From tracking Santa to Chinese spy balloons, here’s what we know about NORAD

a person behind a wheel driving into a tunnel
For years, North American Aerospace Command — or NORAD — had its headquarters inside Cheyenne Mountain, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. In this archival photo, a bus enters a tunnel for a half-mile trip to a command center inside the Cheyenne complex. The headquarters is now in nearby Colorado Springs. (Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

It was created as a counter to a rival superpower. So in a way, it’s fitting that a tiff with another superpower has once again thrust North American Aerospace Command — or NORAD — into conversations about national security and spying, as the U.S. spots suspicious balloons and objects in the sky.

For the public, the most frequent mentions of NORAD likely come in Cold War-era stories and its famed Santa Tracker, which makes the news every Christmas. But over its nearly 65-year history, NORAD has had to adjust to new threats, and its leader says it needs to modernize, citing a “domain awareness gap” and equipment that was installed in the 1970s and ’80s.

With many people now asking questions about NORAD, here’s a rundown of its history, how it works today and how it might change:

Is NORAD a U.S. entity?

It’s a joint project by the U.S. and Canada, motivated by concerns that the Soviet Union might send bombers to North America. What began as collaborations on air defense and radar installations evolved into calls for a shared organization. The two countries formalized the first NORAD Agreement on May 12, 1958.

The agreement has been renewed every 10 years — a process that has allowed leaders to repeatedly widen its parameters.

For a sign of how things have changed, look at the name. While the first unified command was called the North American Air Defense Command, its name was later changed to include the word “Aerospace,” acknowledging threats from satellites and other space vehicles.

The organization also monitors for maritime threats, and it helps civil authorities track aircraft suspected to be used in drug trafficking.

How is it different from U.S. Northern Command?

It can be confusing — both are led by the same officer, Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck. Their responsibilities can overlap, but the key difference is that the U.S. Northern Command is a U.S. military headquarters.

U.S. Northern Command was formed in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Its activation in October 2002 was “the first time a single military commander has been charged with protecting the U.S. homeland since the days of George Washington,” according to an official history.

It’s responsible for protecting air, land and sea approaches to North America, from Mexico to the continental U.S., Alaska, and Canada.

U.S. Northern Command’s mandate also includes disasters and emergencies, from giving defense support to civil authorities to sharing military resources with federal, state and local authorities.

Where is NORAD located?

For decades, NORAD was headquartered in Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain — a bunker facility whose tunnel entrance will likely be familiar to anyone who has watched the Stargate movie or TV series.

While NORAD still maintains a presence there, its main headquarters are at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Officials announced that move in 2006, calling for an integrated command center with U.S. North Command.

What is NORAD’s ‘domain awareness’ problem?

The recent spate of unidentified airborne objects has put a spotlight on how NORAD’s radar systems work: when they were adjusted to pick up objects like the Chinese balloon, crews saw much more information.

NORAD’s current and former leaders say the radar network and other equipment sorely needs to be updated, and work has been ongoing with Canadian officials to chip away at that job.

“NORAD and USNORTHCOM rely on what we call the North Warning System, which is an array of short- and long-range radars in northern Canada, Alaska and elsewhere,” retired Vice Admiral Mike Dumont, a former deputy commander at NORAD, recently told NPR.

a person on the phone near computer screens
NORAD’s leaders say it needs to modernize its systems, including a radar network that dates to the 1970s. In this 1999 photo, missile commanders confirm a launch warning during a practice drill at NORAD’s operations center in the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado. (Mark Leffingwell/AFP via Getty Images)

“They were put into place in the late 1980s, and that system of radar coverage was concluded in about 1992. It’s 1970s technology,” Dumont said. “So no, NORAD does not have what it needs to adequately defend North America. They need new sensors, sensors that are able to detect in all domains. And by all domains, I mean space, land, air, cyber and maritime.”

A NORAD/USNORTHCOM cyber unit was approved in 2012. But the potential battlefield keeps changing, including the threat of hypersonic cruise missiles.

Last year, VanHerck highlighted three “domain awareness challenges,” from the difficulty of keeping up with competitors’ advances in submarines to monitoring missiles and cyber operations.

“The good news is we’re working to fix this,” VanHerck said last summer. Praising the latest appropriations, he added, “There’s four over-the-horizon radars in the budget, so I look forward to that.”

NORAD made history this month

For the first time in its history, fighter jets from NORAD shot down airborne objects in U.S. airspace, Gen. VanHerck said this week, after NORAD tracked a massive Chinese balloon that the U.S. says is a spy airship, along with three smaller objects.

The balloon and another object were shot down under the U.S. Northern Command’s authority — the first off of South Carolina and one in Alaska.

But NORAD was directly involved in two other takedowns: On Feb. 11, a U.S. F-22 shot down an object in Canada’s central Yukon, after the object crossed from Alaska over the U.S.-Canada border. And on Feb. 12, a U.S. F-16 took down an object over Lake Huron, along the border.

What about NORAD’s Santa-tracking domain?

By now, it’s a famous story: back in December of 1955, a red phone at the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD’s predecessor, started ringing.

It wasn’t a four-star general on the line — but a young boy, who had seen a misprinted phone number in a Sears newspaper ad urging kids to call Santa personally. The recipient of the call, Col. Harry Shoup, quickly went from being annoyed at a potential prank to realizing he had a new duty to perform: encouraging a youngster’s curiosity and belief in Santa.

“So he talked to him, ho-ho-ho’d and asked if he had been a good boy,” Shoup’s own children later remembered.

It grew from there, as Shoup recruited servicemembers to answer the phone. NORAD’s Santa Tracker later became an authority on the jolly gift-giver’s trek around the world.

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