Document created: 6 June 05
Air & Space Power Journal - Español Segundo Trimestre 2005

Expanding North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD)

A Strategy to Engage Mexico

Maj Lawrence Spinetta, USAF

"Geography has made us neighbors. Cooperation and respect will make us partners." President George Bush

"The first lesson learned on 9/11 was that NORAD was errantly postured outwardly, literally turning a blind eye to the threat from within. And the first corrective action taken was to integrate the FAA’s internal radars into NORAD’s air picture." This transformation from a Cod War institution, facing north to combat a Soviet missile and bomber threat, into a homeland defense organization shouldn’t end with the integration of additional air traffic radars oriented inward. Our southern flank with Mexico would remain relatively unprotected. NORAD should actively seek to develop a new security partnership with Mexico to strengthen the collective defense of North America.

The realities of current Mexican and U.S. politics would kill any NORAD-proposed grand plan, so any new long-term partnership will have to develop from modest initiatives to improve cooperation. Fearing a loss of sovereignty, the Mexican Congress adamantly opposes NORAD’s 2020 Vision for a tri-country command structure. The United States is also not willing to share the costs of and responsibility for defending Mexican airspace. To be successful, any proposal to improve security agreements with Mexico needs to recognize the political limits of increased military-to-military interaction. Despite this challenge, it’s still possible to craft an engagement strategy with Mexico that would immediately strengthen North American aerospace defense.

An engagement strategy that focuses on information sharing and collaborative planning would be a good first step in creating a new air defense partnership with Mexico. Integrating Mexican civil and military radars into a common air picture would reduce coverage gaps identified in the North American Air Surveillance Plan. As we learned on 9/11, transnational terrorism and other threats to our vital interests can emerge from any direction. Extending our situational awareness deep into Mexican territory would satisfy an identified NORAD air defense shortfall and give us more time to detect, assess, and engage threats to continental security from a southern avenue of attack. Improving collaborative planning with Mexico would strengthen both our and their ability to respond to threats, natural disasters, and/or other emergencies. Establishing liaison links within NORAD working groups would allow U.S. planners to start a direct dialogue with Mexican counterparts. Specifically, giving Mexico a voice in the North American Air Surveillance Council and Bi-national Planning Group would build trust, improve continental defense, and pave a path for improved relations.

A Hole in North American Perimeter Security

NORAD’s mission is to provide aerospace warning and control for the North American continent, but Mexican participation is conspicuously absent from that partnership. NORAD remains exclusively a Canadian-U.S. venture. NORAD has yet to consult Mexico or cultivate relations with Mexico to develop a common vision to deter, detect, and defeat threats to our shared North American homeland in part because military-to-military relations are "standoffish." Prior to 1995, relations with Mexico’s military were as described "virtually non-existent." In May 1995, Defense Secretary William Perry made the first-ever visit of a U.S. defense secretary to Mexico. Since that visit, Mexico has increased security collaboration with the U.S. through such agreements as the Northern Border Response Force, High Contact Level Group, and a Smart Borders initiative. But, the focus has been primarily on law enforcement addressing counter-drug issues. Military-to-military cooperation does not extend much beyond the U.S. providing spare parts for aging Mexican fighters. In an interview, the SAF/IA country director for Mexico acknowledged, "There’s not a whole lot of mil-to-mil with Mexico on the agenda." We must overcome skepticism in our ability to work together to patch the partnership hole in our North American perimeter security.

Unlike Canada, Mexico doesn’t share a long tradition of defense cooperation with the U.S., but certainly has valuable capabilities that are potentially available to contribute to North American Aerospace Defense. Commercial and military radars, drug enforcement airplanes, and Mexican Air Traffic data such as flight plans and aircrew/passenger manifests are just some of the assets and sources of information that can be used to bolster intelligence. Additionally, increased political and military cooperation with Mexico would pay dividends in relations and help solidify a common hemispheric defense posture. The goal should be to establish programs to increase communication, training, and ideas exchange to develop a collaborative military-to-military working relationship. Strategic cooperation should be "anchored by overlapping interests and maturing respect."

The U.S. and Mexico have an overriding national interest to preserve, protect, and promote "free trade as the best means of realizing developmental aspirations." The U.S.-Mexico border is the busiest in the world; over one million people cross the border every day. The North American Free Trade Agreement led to skyrocketing trade with Mexico, currently approaching $250 billion a year. Since NAFTA was signed into law, trade with Mexico has increased more than 300%. In 1999, Mexico surpassed Japan to become the United States’ second largest trading partner behind Canada. Critical infrastructure, especially facilities like ports that speed the flow of trade or bottlenecks such as border crossing points are inviting terror targets because of the potential to inflict large economic damage. The ever-increasing volume of traffic between our two countries coupled with an enemy who actively searches for ways to exploit geographic seams makes the need for homeland defense cooperation even more urgent.

The homeland security imperative to protect border infrastructure and monitor the huge volume of trade and people that cross the border annually should outweigh obstacles to updating agreements with Mexico. Nonetheless, a successful engagement strategy must recognize different players in Mexican politics have different agendas and interests. Some organizations, political groups, and leaders are friendlier to the idea of increased defense cooperation than others. For example, the Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez asserted, "the number one priority in our relationship is the fight against terrorism." Recognizing security is a prerequisite for trade, President Fox sought to open a security dialogue with the United States after 9/11, but met stiff resistance from the Mexican Congress. The Mexican Congress even employed a constitutional provision to restrict him from traveling to the United States and Canada to prevent any such discussion. Any NORAD initiative needs to work around political pitfalls.


To be successful, an engagement strategy needs to take into account Mexican political concerns. Similar to Canada, Mexico fears a loss of sovereignty and has little budgetary room for maneuver when it comes to increased homeland defense spending. The overriding military consideration for designing new initiatives is the fact that Mexican domestic politics won’t allow U.S. troops to be stationed on Mexican soil. Mexican views are still shaded by foreign intervention in Mexico.

Museums in Mexico City documet "skeletons in the closet of Britain, Spain, France, and the United States." In Chapultepec park, a six-column monument dedicated to the "Ninos Heros" commemorates cadets who attempted to defend "El Castillo" against a American invasion force during the U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848. According to the story, the last six flung themselves off a cliff wrapped in a Mexican flag rather than surrender (Picture 1). As chronicled in the Museo Nacional de las Intervenciones, the U.S. occupied Veracruz in 1914. In response to Mexico´s 1938 nationalization of oil companies, foreign intervention "seemed likely," but tensions were overcome by the onset of World War II. These monuments and museum displays are not derogatory in nature, but serve as reminders of U.S. transgressions in the region. "Although these events are long forgotten by most U.S. citizens, they are still very vivid events in Mexican history." From this historical context, Mexican skepticism towards defense cooperation with the U.S. is understandable. "Even today, people are wary of being taken advantage of by the gringos (the Spanish word for foreigners often reserved for North Americans)." Mexicans are also wary of being lost in their northern neighbor's shadow and want to be treated as an equal partner.

Mexico felt snubbed when the 2002 Unified Command Plan placed Mexico under U.S. Northern Command. The Mexican military perceived the move as a demotion in importance and prefers to deal directly with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, as it has always done. In his recent testimony to the Mexican Congress, Secretary of Defense General Clemente Vega Garcia firmly stated that Mexico won’t participate in U.S. Northern Command operations or programs. Furthermore, Gen Vega stated U.S. Northern Command was created in response to 9/11 and has nothing to do with Mexico. At first glance, General Vega’s testimony seems to be at odds with Foreign Minister Derbez’s statement that fighting terrorism is the "number one priority" in U.S.-Mexican relationship. But, General Vega’s statements are really aimed more at framing how he thinks the Mexico military will participate (i.e., not through U.S. Northern Command) in the global war on terror, and not necessarily a refusal to cooperate with the U.S. General Vega’s comments really just acknowledge political pressure the Mexican Congress exerts to prevent any working relationship with U.S. Northern Command. Defense cooperation through NORAD preserves Mexico´s ability to negotiate at the Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State level, rather than through the USNORTHCOM Combatant Commander. To be successful, NORAD needs to frame their engagement strategy in a way to distinguish their organization from U.S. Northern Command.

One way to differentiate NORAD from U.S. Northern Command is to invite Mexico to join forums that include Canadian participation. "Expanded security cooperation will be more politically palatable in Mexico to the extent that it is portrayed as tri-national cooperation for protection against common external threats, rather than bilateral defense cooperation with the United States." Mexico and Canada have a common interest in not ceding sovereignty to the United States. Canada has specifically structured its international agreements to preserve the command and control of their troops. No Canadian forces fall under the command of U.S. Northern Command. Despite having combined all but two staff functions, U.S. Northern Command and NORAD’s command structures remain separate and distinct. Giving Mexico a seat at the table next to Canada will go a long way towards convincing Mexico that they will be given an equal voice in continental security without having to sacrifice command of their own troops. But, not upsetting Mexican political sensitivities to sovereignty issues is only half the battle. Any proposal also needs to advance the institutional interests of the Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (SEDENA), an organization that includes both the Mexican Army and Air Force.

Unlike the separately organized Mexican Navy that ventures outside their borders, SEDENA remains an inward looking "closed institution." The center of power in SEDENA lies with Mexican Army leadership. The Army "steam rolls" the Air Force and has the final say over any initiatives. SEDENA is institutionally biased towards action only when threats will have a direct impact inside Mexico’s borders. In fact, they are constitutionally prohibited from most forms of deployments outside their border. The Mexican Army does not share the same grand continental defense vision that calls for a robust, comprehensive reaction force that seamlessly operates across geographical seams as U.S. policy makers. As such, any proposal to create an integrated tri-nation command structure is a non-starter. SEDENA would not be willing to discuss any fusion of command, nor is it clear the Mexican Army and Air Forces would be able to overcome interoperability issues to effective integrate into a tri-country combined force.

Interoperability issues are as important as politics when thinking through proposals for military forces to work together. Barry Cooper, director of the Fraser Institute’s Alberta office and professor of political science at the University of Calgary, points out, "Technical realities are at least as important as political ones regarding Mexico inside NORAD. Canada is struggling to maintain interoperability with U.S. forces. Mexico is a long way behind us. Additional training for Mexican forces might be the most Mexico can aspire to." Mexican air defense has few operational fighters and maintenance problems persist. Tactics, techniques, procedures, and language are not compatible with U.S. or Canadian aircrew. Although it’s exploring upgrade options, the Mexican fighter force currently consists of only 10 F-5s and 18 T-33s. Maintenance problems persist. For example, Mexico was unable to fly any of its F-5s in 1998. Total F-5 flight time rarely exceeds 60 hours per month. Given its current capabilities, placing the Mexican fighter force under a NORAD command and control relationship wouldn’t add much value, nor would that option be politically feasible. But, Mexican sources of data and intelligence may prove invaluable.

Despite being described as having an "ambivalent" relation with the U.S. over hemispheric security, the Mexican government has demonstrated a recent willingness and enthusiasm to bolster information exchange. Last year, the Mexican military requested and was granted access to U.S. Air Force weather information systems to include the Joint Army-Air Force Weather Information Network (JAAWIN) and the Air Force Combat Climatology Center (AFCCC). Beyond the tactical level, Vicente Fox’s National Security Plan 2001-2006 emphasizes the necessity of "possessing sufficient, timely and reliable information to guarantee national security." Jorge Chabat, a researcher at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Economica (CIDE) in Mexico City, concludes, "Mexico’s security compromises will avoid the use of armed forces and will put emphasis on the exchange of information and intelligence collaboration." Since SEDENA doesn’t have a monopoly on information, a NORAD’s strategy that concentrates on information sharing will garner more partners within the Mexican government, prove more fruitful in increasing Mexican cooperation, and open the door for collaborative planning.

The Way Ahead

NORAD can avoid political pitfalls and strengthen North American homeland defense by pursuing initiatives to improve information sharing and collaborative planning while preserving flexibility of action. Figure 1 shows this window of opportunity. Each recommendation advances the U.S. military’s ability to support the National Defense Strategy and improves effectiveness, efficiency, and/or risk reduction. The strategy leverages economic interests and partners with the Mexican Secretariat of Communication & Transportation to exert more pressure on SEDENA to engage NORAD. Even if SEDENA opts not to participate, NORAD can still pursue the information sharing initiative separately with the Secretariat of Communication & Transportation.

Figure 1. A window of Opportunity to Improve Relations with Mexico

Information Sharing

In testimony before Congress, General Ralph Eberhart commented, ""In our efforts to provide the best possible coverage of North America, we have teamed with the FAA and North American Air Surveillance Council to further enhance our wide-area surveillance capabilities." It’s now time to team up with Mexico, our under forgotten neighbors to the south.

NORAD should push to merge Mexican military and civil air traffic radar information into the Surveillance Data Network (SDN) to strengthen NORAD’s common air surveillance picture. Through SDN, Mexico would be able to plug gaps in our air surveillance system. The North American Air Surveillance Plan calls our current system "insufficient." The Plan identifies a requirement for cooperative and non-cooperative coverage 600 nautical miles beyond the border or coast, from surface to 100,000 feet mean sea level. The system also has to be operational 99.9% of the time. Mexico can certainly contribute overlapping sensors to improve coverage quality and volume to meet this requirement.

SDN is a subset of Network Enabled Operations, a concept FAA officials call "aviation information sharing on steroids." They predict Network Enabled Operations will "rock the aviation world. The 9/11 Commission Report Implementation Act will accelerate inter-agency information sharing. This legislation mandates a strict timeline and funding to develop a systems architecture that offers decentralized, distributed information sharing. The legislation is designed to replace the current "need-to-know" culture of information protection with a "need-to-share" culture of integration. Furthermore, the legislation notes, "The effective use of information, from all available sources, is essential to the fight against terror and the protection of our homeland. The biggest impediment to all-source analysis, and to a greater likelihood of ‘connecting the dots,’ is resistance to sharing information." The President will submit to Congress a system design and implementation plan for the Network to merge a diversely formatted data from all relevant Federal, State, tribal, local, and private sector entities. Once this architecture is in place for inter-agency information sharing, integrating Mexican sources into this common picture should be less complicated.

Including Mexican air traffic radar information in SDN helps satisfies the post-9/11 need for wide area surveillance. Although vastly improved from pre-9/11 days, NORAD air defense operations centers still rely on a fraction of the available radars –approximately 100 out of 500+ available sensors. Including Mexican sensors in the network would provide more coverage, a longer look, and more time to identify, react, and cue a response force to potential aerial threats. An international company recently finished revamping the Mexican En Route Radar systems with modern, compatible equipment. Figure 2 shows the radar coverage of some of the upgraded sites. Radar sites that monitor border areas like Tijuana may substitute for some of the coverage gaps created with the impending shutdown of the Tethered Aerostat Radar System. If cost proves prohibitive to integrate all Mexican civil and military radars into SDN, selecting a few choice radars on the border to incorporate into SDN would still provide a significantly increased surveillance capability for NORAD. The objective is to push the defense early warning line further south to give NORAD more time to react to potential threats. In effect, this would give NORAD the ability to monitor more "battlespace." Additional sensors are only one part of the SDN revolution.

Figure 2. Coverage of Selected Mexican En Route Air Traffic Radars (Not All Inclusive)

SDN also will improve telecommunication and automation. As one FAA official noted, "Technology to integrate [Mexican] information is not an issue." SDN will convert data into a common, IP-based (Internet-Protocol) format. This will also enable differing levels of data privileges if the U.S. chooses not to disclose selected information. Currently, the FAA "can’t hand off planes automatically" with Mexican control centers. All transfers are either completed manually or terminated at the boundary. Despite English being specified as the international aviation language, some Mexican controllers are more proficient than others. Language barriers persist which slow manual handoffs. Manual transfers aren’t the best way to pass information and increase FAA and military control center situational awareness. Manual transfers are an inefficient way to handle ever-increasing air traffic between the U.S. and Mexico. For example, total passenger and cargo traffic between Houston and Mexico has increased almost 20 percent so far this year. Including Mexican air traffic information into the SDN architecture would allow automated handoffs between U.S. and Mexican controllers, improving the flow of people and goods. Interfacing SDN primarily with Mexican civil agencies and privatized airport facilities avoids one source of conflict since stationing U.S. troops on Mexican soil isn’t necessary to export the information.

The Mexican Secretariat of Communication and Transportation, not SEDENA, is responsible for the civilian air traffic system. That department has already demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on information exchange and developed a statistical exchange program with the U.S. Department of Transportation. Also, the lead negotiator to include Mexican civil radars in SDN would not be the U.S. Air Force, but rather the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA and the Mexican Secretariat of Communications and Transportation are both receptive to any program that advances aviation and transportation commerce. Since the FAA is a civilian agency, working through an FAA negotiator would help shield Mexican mistrust of U.S. defense policy from the negotiating table. SEDENA would be less likely to object because they would disproportional benefit from U.S. information sources that strengthen their air surveillance picture within their borders.

Integrating Mexico into the SDN would complement recent SEDENA efforts to strengthen their domestic air picture. SEDENA established the Sistema Integral de Vigilancia Aerea en Mexico, linking select military radar sites together to relay a fused air picture to their headquarters in Mexico City. Mexico purchased three Embraer EMB-145 airborne early warning platforms for their Fuerza Aerea and several E-2 Hawkeye aircraft for the Navy to supplement their ground-based radar coverage. US embassy officials had positive initial feedback to a proposal to get Embraer and U.S. AWACS crews together to exchange ideas and participate in training sessions. SEDENA accepted special assistance and information from U.S. AWACS in support of a national security event last year. The SEDENA leadership also has tenatively accepted an invitation to visit NORAD´s Southeast Air Defense Sector headquarters at Tyndall AFB, Florida this summer. All this activity and interest in strengthening Mexico´s domestic air picture bodes well for more robust future cooperation.

Collaborative Planning

In addition to benefiting from a common air surveillance picture, the Mexico government would be receptive to efforts to give them a voice in North American aerospace defense planning. Embassy officials acknowledge, Mexico would "strongly consider any initiative that recognizes them as an equal partner in North American security." Specifically, the U.S. and Canada should invite Mexico to participate in the North American Aerospace Surveillance Council (NAASC) and NORAD’s Bi-national Planning Group (BPG).

Including Mexico in the NAASC will allow a forum to address Mexican air surveillance and air traffic concerns and identify shared requirements to find the best use of existing and future systems. The NAASC provides executive oversight for the implementation of the North American Air Surveillance Plan, continued refinement of air surveillance requirements, and a coordination for operational and policy issues. As a bi-national, interagency coordinating body, the NAASC "makes sense and is ‘good government,’ even in the absence of a formal structure." Including Mexico in the NAASC would be relatively easy because of its informal working group structure. Since the NAASC is not a U.S. Northern Command body, Mexico would be more willing to participate. Mexican representatives could at least be exposed to U.S. and Canadian air surveillance requirements and think about how to contribute.

Inviting Mexico liaison officers to observe and/or participate in NORAD’s BPG would open communications and may led to the establishment of a coordination mechanism with relevant Mexican and U.S. agencies for air, land, sea, and civil support contingency plans. The focus isn’t necessarily to coordinate a U.S. military response with Mexican forces, but rather provide a clearinghouse of information and make visible potential capabilities each nation could request in case of need. For example, Mexicans would be privy to U.S. discussions on a planned inter-agency response to a natural disaster near a border area. Mexican representatives could evaluate planned responses for deficiencies and help synchronize military assistance to civil authorities on each side of the border. Another benefit would be to maintain awareness of emerging situations of shared concern. Lastly, Mexican participation in the BPG would allow an exchange of critical infrastructure priority lists and a comparison of plans to protect shared infrastructure.

Flexibility of Action

Improving information sharing and collaborative planning with Mexico does not limit U.S. freedom of action. The U.S. option for unilateral action is still preserved, while offering the Mexicans more voice in continental defense plans.

Mexico is a stakeholder in North American security and NORAD should ensure their concerns have been considered. Mexico can become a valued part of the continental defense team. The goal should be to better coordinate continental defense policy and operations with Mexico to create conditions for full Mexican participation in a new partnership.

North American security is indivisible. NORAD should pursue an engagement strategy with Mexico to construct a true North American Security partnership.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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