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Norad ready for doomsday

One of the most terrifying visions of the Cold War was the spectre of Soviet bombers and nuclear missiles crossing the Arctic toward North America. To protect the continent, Canada and the United States created Norad, the North American Aerospace Defense Command: a vast array of electronic eyes forever sweeping over the continent. But the world changed since the 1950s, and Norad shifted focus to monitor drug trafficking and terrorism. Yet critics call the organization an expensive monument to the Cold War, and a first step on the slippery slope to weapons in space.

media clip
Deep inside Norad's underground complex near North Bay, Ont., Air Vice-Marshal James B. Harvey and USAF Brigadier General Harrison R. Thyng coldly prepare for nuclear Armageddon. In this clip from CBC Television's Across Canada, the two officers demonstrate how Norad would handle a Soviet air assault, from the first blips on the radar screen to the turning of the two keys that launch a missile response. 
. The underground Regional Sector Air Operations Centre in North Bay is buried deep in the Precambrian shield, shielded by rock that is two billion years old. The facility, protected by a 19-ton steel blast door, is the size of a three-storey office building.
. The control room was nicknamed the "blue room" because of the eerie blue light that fills it. It displayed data from the SAGE computer, which at that time was one of the largest computers in the world.

. The Canadian and American officers inside did not have authority to actually launch missiles on their own - that authority would have to come from Ottawa and Washington.
. Norad's commander in chief is appointed by both the Canadian prime minister and the American president. By tradition, the commanding officer is American and the deputy commander is Canadian.

. In 2003, the federal government announced it would shut down the underground complex and replace it with one above ground (which would be significantly cheaper to build and operate). The $141-million modernization project included replacing the computer with a UNIX-based system and installing a new digital communications system.
. War games and simulations like the one shown in this clip were routine at Norad headquarters.

. On Nov. 9, 1979, a false alarm at Norad caused an international uproar. Four different command centres saw incoming Soviet missiles and sounded the alarm. Two Canadian and eight American jet interceptors were scrambled and strategic bombers were readied. Six minutes later, it was discovered that a computer war simulation tape was being played through a Pentagon computer. The timing was bad -- the Iran crisis had begun five days earlier and international tensions were already high.

. Earlier in this broadcast, Thyng was asked if a missile could be accidentally launched, as portrayed in the movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which came out a year earlier. Thyng responded that the United States had nuclear weapons for 20 years without incident, and that double systems of security were in place for both weapons and personnel. "No, we are not going to have a Dr. Strangelove," he told reporters.

• Norad divides North America in three regions:
- Alaskan Norad Region (ANR), headquartered at Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage, Alaska
- Canadian Norad Region (CANR), headquartered in Winnipeg (with the Canadian Air Defence Sector located in North Bay, Ont.)
- Continental U.S. Norad Region (CONR), headquartered at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. This region is further subdivided into the Western, Northeast and Southeast Air Defense Sectors.
Medium: Television
Program: Across Canada
Broadcast Date: May 27, 1965
Guest(s): James Harvey, Harrison Thyng
Duration: 3:49

Last updated: October 23, 2012

Page consulted on November 10, 2014

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