September, 1977, Canadian Aviation
It’s had its ups and downs – no pun intended – but the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) – has passed through its teens and on Sept. 12 will observe its 20th anniversary.
Continental air defence dates back longer than that, but Sept. 12, 1957 was the date when Canada and the United States joined forces for the common defence of North America as the first two-nation, all-service military organization to function on this continent. The command was formalized by an exchange of notes on May 12, 1958. The agreement has been extended three times since then and the renewal in 1975 continues until May 1980.
Throughout its history, NORAD’s commander-in-chief has been a four-star United States Air Force General – currently Gen Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. – with a Canadian deputy of three-star rank – Lieut-Gen David R. Adamson holds that appointment now.
In the absence of the commander-in-chief, his deputy has operational control over all NORAD forces – American as well as Canadian. And it was a Canadian who kept his cool and avoided the panic of a top-level radar alarm – the highest emergency state, which meant a strong possibility that North America was under an ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile) attack.
Air Marshall (Ret.) C. Roy Slemon, now executive Vice-president of the U.S. Air Force Academy Foundation at Colorado Springs, was acting commander Oct. 5, 1960 when the balloon almost went up. The commander, USAF Gen Laurence S. Kuter, was on an inspection trip to the Northern United States.
It was mid-afternoon and Air Marshall Slemon was in his office when a warning buzzer sounded. He grabbed the red phone on his desk, the one reserved for urgent communication with the Combat Operations Centre, and heard the emergency code words that meant it was no exercise, but a real alarm. He raced to the combat centre and watched the ICBM display board. The emergency levels were climbing.
The warning was coming from NORAD’s new detection device BMEWS – Ballistic Missile Early Warning System – a huge radar located at Thule, Greenland, which had only been in operation four days. The air marshall, alerted by “hot line”, telephoned the war room at Washington, the Chiefs of Staff Committee at Ottawa, and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Omaha.
There were indicators that maybe the alarm wasn’t as serious as it seemed. But then one had to remember Pearl Harbor, where early warnings were tossed off as inconsequential. Nonetheless, a commander has an awesome responsibility, not to be taken lightly. Air Marshall Slemon conferred with Washington and Ottawa, as well as SAC and urged everyone to go slow. Although BMEWS was reported working correctly, other indicators didn’t back it up.
This article originally appeared in the September, 1977 edition of Canadian Aviation magazine.