Built at the height of the Cold War, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) collects all data and information concerning air activity in North America. Currently located near the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport on Peterson Air Force Base, NORAD houses a command center to monitor all airspace activity occurring over the continent. Led by Canadian and US Air Force officers, NORAD watches over the eastern and western Continental NORAD Region (CONR)—comprising the eastern and western United States—along with the eastern and western Canadian NORAD Region (CANR) and the Alaskan NORAD Region (ANR).
Inside the NORAD headquarters, a simple banner reading “We Have the Watch” hangs above the control room computers. Expressing exactly what NORAD does in a few words, this phrase reminds the analysts, technicians, and military strategists of their purpose: protection through unwavering vigilance. NORAD constantly tracks all planes in the North American airspace and screens all communications to ensure that air traffic throughout North America is flowing properly and functioning safely.
Proposed in 1956, NORAD was originally established in 1958 at Ent Air Force Base south of Colorado Springs. Ent Air Force Base was closed in the 1970s, several years after NORAD moved in 1968 to its present location at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. Just west of NORAD lies Cheyenne Mountain, which houses the Cheyenne Mountain nuclear bunker. Built inside the mountain itself, the bunker contains provisions and supplies, including 1.8 million gallons of drinking water along with 5.1 acres of space to accommodate equipment and people. The bunker also holds auxiliary computers for NORAD so that NORAD can continue operations from within Cheyenne Mountain in case of a nuclear attack.
Throughout its history, NORAD has had several false alarms, two of which caused a scare across the United States and caught the attention of the USSR. The first false alarm issued on November 9, 1979, was caused by an inadvertent insertion of a realistic training tape into NORAD’s early warning system showing the United States under a large-scale nuclear attack. One year later, on June 3, 1980, NORAD’s early warning system raised another false alarm; caused by a single faulty computer chip; this alarm also signaled a large nuclear attack targeting the central command centers in the United States. As a result, Pacific Military Command scrambled planes with nuclear payloads, informed nuclear missile silos to prepare their intercontinental ballistic missiles for launch, and readied the president’s “doomsday” plane. Crisis was averted when, in both cases, data from defense satellites confirmed that no missiles were actually heading toward the United States. The Eastern Military Command was able to determine that these alarms were falsely triggered and therefore did not mobilize their nuclear battalion. After back-to-back false alarms, NORAD updated its communication systems to prevent further errors.
A lighter side to NORAD’s otherwise serious responsibility to alert the country of an air attack is its monitoring of Santa Claus’s flight on Christmas Eve. The tradition began on accident when in December 1955 the “red phone,” the secret hotline to be used in case of a nuclear attack, rang. Colonel Harry Shoup answered the phone only to be asked if Santa Claus was there, to which Shoup responded angrily, thinking the caller was a prankster. When more and more children called the hotline asking for Santa, Shoup realized that a newspaper ad for Sears, Roebuck & Company had misprinted Santa’s contact information, so he assigned a couple of airmen to man the phone and act like Santa. Shoup and NORAD staff embraced the mistake, and now, sixty years later, NORAD has a digital Santa tracker and an official Santa tracker hotline.
Since its foundation, along with the technological development of increasingly sophisticated computers and satellites, NORAD has increasingly taken on responsibilities and has become more and more essential. From tracking small aircraft entering and exiting the United States as part of the fight against drug smuggling, to warning of a possible attack against the United States or its allies, NORAD protects us all. In the heart of Colorado, NORAD employees works day and night, never forgetting that they not only have the watch—they are the watch.