Review Of NORAD’s Procedures, Mission Demanded From Senate

The Senate Armed Services Committee has called for a review of “aerospace warning and control mission and procedures” as handled by North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). This command employs a layered defense network that includes radars, satellites, and fighter aircraft in both the United States and Canada to identify aircraft and other aerial objects and determine the appropriate response.

The development is especially noteworthy bearing in mind the well-known issues regarding so-called unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs as well as the incidents earlier this year in which U.S. fighter jets had to shoot down a total of four high-flying aerial objects in American and Canadian airspace, including one identified as a Chinese government surveillance balloon.

U.S. Navy personnel prepare to move portions of a Chinese surveillance balloon that were recovered off the coast of South Carolina after being shot down on February 4, 2023 and then carried ashore by a Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercraft. U.S. Navy

The requirement for a review is outlined in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report on the Fiscal Year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act. The review itself is to be conducted by the Comptroller General, which heads up the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a Congressional watchdog that provides the legislative branch with auditing, evaluative, and investigative services.

The committee wants the Comptroller General to provide a preliminary briefing to the relevant Congress committees by January 15, 2024, with a final report due “in a mutually agreed upon format and timeframe.”

In particular, the committee demands an assessment of NORAD procedures to “manage command and control systems to determine the capacity for dealing with multiple airspace incursions of unknown or hostile aircraft” and “deal with incursions into airspace over military installations, and coordination and information sharing, both in near-real time and after the fact, between military installations regarding airspace incursions of all types.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s report includes the following potted history of NORAD and highlights some of the more recent kinds of threats that it now faces, including the aforementioned Chinese surveillance balloons:

“The United States and Canada have operated the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to protect North America from airborne threats for 65 years. Over time, those threats have evolved from Soviet strategic bombers outside our airspace to terrorist threats inside that airspace. In the last decade, the airborne threats posed by a resurgent Russia and an increasingly aggressive China have further evolved in number and technological complexity. Whether from traditional aircraft or novel systems, such as the recent experience with high-altitude surveillance balloons, the threats pose challenges to NORAD’s ability to detect and respond effectively. The committee needs a better understanding of the NORAD operating situation.”

The committee report then breaks down its requirements into key areas that it demands the Comptroller General look into in more depth.

The first points of inquiry cover traditional NORAD missions, namely how the command intercepts known adversary aircraft approaching or entering U.S. airspace, and also such aircraft if they are first detected within U.S. airspace.

The next point refers to another threat scenario that NORAD has faced since it was established in the Cold War: dealing with simultaneous incursions into U.S. airspace by hostile aircraft in geographically separated locations. Further to this, the report also needs to address the capacity of existing command and control systems to cope with multiple airspace incursions of unknown or hostile aircraft.

A North American Aerospace Defense Command F-22A Raptor flies next to a Russian Tu-95MS Bear-H strategic bomber during an intercept in the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone, June 16, 2020. NORAD

Once aerial threats are detected, NORAD may also have to proceed to interrogate, identify, and interact with them — and potentially engage them, too. The report also needs to address NORAD’s ability to do these things, including procedures for authorizing engagements and how it delegates engagement authority to various levels of command, and also how it transfers responsibility for aircraft of interest to other geographic combatant commands if required.

At this point, the Senate Armed Services Committee expands the criteria for aerial threats beyond just unknown or hostile aircraft to include “air vehicles with low-closure rate, such as helicopters, small drones, and high-altitude balloons.” This indicates a particular interest in the kinds of aerial platforms other than the crewed long-range bombers, surveillance, and patrol aircraft, and accompanying escort fighters that NORAD has traditionally responded to.

Members of the FBI process some of the remains of the Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down on February 4, 2023, off the coast of South Carolina. FBI

Particularly noteworthy also is the demand that the Comptroller General evaluate NORAD’s capacity to deal with airspace incursions “over military installations,” as well as coordination and information sharing between such military installations. The potential vulnerability of U.S. military bases is an issue that has come up repeatedly in the recent past and is a theme that The War Zone has also explored in depth.

As noted, the timing of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s call for a review of airspace defense is interesting.

Earlier this year, we looked at how a new U.S. government team was being set up specifically to help examine the policy implications stemming from increased scrutiny of aerial activity over and around North America. That group’s stated objective is “to study the broader policy implications for detection, analysis, and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks.”

As well as the spate of high-flying aerial objects shot down in American and Canadian airspace in a two-week period earlier this year, there is a broader concern about the ability, or lack of it, to address so-called unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), things that have been more commonly referred to in the past as unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

Other bodies have been set up to investigate similar issues, too. These include the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ONDI) National Intelligence Manager for Aviation (NIM-A). AARO was established in 2022 to provide a more centralized entity focused on investigating incidents involving UAP, while NIM-A serves as a focal point for intelligence about all manner of aerial threats within the U.S. Intelligence Community.

While much about UAP remains mysterious, at least outside of the Intelligence Community, a report from AARO and NIM-A earlier this year indicated that 163 newly cataloged incidents in 2022 were assessed to be balloons or balloon-like.

The possibility that reality that some UAP sightings are in fact foreign intelligence-gathering or surveillance assets is something that The War Zone has posited for some time now. And those efforts are being conflated with more ‘exotic’ UAP and the stigma that has gone with it. You can read our full 2021 exposé here.

In the wake of the incidents involving high-flying aerial objects earlier this year, we know that NORAD made some changes to how it collects data, something U.S. officials disclosed at the time.

Indeed, it’s meanwhile certain that adjustments made to NORAD surveillance radars have only increased the amount of data — including potential aerial threats — that now need to be processed.

An unclassified map showing various NORAD air defense nodes in the contiguous United States. The Green circles, specifically, are bases that host U.S. Air Force fighter jets, including those assigned to Air National Guard units, that are tasked with the homeland defense mission. DOD

As The War Zone wrote at the time, “The fact that changing the filter ‘gates’ on radars in North America has turned up an apparently substantial amount of ‘new’ activity certainly raises questions about how many things akin to China’s high-altitude surveillance program have gone effectively ignored for decades and what broader risks that reality might present.”

Clearly, concerning objects of various types are flying over North America on what seems to be at least a somewhat regular basis. This is in spite of repeated assurances from the Pentagon and the various services that they are taking the matter of UAPs more seriously in terms of its national security implications. The UAP issue has now reached new levels of government scrutiny as hearings on the matter will occur next week and bipartisan legislation to declassify government-held information on the topic is now moving forward. This also comes as a highly-experienced intelligence official turned whistleblower, David Grusch, claims the U.S. government is secretly in possession of alien craft.

It’s also worth noting that the threat of cruise missiles and long-range drones has been on the rise. Both threats are hard to detect and counter. NORAD has been wrestling with these issues for some time now and truly confronting them could be a very expensive affair. You can read more about this issue here.

As the first line of both detection and defense against these kinds of aerial objects, it’s only logical that NORAD’s ability to deal with them is under scrutiny at this point. It will be hoped that the Government Accountability Office report will shed more light on the command’s capabilities in this respect, but also that it might help provide a clearer understanding of the nature of the threat picture that currently exists over the United States and Canada, as well as the ability to realistic defend against those threats.

Contact the author:

Thomas Newdick Avatar

Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.