NORAD marks 60 years of North American nuclear defense by confronting a new threat from Russia: Hypersonic weapons

  • The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, is responsible for detecting incoming threats and protecting the airspace above the United States and Canada.
  • NORAD is facing a new type of threat from Moscow.
  • Russia's hypersonic glide vehicle, a weapon the United States is currently unable to defend against, is expected to enter the Kremlin's arsenal by 2020.

The military command created at the height of the Cold War to defend the United States and Canada from nuclear attacks is facing a new threat from Russia: hypersonic weapons.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, is marking 60 years of existence. On the heels of that anniversasry, though, CNBC learned that multiple U.S. intelligence reports assess Russia will be capable of fielding a hypersonic glide vehicle, a weapon that no country can defend against, by 2020.

"[Hypersonic weapons] is a developing field, so there is not much that I can state here officially," said Canadian Lt. Gen. Pierre St-Amand, deputy NORAD commander, when asked about the CNBC report at a discussion at the Canadian embassy in Washington.

"We are tracking and providing advice so that we can be in a position to continue to develop our mission in the future," St-Amand said, adding that NORAD is watching and discussing the hypersonic weapons threat.

Since its creation in the late 1950s, NORAD has been responsible for detecting incoming threats and protecting the air space above the United States and Canada. In a nod to the Cold War paranoia of the time, the command was constructed nearly a mile inside of a mountain and underneath 2,400 feet of granite.

U.S. Air Force photo

The idea behind NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado Springs was that it could withstand a direct hit from a Soviet nuclear weapon while coordinating an American response.

The latest revelations about hypersonic weapons come more than two months after Russian President Vladimir Putin touted his nation's growing hypersonic arsenal as "invincible."

Putin claimed the hypersonic glide vehicle, dubbed Avangard, was capable of reaching targets at 20 times the speed of sound and strikes "like a fireball."

He also said that the hypersonic warhead had already entered serial production.

Avangard, which is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, is designed to sit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile. Once launched, it uses aerodynamic forces to sail on top of the atmosphere.

Sources, who spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity, said Russia successfully tested the weapon twice in 2016. The third known test of the device was carried out in October 2017 and resulted in a failure when the platform crashed seconds before striking its target.

"Today we don't have the perfect warning system to be able to detect and determine their [hypersonic weapons] intent or even how do we respond to that," retired U.S. Air Force Gen.Victor Eugene Renuart, former U.S. Commander of NORAD and NORTHCOM said during a Q&A at the Canadian embassy.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
Alexei Druzhinin | TASS | Getty Images
Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

"It's NORAD's role to identify the kinds of threats that it needs to be able to see and then it's the nation's role to figure out how do we partner and create that detection capability," Renuart added saying the U.S. must invest in a warning infrastructure to counter hypersonic weapons.

Renuart also connected national security to global trade agreements – particularly when it comes to Russia and the nation's deals with several U.S. partners, including members of the North Atlantic Treat Organization, or NATO. This makes dealing with Russia even more complicated.

"I think we have some interesting frenemies out there because we trade with China and Russia to some degree, maybe lesser so with Russia but our NATO friends trade heavily with Russia and especially depend on Russia for energy," Renuart said.

That means, despite any threat from Russia, the U.S. has to deal with the nation in a conventional way, as well.

"So we are changing the way we interact with them, all the while we are seeing fifth-generation aircraft, we are seeing stealth capabilities, we are seeing advanced technologies and a modernization of their nuclear force unlike we've seen since those Cold War days," he said.

Meanwhile, Russia is expected to test their hypersonic glide vehicle again this summer.

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