The organization is headed by a commander in chief (CINC) appointed by both the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Canada. The CINC is based at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado with the nearby Cheyenne Mountain Air Station the central collection and coordination facility for the sensor systems around the world. Three subordinate headquarters at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, Canadian Forces Base, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Tyndall AFB, Florida, receive direction from the CINC and control operations within their areas.
The growing perception of the threat of Soviet long-range bombers armed with nuclear weapons brought Canada and the US into closer cooperation for air defense. In the early 1950s they agreed to construct a series of radar stations across North America to face the threat of a Soviet attack over the pole. The first series of radars was the Pinetree Line, completed in 1954, of 33 stations across southern Canada. However, technical defects in the system led to more radar networks being built. In 1957, the McGill Fence was completed, it consisted of doppler radar for the detection of low-flying craft, it was roughly 300 miles north of the Pinetree Line along the 55th parallel. The third joint system was the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line), also completed in 1957. This was a network of 57 stations along the 70th parallel. The systems gave around three hours warning of bomber attack before they could reach any major population centre. Attacks across the Pacific or Atlantic would have been detected by AEW aircraft, Navy ships, or offshore radar platforms. The command and control of the massive system then became a significant challenge.
Discussions and studies of joint systems had been ongoing since the early 1950s and culminated on August 1, 1957 with the announcement by the US and Canada to establish an integrated command, the North American Air Defense Command. On September 12, NORAD operations commenced at Ent, Colorado. A formal NORAD agreement between the two governments was signed on May 12, 1958. By the early 1960s, a quarter of a million personnel were involved in the operation of NORAD. The emergence of the ICBM and SLBM threat in the early 1960s was something of a blow. In response, a space surveillance and missile warning system was constructed to provide worldwide space detection and tracking and identification. The extension of NORAD's mission into space led to a name change to the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
From 1963 the airforce was reduced and sections of the now obsolete radar system were shut down. But there was increased effort to protect against a ICBM atack - two underground operations centers were set up, the main one inside Cheyenne Mountain, and an alternate at North Bay, Ontario. By the early 1970s, the acceptance of MAD led to a cut in the air defense budget and the repositioning of NORAD's mission to ensuring the integrity of air space during peacetime. There followed significant reductions in the air defense system until the 1980s when following the 1979 Joint US-Canada Air Defense Study (JUSCADS) the need for the modernization of air defenses was accepted - the DEW Line was to be replaced with an improved arctic radar line called the North Warning System (NWS); there was to be the deployment of Over-the-Horizon Backscatter (OTH-B) radar; the assignment of more advanced fighters to NORAD, and the greater use of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft. These recommendations were accepted by the governments in 1985, there was also the formation of a new United States Space Command in September 1985 as an adjunct but not a component of NORAD.
At the end of the Cold War NORAD reassessed its mission. To avoid cutbacks, from 1989 NORAD operations expanded to cover counter-drug operations - such as tracking small-engine aircraft. But the DEW line sites were still replaced, in a scaled-back fashion by the North Warning System radars between 1986 and 1995. The Cheyenne Mountain site was also upgraded. However none of the proposed OTH-B radars are currently in operation.
See also: JTF-CNO