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The bilateral defence relationship

Maureen Shields
International Affairs, Trade and Finance Division

December 2008


The Canada–US defence relationship is close, extensive and long-standing. Although the American military is a powerful deterrent to external threats to Canada, the United States also relies on Canada for its own security, particularly in its land, air and maritime approaches. This paper provides an overview of continental defence arrangements in three sections: the historical context and principal institutions for co-operation; key developments after 11 September 2001; and future challenges.

History and principal agreements

World War II and the post-war period set the stage for much of the current architecture of the Canada–US defence relationship. Today, there are 80 treaty-level agreements, more than 250 memoranda of understanding, and 145 bilateral forums on defence issues. The principal institutions are:

There are also several development, production and sharing arrangements that help manage the industrial, trade, research and development components of Canada–US defence cooperation.

The Canadian and American militaries hold combined and joint exercises annually to ensure effectiveness and interoperability. The Canadian Navy is the only foreign navy that has ships operating regularly as an integral part of US carrier groups.

Arrangements since 11 September 2001

The September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States led to the development of innovative approaches to enhancing continental security and defence, at the national level and bilaterally.

NORAD’s Operation Noble Eagle was launched on 14 September 2001. It extended NORAD’s aerospace warning and control to include surveillance, warning and assessment of attacks from within domestic continental airspace.

In April 2002, the United States created US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), which is responsible for American military operations in the continental United States, Alaska and, when authorized, in Canada, Mexico, parts of the Caribbean, and continental coastal waters out to 500 nautical miles.

In December 2002, the Bi-National Planning Group (BPG) was established at NORAD headquarters and tasked with examining binational defence and security issues, and preparing contingency plans to respond to threats, attacks, and other major emergencies. It was decommissioned in May 2006 after producing two reports with recommendations for improving defence cooperation.

In August 2004, the NORAD agreement was amended, making its missile defence warning and assessment function available to USNORTHCOM. In February 2005, the Government of Canada announced it would not participate in the American ballistic missile defence program, although it did accept that NORAD would continue to provide missile warning to USNORTHCOM.

In February 2006, Canada Command was established. This organization is responsible for Canadian military operations throughout Canada and, in cooperation with American forces, throughout continental North America.

In May 2006, the NORAD agreement was renewed and expanded to include maritime domain awareness. In May 2008, a new USNORTHCOM/ NORAD integrated command centre was opened in Colorado Springs, Colorado; it maintains close liaison with Canada Command. Both Canada Command and USNORTHCOM continue to invest in continental defence and civil assistance, in partnership with NORAD and other key stakeholders such as Public Safety Canada and the US Department of Homeland Security.

Future challenges

The post-9/11 continental security environment is characterized by non-traditional threats, including terrorism, organized crime, disease epidemics and national disasters. Military forces now find themselves involved in non-military responses to some threats and faced with asymmetric attacks from others. Ensuring a well-coordinated response to a terrorist attack or a natural disaster is a significant challenge at the national level; it is even more complicated if bilateral cooperation is required.

The architecture of the Canada–US defence relationship has evolved since 2001. The relationship between Canada Command and USNORTHCOM is much more focused. Both commands, as well as NORAD, are increasingly involved in complex trans-governmental issues, with numerous stakeholders from both the defence and security communities.


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