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COMMENTARY: An opportunity to remember that NORAD tracks more than just Santa Claus

NORAD volunteers tracking Santa in 2013.
NORAD volunteers tracking Santa in 2013. AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File

NORAD is once again using its use its high-powered radars to track Santa Claus’s circuitous journey from the North Pole to southern climes, with millions of chimney stops in Canada and the United States along the way.

Coverage of the Christmas mission is a perennial favourite with young kids across Canada and the U.S.

It is also a gentle reminder to the greater public that the North American Aerospace Defense Command is tasked with tracking not only St. Nicholas but airborne threats to the continent from manned bombers, hard-to-detect cruise missiles, and higher-flying ballistic missiles.

READ MORE: Video captures Trudeau seemingly speak candidly about Trump at NATO summit (Dec. 4, 2019)

What the annual Santa videos only hint at is that it’s NORAD, not the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that is Canada’s most important and by far its most integrated military alliance.

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Notwithstanding the Santa Claus operation, few Canadians know this, nor do they know of the key role that NORAD plays in Can-Am relations and in the defence of North America.

NATO has annual leaders’ summits that get a lot of global attention. NORAD is the focus of no high-profile political gatherings.

Moreover, many Canadians go to Europe on holidays where NATO is a frequent subject of conversation and where Canada once had military bases in Germany and France.

Not many Canadians have ever gone to remote North Warning System early-warning radar outposts in the high Arctic such as Tuktoyaktuk or Cape Hall, nor to RCAF Forward Operating Location airfields such as Rankin Inlet, which are equipped to handle front-line fighter jets tasked with intercepting airborne intruders.

Nor do many Canadians see top-secret airspace surveillance command and control centres in Colorado, Alaska, and North Bay, where American and Canadian military personnel stand watch together over the continent’s Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic approaches.

Click to play video '7-year-old girl calls NORAD to track Santa and ends up chatting with with Donald Trump' 7-year-old girl calls NORAD to track Santa and ends up chatting with with Donald Trump
7-year-old girl calls NORAD to track Santa and ends up chatting with with Donald Trump

Canada and the U.S. have been publicly wrangling since long before Donald Trump and Barack Obama over how little Canada spends on NATO, despite many pledges to do better. But the big money involved to get Canada to pay its fair share for NATO may be the same or less than what NORAD upgrades will cost Ottawa.

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The U.S. expects Canada to pony up billions of new dollars to help fund a replacement for the 30-year-old NWS, which has limitations because it was designed chiefly to deal with threats from manned bombers, to continue work to improve new forward operating bases and perhaps join a U.S. push to have more and more capable fighters based further north.

There is also the question of whether Ottawa will partner with Washington on a hugely expensive Ballistic Missile Defence Program that the Harper and Trudeau governments have both been reluctant to sign on to.

READ MORE: Canada, U.S. should upgrade missile defences amid Russian threat: NORAD commander

Far from the public eye, NORAD maintains what must be one of the safest bunkers on earth, deep inside Cheyenne Mountain. The centrepiece of the subterranean labyrinth is a warren of highly-secure three-storey buildings that rest atop massive coil springs designed to withstand nuclear shocks.

It is here in the Colorado Rockies that fully-integrated teams of American and Canadian soldiers, with titles such as Air Domain Chief and Missile and Space Domain Chief, constantly scrutinize information provided by space, air, sea and land-based assets that monitor the western, eastern and northern skies for intruders and any aircraft anywhere over the continent that are not “squawking” their identities. They can almost instantly assess the potential danger posed by missile tests conducted by, say, North Korea.

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They do the same inside an identical, alternate Dr. Strangelove/Doomsday-looking war room at nearby Peterson Air Force base that is also filled with gigantic maps, television and computer screens, secure telephone lines, and clocks showing Zulu time, the time in Moscow and Korea and six other time zones. It was there, on 9/11, that a Canadian officer who was in charge at the time directed the grounding of all aircraft in U.S. air space.

Click to play video 'Canadian jets intercept 2 Russian bombers near North American coastline, NORAD says' Canadian jets intercept 2 Russian bombers near North American coastline, NORAD says
Canadian jets intercept 2 Russian bombers near North American coastline, NORAD says

During September, I visited Cheyenne Mountain, Peterson AFB, and the United States Air Force’s two northernmost fighter bases, Elmendorf (Anchorage) and Eielson (Fairbanks), and met senior American and Canadian commanders in Colorado and Alaska.

Their troops are responsible for despatching fighter jets and fleets of tanker aircraft that are on round-the-clock standby in Alaska, Cold Lake, Alta., Bagotville, Que., and other bases in Canada and the continental U.S. The fighters are tasked to identify unknown aircraft and, in the case of Russian bombers, escort them away from North American airspace.

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While not being drawn into the political debate about issues such as Ballistic Missile Defence, NORAD’s deputy commander, Canadian Lt. Gen. Chris Coates, described “troubling developments” within the bi-national alliance’s area of responsibility that were “not cheap” to defend against.

Among a long list of issues that he and NORAD colleagues raised were modernized Russian Bear bombers which frequently probe NORAD defences for vulnerabilities, Russian advances in supersonic cruise missiles, maneuverable Mach 5 hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles, North Korean ballistic missiles that have been acquiring greater range, and a newish concern posed by Chinese missiles, including hypersonic cruise missiles and Russian submarine-launched missiles that can operate closer to North America.

Add to that the consequences of global warming on travel and life in the Arctic, emerging satellite warfare, and cyber-warfare capabilities that required constant attention, as well as the potential of stealthy fifth-generation aircraft with immense data fusion capabilities, and it becomes an immensely complicated matrix to prioritize and manage.

Click to play video 'Russian military tests newly deployed costal defence system in Arctic' Russian military tests newly deployed costal defence system in Arctic
Russian military tests newly deployed costal defence system in Arctic

It is a hard fact that Russia is far more active militarily in the far north than it has been in several decades and constantly talks about it. NATO’s top naval officer, U.S. Adm. James Foggo, said last week that the Atlantic alliance was seeing unprecedented Russia submarine activity from its Arctic bases. And during a two-week period in late summer, nuclear-capable Russian bombers conducted sorties over the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, off Norway, Alaska and the Sea of Japan.

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Russia’s dictator, Vladimir Putin, has totally overhauled seven Arctic Cold War air bases, moved tens of thousands of additional troops into his far north and is expanding what is already the world’s largest icebreaker fleet.

Since China’s dictator, Xi Jingping, has declared his country’s ambition “to be a great Arctic power,” it, too, has been quickly building an icebreaker fleet that is likely to soon be bigger than those of Canada and the U.S. combined.

Click to play video 'Is Putin preparing for a new Cold War in the Arctic?' Is Putin preparing for a new Cold War in the Arctic?
Is Putin preparing for a new Cold War in the Arctic?

Small wonder Lt. Gen. Coates called it “the most challenging environment since the most challenging periods of the Cold War. We have to invest dollars, people, thinking and political resources.”

While “NORAD does not believe there is an imminent threat … [and] we don’t want to exaggerate the threat,” the general said that he hoped that Canadians can begin to have an informed discussion about the future of Canada’s most important military partnership.
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That is something that kids get a small taste of every December when NORAD tracks Santa Claus even before he penetrates North American airspace.

Given that essential improvements to NORAD will cost Canada many billions of dollars and affect our relations not only with the U.S. but with Russia and China, Canadian voters, media and politicians must begin to pay a lot more attention to the far more serious side of defending the country’s three maritime approaches from nuclear war, too.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas