The Underground NORAD Complex

Goal of this Campaign

The goal of this campaign is to have the Canadian government commission a feasibility study into preserving the Underground NORAD Complex in North Bay, Ontario, and developing it into a tourist destination as a national historic site, park or museum. 

NATO, NORAD and the Cold War

Until recently, the Underground NORAD Complex was a secret military installation, so most Canadians have no knowledge of its existence.  However, for over four decades it was Canada’s most important military site.  While operational, hundreds of Canadian and American military and civilian personnel worked in the Complex seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day protecting North America against an attack by the former Soviet Union.  

Following the end of World War II, the development of nuclear weapons led to a tense military stand-off between the “West” (including the United States, Canada, and several Western European countries) and the communist Soviet Union.  This is commonly referred to as the “Cold War”.  In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed to provide collective security against the Soviet Union.  In 1957, in response to the increasing threat of a nuclear attack, the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) was formed to provide enhanced aerospace surveillance and defence.  NORAD put the Canadian air force and the United States air force under a joint command structure. 

The Underground NORAD Complex

Construction of the Complex began in August of 1959, and was completed in September of 1963 at a total cost of $51 million.  Taking inflation into account, it would cost over $500 million to build the facility today.  One-third of the cost was paid by Canada, and two-thirds was paid by the United States.  It was and remains a remarkable architectural achievement!

The Complex is a sprawling, three-story, modern-day fortress.  It is located 600 feet (183 meters) below Canadian Forces Base North Bay.  The depth is equivalent to a 60-story building.  Built to withstand a direct hit by a 4-megaton nuclear blast, and protected by three 19-ton steel blast doors, it was designed to provide life support for 400 people following a nuclear explosion.  It is accessed through two portals connected by a three-kilometer tunnel large enough to drive a bus through.  The tunnel was designed to allow a nuclear blast to blow through one portal and out the other without damaging the Complex.  The South Portal sits on the shores of Trout Lake.  The North Portal is situated within CFB North Bay.

The “Main Installation” housed the air defence facilities including a Command Centre, an Intelligence Centre, a National Civil Defence Warning Centre, briefing rooms, a telephone switching network large enough to handle a town of 30,000 people, and an enormous Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) computer system. As well, it had other amenities including living facilities, barber shop, medical centre, gym, cafeteria, and chaplain’s office. The Complex was designed to remain functional while sealed up during a nuclear war. The “Power Cavern” provided an independent source of electrical power, water, and fresh air for up to four weeks while cut off from the outside world.

SAGE was a massive computer system that linked all parts of the Canadian and American air defence system including command and control centres, radar sites, air fields, and headquarters.  It provided for the high-speed detection and identification of aircraft, and the interception of unknown, suspicious and hostile aircraft.  Fully fuelled and fully armed jet fighters stood ready at air force bases across Canada and the United States.  Air crews were expected to scramble and be in the air within seven minutes of detecting a suspicious or hostile aircraft.

Ground Zero

Canada was in the unfortunate geographic position of lying directly between the United States and the Soviet Union – the two major Cold War adversaries.  If the conflict had turned “hot”, Canada would have become the primary battleground.  Soviet bombers carrying nuclear weapons, and later Soviet missiles, would have crossed Canadian airspace to reach the American cities, military bases and industrial installations being targeted.  Meanwhile, U.S. interceptors would have swarmed Canadian airspace to shoot down any attackers. 

With construction of the Complex, North Bay became “ground zero” in the most dangerous military conflict the world has ever seen.  For this reason, it may be Canada’s most important military heritage site.  It is where Canada helped to maintain world peace by preventing nuclear war.  Due to its historical importance, the Complex has been designated as a “Classified Federal Heritage Building” by the National Historic Sites Directorate, Parks Canada. 

Current Situation

With development of the hydrogen bomb and advanced missile technology, NORAD has determined that keeping air defence operations underground no longer serves a viable military purpose.  In 2006 it moved its air defence operations above ground.  The facility has been sitting vacant since then.  The Department of National Defence (DND) has recently announced plans to decommission the Complex.  As the Complex lies below the Trout Lake water table, it is likely that the pumps will be turned off and the facility will be allowed to flood. 

Why Preserve the Underground NORAD Complex?

Why is it important to preserve the Underground NORAD Complex?  Primarily because it is an extraordinary heritage site with enormous historical importance.  We should protect heritage buildings, not flood them.  However, beyond the value of maintaining a remarkable building that represents an important era of Canadian history, it would educate both Canadians and foreign visitors about the continuing dangers of nuclear war.  The threat of nuclear war has never gone away, and in recent years it has increased.  However, it is difficult for people to comprehend the danger that nuclear war represents.  There is no better way to appreciate the magnitude of the threat than by visiting the Complex and seeing the nuclear blast doors in person.  It makes it all very real.

At a minimum, the Complex should be preserved.  However, the Canadian government could develop it into a world-class tourist destination that could draw visitors from across Canada and around the world.  Parks Canada could develop it into a national historic site or park.  Heritage Canada could develop it into a national museum, perhaps a Museum of Modern History.  Visitors could access the Complex, which is built into a hill covered by hundreds of acres of forest, through the South Portal which faces the picturesque shores of Trout Lake.  The possibilities as a tourist destination are only limited by our imagination. 

This campaign calls on the Government of Canada to commission a feasibility study into preserving the Underground NORAD Complex, and developing it into a tourist destination as a national historic site, park or museum.