More than two feet high, the red letters flash on the giant screen: “Is North America Under Attack?” About 1,700 feet underground, in a hollowed-out mountain in the Colorado Rockies, the commander-in-chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and his battle staff prepare to answer that question. The command post is NORAD’s operational nerve centre—the heart of the continent’s military defences. From its high-speed computers, deep in the bowels of craggy Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, the first alarms of any enemy attack on North America would issue. Within seconds, using two screens that fill one wall of the command centre, the battle commander would track enemy aircraft approaching the continent, as well as movements of foreign submarines off continental shores and incoming missiles detected by infra-red heatsensing satellites.
In wartime, the NORAD commander would have no more than five minutes to provide warning and assessment to the National Command authorities of Canada and the United States. Said NORAD’s deputy commander, Lt.-Gen. Donald (Pablo) Mackenzie: “We are the eyes and ears of North America, and we will con-
tinue to be until we cease to function.”
Aboveground, an alert of a different kind has already been sounded. The NORAD agreement that has bound Canada and the United States in the joint defence of North America since 1958 is due for five-year renewal by May 12. And even as President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney prepared for this week’s White House summit meeting, a fierce political battle has been joined for the first time in two decades over NORAD’s renewal. At the centre of the controversy: the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (SDl), or Star Wars, and the implications for Canada of its still-nascent technology on the defence of the continent.
Deployment: Until 1981 the agreement contained a clause that ruled out NORAD’s participation in active antiballistic missile (ABM) defence. The 1972 U.S.-Soviet ABM Treaty also prohibits large-scale deployment of defences against ballistic missiles. But when the NORAD agreement was renewed five years ago, the ABM clause was quietly deleted. Now, many politicians and peace activists claim that the deletion set the stage for NORAD’s potential involvement in any future Star Wars deployment. Declared John Lamb, executive director of the Ottawa-based
Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament (CCACD): “If SDl proceeds to deployment, it is difficult to see how NORAD could remain uninvolved.” U.S. officials dismiss the claim. Said Thomas Niles, U.S. ambassador to Ottawa: “There is no malign plot to somehow, through the backdoor of NORAD, involve Canada in SDl.”
Preoccupied: But in the days preceding this week’s Reagan-Mulroney summit, the issue that preoccupied officials on both sides was not the NORAD agreement itself but the wording of a joint communiqué that was expected to be released. Working intensively behind the scenes, Ottawa wanted the communiqué to contain a firm U.S. assurance of its continued commitment to the ABM Treaty. But Washington was balking at any reference to the ABM pact. Said one Canadian government source: “They’re playing hardball. I would say we’re eyeball to eyeball, waiting for the other one to blink.” At week’s end, the dispute threatened to create a minor diplomatic furore, in which the summit would end ; without any communiqué being issued.
The most sophisticated military command in the Western world, NORAD’s ; Cheyenne Mountain complex was set up j in 1966 under joint Canadian-U.S. command. Its initial mission: to warn
against any attack by Soviet-manned nuclear bombers. The computer-packed bunker—15 interconnected office buildings sitting on giant shock absorbers inside the mountain—was gouged out of 693,000 tons of granite and designed to withstand a direct bomb blast. Within 45 seconds the fortress can be “buttoned up” for 30 days by 25-ton steel doors. But in the event of a nuclear conflict, the complex’s lifetime would likely be a matter of minutes, as Soviet missiles converged on the mountain. In that case, says Cmdr. Mackenzie, “we would attempt to hand over control to any survivable asset.”
The centre’s vulnerability underlines the changing nature of the Soviet mili-
tary threat. In the early 1960s NORAD’s early warning systems and interceptor aircraft could assess, warn and help defend against any Soviet bomber attack. Now, a nuclear conflict would involve an assault against which there is currently no defence, a multimegaton ballistic missile strike.
Strategic: Three years ago next week, Reagan announced SDI, his plan to close that strategic gap and change “the course of human history.” Using new technologies, the United States, the President said, would develop a nonnuclear defence that would not only detect but destroy enemy ballistic missiles in flight. Declared NORAD commanderin-chief Gen. Robert Herres: “The world is now on a nuclear hair-trigger.” Faced with a Soviet missile strike, he added, the United States would have no alter-
native but to mount a massive and total retaliation. Said Herres: “SDI would ease the hair-trigger.” Added Gen. James Abrahamson, whom Reagan named to head the SDI program: “Building a roof makes little sense if you don’t also construct the walls.”
Deterrence: Canadian arms control experts say, however, that far from placing the world on a safer footing, Star Wars would alter the doctrine of deterrence upon which both NORAD and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are based. And many of them contend that SDI would inevitably lead to Canadian involvement. According to Lawrence Hagen, former CCACD research director and now a Privy Council
officer, U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACs) “would have to be deployed in the Canadian North.” There would also be advantages to deploying sensors and interceptors closer to the Soviet Union. Even Canadian waters would be used for antisubmarine warfare. Declared Hagen, in a CCACD paper presented to a House committee: “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that all of this would result in the perception and reality of an integrated North American strategic defence posture.”
But Guelph Tory MP William Winegard chaired the Commons committee that last month recommended renewal of the NORAD agreement without change and dismissed concerns that NORAD could eventually snare Canada into Star Wars. In a report to the House,
Winegard said the fears were “shadows on the road ahead” but that it was unrealistic to think that SDI would become a reality within five years. To mollify public concern, however, the committee recommended that Canada and the United States issue a statement reaffirming the ABM Treaty. Declared Winegard: “We say renew our commitment to the ABM Treaty—not because it is necessary, but to relieve whatever tension is out there.” The bottom line, he adds, is U.S.-Canada friendship. Said Winegard: “Look, we’re members of an alliance. We have obligations. It would be inconceivable for us to allow a major ally to be attacked or threatened without Canada doing what we could in surveillance and warning.”
Last September Ottawa rejected the formal U.S. invitation to participate in the $26billion SDI project. It did leave the door open for private Canadian companies and universities to bid on contracts. In the end, the Star Wars issue confronts Canada with a series of tough decisions. “The issue is, do we want to be part of an integrated defence structureleaving aside the issue of ballistic missiles?” Hagen said. “Or do we accept the implications of not being part of it and do it all ourselves? Or do we allow the U.S. to do it all themselves and do things in our territory and in our airspace that we’re not involved in? Would it affect our access to information and deprive us of infor| mation we might consider ¡3 useful?”
Sentries: Meanwhile, inside I the $142-million Cheyenne § Mountain complex, protected by rolls of concertina razor wire atop chain-link fences, sniffer dogs and armed sentries, NORAD officials constantly monitor their green console screens for signs of enemy activity. Electronic information is fed into the 87 computer systems from space satellites and a radar network covering North America. On the left wall of the command post there are five clocks, four of them with North American time zones. The fifth, marked in red letters, reads “Moscow time.” Gen. Herres’s spare set of glasses are permanently attached to the NORAD console from which he would issue the nuclear alert. Said Herres: “Ts North America Under Attack?’ We ask that question constantly. It is our job to be able to tell the President and the Prime Minister.” Canadians and Americans hope that the answer will never be yes.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.