canadians continue to believe they live in a fireproof house.”6 Whatever our specific views of and reactions to our own security concerns, we must acknowledge the differences between the views of our two nations. Simply insisting that we Canadians are right and the Americans have overblown the terrorist threat is not a productive approach, even if we wish to act in our own self-interest.

This all raises some serious questions about the state of the bilateral defence relationship, especially from an American perspective. Will the BMD decision impact the quality of the NORAD experience and the close military-to-military relationship we have thus far enjoyed? Will this impact extend beyond defence cooperation to other areas? More pointedly, can Canada be taken seriously and be trusted when, after a long period of detailed BMD discussions, the expected decision was reversed at the last minute? Will NORAD survive in this environment?

These questions arise just at a point when preparations to renegotiate the NORAD Agreement are underway. The agreement has generally been renewed for five-year periods, sometimes as a simple extension of the terms. It is anticipated that teams from Canada and the United States will engage later this spring or early summer with a view to discussing what changes should be made in the agreement currently due for renewal by 12 May 2006. This raises a number of questions.

The Americans might well ask if Canada is prepared to participate in open, frank and genuine discussion. Some interesting insight was revealed in the views expressed in a recent article in the Colorado Springs Gazette:

“In the upcoming negotiations, NORAD grows or dies. Those are its two options,” said Brett Lambert, a national security expert with defense contractor DFI International in Washington, D.C. “If NORAD doesn’t respond to meet the post-9/11 challenges... the concept of NORAD will begin to wither on the vine. That would be a tremendous loss to both countries.”

Although the United States would continue the NORAD mission, “...We need Canadian cooperation to protect our own borders,” Lambert said. “Hopefully this is a bump in the road and not a dead end.”7

Importantly, the same article also quoted the recently retired Commander of NORAD, General Ed Eberhart: “We need to be very careful before we walk away from this relationship and understand what the ramifications are.”8

Another positive view was expressed by Michael O’Hanlon, with the Brookings Institution:

“I have to believe that Canadian and American leaders are smart enough to de-escalate this thing,” he said, referring to Canada’s [BMD] decision. “I would be very surprised if this leads to a long-term problem with NORAD.”

He said, though, that pact renewal talks could suffer a temporary setback.9

CF 18

DND photo ISD01-6869 Sergeant Dennis Mah, DGPA/J5PA Combat Camera

This CF-18 Hornet is on operational deployment after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Canadians will wonder if the federal budget increase for Defence announced on 23 February 200510 will create a positive environment that reinforces Canada’s commitment to continental defence and security. Certainly the extensive increase to the defence budget can be argued to be recognition by Canada that more resources are needed for the military, notwithstanding differences that have occurred in the recent past about how to employ our armed forces.

Overall, however, there is considerable uncertainty surrounding the NORAD renewal. Canada can take positive action to alleviate this uncertainty. Canada can assume a leadership role by proactively taking the initiative to address the drift that has occurred in our bilateral relationship. It is in our interests to do so.

An Opportunity

Despite any negative sentiments that may exist, formal discussions between Canada and the US on defence cooperation present several opportunities. A purposeful, enthusiastic approach by Canada could set NORAD discussions off on the right foot and could achieve some relatively significant results. The strategic direction intended has, in fact, already been stated by the Prime Minister and the President during the latter’s visit to Canada in November 2004. They jointly declared that we “...will work to ensure the coherence and effectiveness of our North American security arrangements by ...working towards renewing the NORAD agreement and investigating opportunities for greater cooperation on North American surveillance and maritime defence.”11

We should seize this opportunity and actively engage our NORAD partners to achieve as positive a result as possible. It is not in our mutual defence interest to simply extend the current NORAD Agreement. Such a ‘sub-optimal’ result would simply not acknowledge changes that have occurred since 9/11. Neither would it respond to the direction of the Prime Minister and the President, or the recommendations of the Binational Planning Group, established in December 2002.12 Indeed, in the recently released DND 2005/2006 Report on Plans and Priorities, it states that:

“DND will continue to explore options for enhanced co-operation with the US on continental defence. In partnership with Foreign Affairs Canada, DND will engage the US in discussions to renew the NORAD agreement, which expires in May 2006. In the meantime, the CF will continue working with the US Northern Command through the Bi-National Planning Group. The group’s mandate to foster co-operation in dealing with maritime and land-based threats to the continent has been extended until May 2006.”13

This is further bolstered by the Defence Policy Statement released on 19 April 2005 that reiterates Canada’s commitment to enhanced North American defence cooperation and endorses the work of the Binational Planning Group. It states that Canada will extensively examine maritime security, to include the ability to respond, and to develop “military-to-military arrangements for the support of civilian authorities during crises and emergencies.”14

We need an expanded defence arrangement and now is the time to put such an arrangement in place. Canada should accept that it is in our national interest to recognize the significance of US security concerns. If the Canada-US border is shut down, for example, in the wake of another major terrorist attack, Canada would suffer disproportionate consequences. The impact on Canada’s economy through restricted movement of people and goods would be far greater than that upon the United States. After 9/11, “...while both countries suffered from the sudden border security crackdown, the costs of such disruptions are much higher for Canada than for the United States. While about 25 per cent of US trade goes to Canada, 87 per cent of Canada’s trade is US-bound. Even more importantly, foreign trade represents a much greater percentage of the Canadian economy than it does of the American economy. Forty per cent of Canada’s GDP is tied to exports to the United States, while only 2.5 per cent of US GDP is tied to exports to Canada.”15

We must accept the reality that we have a lot more to lose in such a circumstance and we should be prepared to deal with this reality accordingly. It is fundamentally important that we recognize the depth of American security concerns, the potential consequences for Canadians, and the need to take steps to pre-emptively mitigate these consequences to whatever degree possible. Increased defence and security cooperation should address these issues.

It is important to note that this does not compel us to agree with everything American regarding security. Taking steps to protect Canadian interests, our economy in this example, does not mean that we are being co-opted by American fears regarding security. It simply means that we recognize those fears and the possible impact on Canada, and that we are willing to act to minimize being ‘side-swiped’ by any actions taken by the Americans.

In the first instance, Canada should use the occasion of the NORAD discussions to carry out any necessary repairs to the bilateral defence relationship. Canada could take the lead by indicating a positive disposition to the talks and an active readiness to explore mutually beneficial improvements. Further, Canada could be a proponent for the expansion from what is now a predominantly aerospace defence relationship to one that addresses topical concerns more completely.

New Domains for Bilateral Cooperation

Maritime Capabilities

The expansion being considered would enhance formal cooperation to achieve greater maritime security. This includes the sharing of intelligence and information, the creation of a common maritime ‘situational awareness’, agreement on contingency plans, the exercising of coordinated operations, and the actual prosecution of vessels of interest. The confirmation of a formal mandate in this instance would address an area of potential vulnerability and would result in a maritime version of the air control now being conducted within NORAD. This would provide us the ability to detect, assess and intercept maritime vessels of interest, albeit at a much slower pace than in an aerospace environment.

Simply put, cooperation would enable both countries to share the same ‘sea traffic control’ picture to know which vessels are approaching North America or operating in waters off our coasts. If an approaching ship has failed to provide the proper notification of its arrival, or if there are irregularities or concerns raised by a shared intelligence network, consideration could then be given as to what action is warranted. If it is determined appropriate to intercept the vessel, a Canadian or American ship could be asked to do so, depending on availability of resources and proximity to the vessel of interest. This interception could be accomplished by a Canadian ship, even if the vessel is bound for an American port, and vice-versa. If the vessel were to enter US territorial waters with a Canadian ship monitoring it, agreement could be established on how to ensure that surveillance is not interrupted.

All these procedures are currently in place with NORAD for airborne tracks of interest, as established by bilateral agreement. They are fully documented in common plans and exercised to ensure they actually work. Rules of engagement may differ between the two countries but each respects those of the other. This is the result of a deeply integrated command and control structure and long experience in dealing with almost every conceivable situation. We can exploit this experience by applying the common elements to the maritime environment.

Land Force Capabilities

Another opportunity for cooperation involves the employment of land forces in response to a terrorist attack. In addition to having the resources to secure an affected area, they can assist the first responders by providing unique capabilities, such as nuclear, bacteriological and chemical response teams.16 If such a horrific large-scale attack were to ever occur, the demand for assistance would almost certainly outstrip supply. The military provides a ready source of manpower and expertise to help maintain order and to provide assistance to first responders. Although the military are not, and should never be, the first responders in such an instance, as a national resource they should always be prepared to respond when needed.

Given that the site of an attack on our nation would most likely be where the majority of Canadians live near the Canada-US border – there may well be US forces who could also respond. Canada and the United States could agree to cross-border operations where the forces of one country would be given permission to enter the other, if requested. This could obviously be a reciprocal arrangement where Canadian forces could, for example, deploy to Detroit, if needed. The provision of this form of assistance is clearly in our interests. The impact upon Canadians of such an attack either directly or indirectly, such as through the loss of power supply, the damage to US industry, the destruction of transportation infrastructure, and so on, makes such an event very much a bi-national issue.

Two generals

NORAD photo by Sgt Lawrence Holmes

General Hillier and Lieutnant-General Rick Findley, NORAD deputy commander, in front of the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center. A ribbon cutting ceremony was held on 4 March 2005 to commemorate the official opening of the “new command center” in Colorado Springs.

A side benefit from such an arrangement for land forces is that it could apply equally to response to a natural disaster. The effects of a major attack and a naturally occurring event demand a similar type of response. Agreement to this expanded bilateral cooperation would put in place the wherewithal to increase readiness through the identification of resources, contingency planning and exercises. Even if the specific effects of such an event cannot be known in advance, there are many common elements to the mounting, organization and management of a response that can be established and practised in advance.

Cyberspace Capabilities

Other areas for expanded cooperation might include collaboration in response to threats from or through cyberspace. Protection of this critical infrastructure, which is so interconnected between Canada and the United States, is essential. Exploration of better ways to share intelligence and respond to incidents cooperatively would enhance our mutual security. Some cooperation already exists in this area, but the ubiquitous nature of this evolving technology demands a rigorous assessment of areas in which improvements can be made. After all, the impact of a sophisticated disabling attack through cyberspace can be as debilitating as an actual physical attack upon sovereign territory.

Expanding NORAD

At first glance, NORAD is the obvious structure in which to expand our defence and security cooperation. We already have an integrated command and control arrangement within which we can share information and staff plans, and coordinate execution of any agreed upon action. We have a long history of doing this effectively and efficiently in aerospace and could simply extend this activity to other areas. We can build on the strengths of our relationship over almost five decades.

Having said this, we should not become overly focused on being compelled to do this within NORAD. The Honourable Bill Graham, Minister of National Defence, recently said in testimony to the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans’ Affairs (SCONDVA) that “[we] believe that it is an appropriate time to consider the possibility of expanding our current defence co-operation to include maritime and land-based elements... It is unclear at this time whether these issues are best tackled within a renewed NORAD or through some other forum. But Canada is committed to exploring new and innovative ways to work with the United States in defence of our common continent.”17 From south of the border, Baker Spring, a defence analyst with The Heritage Foundation, recently said “...missile defense will advance despite Canada’s cold feet. So will NORAD, though it may not be the vehicle for maritime and land security cooperation... Do you want an organizational structure that’s identical in all three deals? Or do you have something that’s more custom-made for maritime and land?”18 Even the current Commander of NORAD (and Northern Command), Admiral Timothy Keating, has some reservations about an expanded NORAD in some of his recent comments: “[A] ...maritime NORAD is a nice concept, but we think that it would be unnecessarily restrictive... We want to be able to work with other partners, principally Mexico... That is not to say we would discount Canada’s participation in a maritime group that had a wider membership than the two nations of the current NORAD command.”19 Indeed, we need to be prepared to see NORAD and bilateral cooperation with ‘new eyes’. While NORAD is currently limited to US cooperation with Canada for reasons of compatibility of defence requirements, interests and technology, the need to consider whether a broader partnership should be incorporated into our thinking.

There may be other constructs where we can apply our NORAD experience equally effectively. The main objective should be to ensure that we collaborate productively and capably in this effort. If there are some other arrangements that might serve us as well as or better than NORAD, we should not hesitate to examine alternatives. Direct cooperation with Northern Command may be a viable option, due to that command’s expanded role and affiliation with US security stakeholders.

An ongoing evaluation of the command structure that best suits Canada as an operational theatre will come into play here. Speaking at the annual meeting of the Conference of Defence Associations in early March 2005, the new Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hiller, stated: “Canada and Canadians ...are at more risk now of direct attack than they have ever been during the Cold War itself. ... We’ve got to start treating Canada as an operational theatre if we’re going to have a command and control structure that allows us to be responsive.”20 There may evolve a more focused ability to deal with domestic defence concerns and a headquarters structure, either real or virtual, to go with it. This may present some new possibilities for bilateral cooperation in responding to the needs of the North American theatre.

Furthermore, connectivity with this new ‘homeland defence’ command may allow security cooperation to springboard beyond a defence context and into a broader linking of government agencies and departments on both sides of the border. We need to be constantly cognizant of the fact that defence is really just part of national security, and it should include the security of all aspects of our population, infrastructure, utilities, information, environment, energy supply, water resources, and so on. Military forces can contribute to national security and they must recognize the need to network with other departments, agencies and levels of government accordingly. As we all know, national security has become an increasingly complex undertaking, especially since 9/11.

The Way Ahead

Overall, the current circumstances present an opportunity for Canada and the United States to work together for mutual security by actively addressing “expanded NORAD” options. Even then, establishing agreement with respect to what we should do will only constitute a beginning. We will then need to put in place the arrangements to bring about better security and crisis response. This will involve more commitment than resources. Much of what is proposed relates to the effective employment of existing resources, with some added connectivity for information sharing. Most of the military capabilities needed already exist their employment is mostly a matter of prioritizing their mission.

By entering the NORAD negotiations aggressively and with a receptiveness to mission expansion, Canada can take the initiative to move forward positively in the bilateral defence relationship. Negotiations should be undertaken with a view to the strategic perspective of seeking to take the partnership to a new level. Throughout, it is important to recognize that an expansion of NORAD per se may not be the best means to effect the arrangement. That is, an agreement that primarily engages Northern Command, as opposed to a direct expansion of the NORAD mission, might be more appropriate. Whatever the specifics, the aim should be to put in place the structure that best meets the needs of both countries.

Canada-US security requirements remain in need of attention, especially during a period of somewhat fragile relations between our two countries. Canada can take the initiative by forthrightly indicating a desire to expand the partnership into additional domains. This would send a positive signal to the Americans and provide increased attention and momentum to our mutual security needs.

CMJ Logo

George Macdonald, now a defence and security consultant, served 38 years in the Canadian Forces. His many senior leadership positions included tours as Deputy Commander-in-Chief of NORAD and, ultimately, as Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.


  1. The direct allegation that the system was the reinvention of the Reagan era “Star Wars” program was a repeatedly stated misrepresentation of even the most basic facts of the initiative. Another example is contained in Resolution 43 “Canada’s Participation I the United States Ballistic Missile Defence System” by the Quebec Wing of the Liberal Party of Canada at the 2005 Biennial Convention 3-6 March 2005: “Whereas the BMDS is a unilateral initiative of the United States that no other major country supports” In fact, the UK and Australia are active partners in ballistic missile defence with the United States.
  2. CTV.ca News Staff, “Canada says to missile defence: Martin”, 24 February 2005, 2:53 PM Eastern Time.
  3. Sheldon Alberts, “‘Whimpering no’ further sullies our image. ‘It’s Iraq all over again’ analysts say; others predict renewal of tensions”; The Ottawa Citizen, 25 February 2005
  4. Innovative Research Group, Inc; “Visions of Canadian Foreign Policy Conference Report, 4 November 2004, p. 24.
  5. US Department of Defense; National Defense Strategy of the United States of America; 1 March 2005, p. iv.
  6. Sarah Noble, “Understanding the Crisis in Canadian Security and Defence,” a collection essays published by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, March 2005, p. 13.
  7. Pam Zubeck, “NORAD At Turning Point In Mission – Snags in post-9/11 defense may hurt chances of survival”, The Colorado Springs Gazette; 28 March 2005, p. 1.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. The Federal Budget tabled on 23 February 2005 included $12.8 billion in additional funding for defence to address sustainment needs, an increase of 5000 Regular and 3000 Reserve Force personnel, and the need for new, updated equipment. Part of this was earmarked spending pending release of a defence policy statement.
  11. Prime Minister Martin and President Bush, “Joint statement by Canada and the United States on common security, common prosperity: A new partnership in North America”, 30 November 2004, Ottawa, Ontario.
  12. Canada-US Binational Planning Group, “Interim Report on Canada and the United States (CANUS) Enhanced Military Cooperation”, 13 October 2004, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, pp. 77-78.
  13. Department of National Defence, 2005-2006 Report on Plans and Priorities, Canada–United States initiatives, p. 54.
  14. Government of Canada, Canada’s International Policy Statement. A Role of Pride and Influence in the World: Defence, 19 April 2005, p.22
  15. Peter Andreas, “The Mexicanization of the US-Canada Border: Asymmetric Interdependence in a Changing Security Context” in US-Canada Relations (unpublished), The American Assembly, Columbia University, February 2005.
  16. It is acknowledged that these functions are not exclusively the domain of the army. The term ‘land forces’ is used here because the kinds of assistance provided is most closely associated with land forces. Providing the security of an area or new militia responsibilities related to ‘homeland’ security are examples of this type of support.
  17. Bruce Campion-Smith, “Graham floats NORAD idea, Suggests agency take on coast patrols, Aims to boost security ties with US”, The Toronto Star; 6 April 2005.
  18. Quoted in Zubeck, p. 1.
  19. Vince Crawley, “US NorthCom Leader Balks at Maritime NORAD”, DefenseNews.com, posted 04/04/05 10:52 at http://www.defensenews.com/channel.php?C=america.
  20. Fraser, Graham, “Forget ‘the Bear’ now, it’s ‘snakes’ Top general says military still focused on Russia but terrorists, criminals new security threat”, The Toronto Star, 19 March 2005. General Hillier has formed three senior teams to evaluate CF issues, one of which is mandated to assess what domestic command and control and headquarters construct will best serve Canada in the future.
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