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NORAD 50th Anniversary (Colorado Springs, CO)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado Springs, CO, Monday, May 12, 2008

Well I can tell how thrilled you all are – oh, it’s 10 o’clock – great, there are two speeches. (Laughter)

Thank you, Gene.  General Renuart was my senior military assistant when I started at the Pentagon, and I'll always be grateful for his assistance and counsel as I learned my way around the place during those early weeks.  Of course, I confess that I still don’t leave my office without a guide.  Alone, I’d never find my way back. (Laughter)

Some of you may have already heard lots of jokes about the size of the Pentagon.  The late newsman David Brinkley told a story about a woman who told a Pentagon guard she was in labor and needed help in getting to a hospital.  And the guard said, “Madam, you shouldn't have come here in that condition.”  And she said, “When I came here, I wasn't.” (Laughter)

It’s a pleasure to be here in Colorado Springs and at the Broadmoor.  Of course, it’s especially good to be at least two time zones away from Washington. 

I am delighted to share this podium with the Canadian Minister of National Defence, my friend, Peter MacKay.  (Applause)  Canada has been a valued partner for many decades, and never more so than in recent years.  Nearly 3,000 Canadian troops are serving in Afghanistan right now (applause) – and a number have made the ultimate sacrifice.  Minister, on behalf of the United States, I thank you for Canada’s friendship, and I look forward to working with you for the rest of my term in office, which, for the record, is 254 days.  (Laughter)

I also thank you for your ongoing commitment to NORAD.  Both of our nations are dedicated to protecting North Americans from air attacks, and this institution remains a vital part of the defense of the continent.

The festivities this evening – the cocktail hour, wine with dinner – remind me of the risks of government officials drinking in public.  Some years ago, a European foreign minister who shall remain nameless, and who was a notoriously heavy drinker, was on a trip to South America.  And he showed up at a reception in Peru and was quite drunk.  There was music playing and he invited a passing guest in a flowing gown to dance.  The guest somewhat haughtily replied, “First, sir, you are drunk.  Second, this is not a waltz – it is the Peruvian national anthem.  (Laughter)  Third, I am not a woman.  I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”  (Laughter)

So on that note, it’s a real pleasure to attend NORAD’s 50th anniversary.  (Laughter, applause)  For those who grew up in the waning years of the Cold War, NORAD’s importance in protecting this continent – and our way of life – may be known to most through TV shows or movies like War Games.

But I can remember, as a child, having – and this is no kidding – air raid drills in school, and crawling under our desks.  It was a different time.  So, for those of us who grew up during, and labored in that long, twilight struggle, the importance of NORAD is hard to overstate.  This was in many respects the first, and last, line of defense against an enemy whose arsenal was trained on our two countries.

The origins of NORAD go back to 1940, when President Franklin Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King agreed that closer military cooperation would be vital to the security of both nations.  As Prime Minister King aptly noted, “It is what we prevent, rather than what we do that counts most in government.” 

The United States and Canada eventually set up an extensive radar network to protect North American air space.  Actual NORAD operations began on September 12, 1957.  Scarcely three weeks later, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, an event that accelerated the space race and raised the specter of attack on our homelands by Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. 

Other changes have occurred throughout NORAD’s history.  In 1966, the NORAD Operations Center was moved deep inside Cheyenne Mountain.  This structure, built to withstand a multi-megaton bomb, has blast doors weighing 25 tons each and they can be closed in about a minute.  The last time the doors were closed was on the morning of September 11, 2001.

The migration of people and missions away from Cheyenne Mountain is but one sign of NORAD’s evolution in a very different world than the one in which it was conceived.  While it may have been created to keep a vigilant eye on the Soviet’s air defenses, at heart it was built for a larger mission.  Whether at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, at the Canadian headquarters in Winnipeg, at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, NORAD has one overriding goal: to protect and defend the territory and airspace of the United States and Canada. 

That mission is no less important today.  We see this in Operation Noble Eagle, which since September 11th has flown 45,000 sorties and monitors potential threats from many sources every day.  Noble Eagle supplies a ready alert force, air patrols, and surveillance to the United States and Canada. 

Looking back at all the years, and all the Christmases spent tracking Santa, we take for granted the advances that have been made –like satellites in space and the ability to communicate across the globe in an instant.

Throughout these 50 years, NORAD has faithfully done its job, tackling unique security challenges with creativity and innovation.  It is, in the final analysis, still one of our first and last defenses of that which we cherish most: our loved ones, our liberties, our countries.

So to all the men and women who have dedicated their lives to defending this continent, I thank you.  As we look back on all that has been accomplished, let us also look forward to new challenges and new triumphs.

Thank you for being here tonight.  (Applause)