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North Warning System - Protecting North America's Backdoor

Radar system in the Arctic monitors foreign threats to the U.S. and Canada.


North Warning System - Protecting North America's Backdoor

The North Warning System is an advanced series of radars used to alert the United States and Canada to potential threats in the Arctic region of North America.

Backdoor Entry

The Arctic region that comprises much of Canada and includes Alaska is often referred to as "North America’s backdoor" by military and defense analysts. The increasing thawing of ice – which scientists attribute to Global Warming – has opened waterways and passages in the Arctic that were previously closed year-round due to harsh winter conditions.

In the past decade, Russian and Chinese submarines and surveillance planes have been detected in Canada’s Arctic region without permission. Several countries also claim territory in the Arctic, which is believed to contain rich oil and natural gas deposits under the floor of the Arctic Ocean.

To help counter the threat of foreign militaries entering North America through the Arctic, the United States and Canadian militaries have collaborated on the "North Warning System," an elaborate system of radars that conducts surveillance on the polar region’s airspace and provides alerts when it is violated. The North Warning System replaced the previous "Distant Early Warning Line" system in the late 1980s and has been used ever since as the primary means of Arctic monitoring for both the United States and Canada.

Long and Short Range Radars

The North Warning System uses both the AN/FPS-117 long range and the AN/FPS-124 short range surveillance radars for keeping an eye on the Arctic. The U.S. military base in Elmendorf, Alaska coordinates the monitoring for the U.S. military, while the Canadian surveillance is conducted at a military base in North Bay, Ontario. The two centers feed information to the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. NORAD coordinates the surveillance information and helps direct military responses in the Arctic – both for the U.S. and Canada.

The North Warning System utilizes a total of 15 long range and 39 short range radars. The system covers a vast area that is 4,800 kilometers long and 320 kilometers wide. U.S. and Canadian defense officials often refer to this area as the "Arctic tripwire" as it alerts them to any presence in the polar region – invited or uninvited.   

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