Interview: LGen Christopher Coates
NORAD and the Continental Defence
CHRIS MACLEAN
© 2019 FrontLine Defence (Vol 16, No 2)

For the past 60 years, NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, has been conducting aerospace warning and control in defence of North America (the U.S. and Canada portion). The organization was further tasked with a maritime warning mission in 2006. As a binational organization of those two countries, it is commanded by a 4-star U.S. General, and the Deputy Commander is a 3-star Canadian General.

To get the insider perspective on the future of NORAD and how important Canada’s participation in this effort is, FrontLine spoke to Deputy Commander Lieutenant-General Christopher Coates from his post at NORAD HQ, Peterson Air Force Base in El Paso County,  Colorado Springs.

Although the U.S. provides the lion’s share of resources, Canada’s participation in NORAD is considered by many to be essential to the defence requirements of North America.

“As I work with U.S. leaders [both within and outside the organization], there is strong interest in Canada remaining a very engaged and vibrant partner in NORAD,” asserts Deputy Commander Coates. This partnership includes critical aspects such as contributing people and resources, as well as the all-important access to Canadian airspace and geography.


Apr 2019 – Lieutenant-General Christopher Coates (right), Deputy Commander NORAD,  addresses members of Canadian Element NORAD during the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff town hall meeting with Lieutenant-General Paul Wynnyk (left), at NORAD headquarters, Peterson Air Force Base. (Photo: TSgt Joe Laws, NORAD and USNortCom)

Detect – Defeat – Deter
NORAD’s priority is to deter to airborne threats; how is that best achieved?

“Interestingly, in order to deter, we believe we need to be able to defeat; and to be able to defeat, we need to be able to detect,” says LGen Coates. “This relational chain between being able to detect, and ultimately defeat, if required, in order to deter is a critical and interesting association – and mission success depends on some of the most advanced and innovative technologies available.”

Staying ahead of the technological curve is therefore critical. “The cyber domain is very interesting from a NORAD perspective,” agrees the Deputy Commander.

NORAD owns, operates, and is responsible for its own cyber capabilities, however, the organization can also access many other Canadian and U.S. military networks (some classified and others unclassified). “We don’t own those, but we’re very dependent on them to coordinate and administer, and to command and control our forces. We’re in very close coordination with those Canadian and U.S. military departments that are responsible for those cyber systems to ensure that we can depend on them.”

There’s a civilian, non-military component to cyber dependencies, such as the national infrastructure, but NORAD is “very well-connected with the various agencies that are responsible for those cyber capabilities.”

Over time, he says, they are seeing a maturation of the coordination between the civilian and the military components, as well as the specialist cyber interests to ensure that NORAD systems are protected and operational.


Oct 2018 – Padre Jim Hardwick (left) accompanies NORAD Deputy Commander Lieutenant-General Christopher Coates, as they field questions from Canadian Detachment Tyndall members and their families. There were approximately 90 Canadian military and family members recovering from the impacts of Hurricane Michael. (DOD Photo: MSgt John Gordinier)

Top Threats
Today, NORAD considers Russia (first) and China to be the top aerospace threats to North American security, particularly the advanced cruise missiles and other emerging weapon systems that they’re developing. “A threat for us is capability plus intent,” explains LGen Coates.
NORAD has been watching Russia develop and deploy very advanced capabilities to other parts of the world, and are fully aware that these could be targeted against North America if the intent materialized. To be clear, NORAD does not consider Russia to be an “imminent” threat, but its focus on developing advanced capabilities, combined with the kind of behaviour seen in Ukraine and Crimea, for instance, is a definite cause for concern.

The capability threats aren’t limited to Russia. China, for example, is steadily building up its already very capable military capacity. For the moment, China’s attention is focused regionally, however, “NORAD has to think ahead and we have to be prepared for what that might mean in the future.”

The global proliferation of technology, including missile threats from nations like North Korea or Iran, which are developing the capability to reach and threaten North America, presents another risk factor.

“While Russia and China are the two principle threats from an ‘air-breathing’ or NORAD perspective, we realize that we, as the Air Defence Force for North America, need to be prepared for the future. I think that that’s the shift that’s taking place – that we really have to start posturing ourselves to be able to defend against the new and emerging threats, regardless of the nation that’s presenting those threats,” notes LGen Coates.

This continual effort to evolve to be able to quickly shift focus to new threat scenarios is borne from the tragic experience of 9/11. After the Cold War ended, NORAD’s attention shifted. “Then we didn’t anticipate the threat, the use of terror tactics in North America in the air domain. We changed after [9/11], of course, and have a structure today that allows us to respond, if needed, to civilian aircraft or commercial aircraft being used as a weapon,” he says.

“There’s an evolution taking place now, and we want to anticipate it to some degree. The threat itself is the evolving world in which we find ourselves – where there’s this proliferation of technology and a shift in the balance of power globally, and the change in the nature of conflict that NORAD has to respond to.”

Another very key concern that can’t be overestimated relates to Russia’s continued activity in the cyber domain. NORAD must be aware of current and emerging threats in this evolving domain.

The NORAD Response
At the moment, explains Coates “we’re engaged with both capitals – Ottawa and Washington – in a dialogue around this evolving paradigm that I’ve tried to describe. We’ll be working to posture, along multiple lines, an evolved NORAD for the future. Some of it is going to relate to equipment needs and capabilities for the future. One can imagine that there are surveillance requirements that will need to be addressed. There are capability requirements. Of course, we look forward to Canadian progress on the fighter replacement project, as an example, but not limited to that.”

In addition, the Deputy Commander highlights command and control changes that “need to be considered.” He notes that despite recent advances in doctrine and the way air forces are commanded and controlled globally, NORAD’s current structure is still “very much reflective of the world in 1985.” In his view, it’s time for NORAD to consider changes to its very structure in order “to better integrate and partner in a global environment.”


CF-18 patrols Canadian airspace. (DND Photo: MCpl Andrew Collins)

Approach to Challenges
The changing geopolitical environment is a prime security focus these days, and NORAD keeps its eye on how such ripples can potentially affect the defence and security equation in North America.

Given the troubling increase of military equipment and capabilities and aggressive actions of others around the world, the current NORAD leadership has “taken to heart” the outlooks from both the U.S. National Defense Strategy (that the homelands are no longer a sanctuary) and the Canadian Defence Policy (that the security once afforded by our oceans has been reduced now) to guide its decisions.

“It’s really this theme that underpins a bit of a transformation that’s occurring within the NORAD lines, and how we see ourselves fitting into the global picture; and the need to defend North America from, not a regional perspective, but from more a global perspective,” asserts Coates.
NORAD has gone through several changes or evolutions over its 60 years – and there is widespread belief that the organization is poised at the leading edge of another. In the past, many of these evolutionary changes were military-led, particularly in terms of the technologies or capabilities, however, a lot of the digital progress now originates and flourishes outside of the government sectors.

The Deputy Commander sees this as an opportunity for an “interesting partnership” between NORAD and other entities that will be providing advanced capabilities, be they public or private sector. “That’s a bit of a shift,” he acknowledges. “In the past, we could develop and create a capability that was then produced for us. Where we are now, we might find that industry creates the solutions in the first case.” The question then becomes how to partner (whether in the U.S. or Canada) in a way that allows industry to understand NORAD requirements and respond to the government. In this age of rapid-fire change, will procurement processes allow industry to respond quickly enough that organizations like NORAD can utilize new solutions effectively?


Nov 2018 – Oak Harbor, Washington – Members assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 1, platoon 122, prepare to participate in a mine countermeasure dive in the Puget Sound. The mine countermeasure operation is a joint maritime homeland defense exercise that is part of the larger Vigilant Shield 19, an annual joint homeland defense exercise to hone interoperability and cooperation skills between Canada and the United States. (U.S. Navy photo : Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Clemente Lynch)

NORAD Modernization  
The NORAD modernization process is going to be determined in large part by government, and Initiative 111 of Canada’s Defence Policy “Strong, Secure, Engaged” talks specifically about how the Government of Canada will follow through on that. How the NORAD modernization rolls out will depend on direction from Ottawa in coordination with the United States, states the Deputy Commander. “NORAD will help identify the requirements, and then there will be decisions in Ottawa and Washington with respect to the capabilities that are provided to NORAD. Our responsibility then, is to employ those [resources] in a way that is most effective to ensure the air defence of Canada and the United States.”

Also in need of assessment/modernization is the North Warning System, which has been in place for more than 30 years. A 5-year maintenance contract will be awarded later this year and Coates agrees it would be “natural” to evaluate the North Warning System to determine how the provision of advanced surveillance requirements can best be met going forward. “Will that be the North Warning System phase two, or some other version of surveillance – those are all decisions for the future.”

We can’t forget about the lifespan of the NWS radars. At some point, as the threats evolve, the technology (the actual radars) will become obsolete. It’s time to have those important discussions before we collectively find that the NWS no longer provides the degree of surveillance that NORAD requires. Presumably we will need to either replace, enhance, or supplement the NWS in a way that meets today’s security requirements.

Other transformational projects mentioned in the 2017 Defence Policy, SSE, have been approved and funded already, such as the DRDC initiative called All Domain Situational Awareness (ADSA). Also, Canada and the U.S. are examining new technologies together, that may meet binational surveillance requirements of the Northern approaches.

Some of the initiatives announced in SSE have “potential benefit for NORAD,” says LGen Coates, “so we’ll look forward to coordinating to ensure that those are, to the extent possible, beneficial within a NORAD modernization context.” It will indeed be interesting to watch how the government will roll out SSE 111.


U.S. and Canadian armed forces service members participate in Exercise Vigilant Shield work in the air defense operations center at Alaskan Command HQ at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. (US Photo: Tech. Sgt. Gregory Brook)

Evolution North American Defence (EVONAD)
“Over time, NORAD Commanders have realized that we need to evolve,” states the Deputy Commander, who admits it has already gone through a few iterations.

Although this evolution concept has existed in other forms for about a decade, it has only been identified as EVONAD for the past two or three years now. Today’s perspective involves having the three commands whose principle responsibility is for the military defence of North America – NORAD; U.S. Northern Com­mand or NORTHCOM; and the Canadian Joint Operations Command or CJOC – all working together.
EVONAD is led out of the NORAD headquarters in partnership with those three commands, to identify potential areas that could improve the Evolution of North American Defense moving forward. The group will look at how these three entities can best succeed in today’s very interconnected global environment.

The EVONAD concept, which takes three domain perspectives (maritime, cyber and air) into consideration, is driven by neither Ottawa nor Washington, it’s more like a grass-roots effort that is intended to “help identify those changes that may be needed for the future.”

As recognized from both within and without, it’s clearly time to start moving down a path that will better posture NORAD for the future.

– Chris MacLean is the Editor-in-Chief at FrontLine Defence magazine.

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