Center for Strategic Communication

NORAD deputy commander and Canadian Forces Col. Todd Balfe, right, on board a Fencing 1220 aircraft with Russian Air Force Col. Alexander Vasilyev during Vigilant Eagle 2011. This year’s exercises brings officers like Vasilyev out of the skies and into NORAD’s headquarters. Photo: U.S. Northern Command

During the Cold War, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, watched out for a potential nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. But times have changed. Now NORAD is inviting members of the Russian military in.

This week, a group of Russian officers will train alongside their U.S. and Canadian counterparts to respond to a simulated terrorist hijacking above the Arctic Circle. One group, led by Maj. Gen. Sergei Dronov, is operating out of Norad’s HQ at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. A second will work out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. Still more Russian troops will operate in Russia’s far east.

“What makes this year interesting is that the Russian personnel from the Russian Federation air force are actually here at NORAD headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs,” Royal Canadian Navy Lt. Al Blondin, a NORAD spokesman, tells Danger Room.

For all the fears of a new Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, it’s worth noting that Ivan is now training within the heart of America’s defense network. The partnership underscores how the already poor chances of an armed conflict erupting between Russia and the West is becoming even more remote.

Nor is this kind of exercise entirely new. NORAD and Russia have been carrying out the exercise — called Vigilant Eagle — for several years, but those exercises involved real-life pilots from Russia and the U.S. scrambling to intercept a “hijacked” airliner as it transited the air-space border over the Arctic. This one’s computer-simulated, and emphasizes more face-to-face time between Russian officers and their counterparts inside America’s aerial defense headquarters.

“It’s basically an ability to better network with our Russian counterparts,” Blondin says. “So if there’s a situation where an aircraft of interest is intercepted over one airspace and then has to carry on into the next airspace, well, how do we handle the logistics and the protocol from one nation to another?”

This year’s exercise — which starts today and runs through Wednesday — scaled back on the hardware, and is entirely performed on computers with no actual aircraft. One reason, Blondin says, is due to the fact that it’s cheaper to simulate the hijacking with computers than it is to fly real planes. It’s budget crunch-time, after all. Last year’s exercise, for instance, including the most expensive fighter jet in history, the F-22 Raptor.

NORAD is testing two scenarios. In one, a commercial airliner traveling to Russia from Alaska is hijacked. In the other, an airliner from Russia is captured while heading into U.S. airspace. Communications with the plane ceases. Fighter aircraft from both countries are then scrambled to intercept and have to work out how to transfer authority once the hijacked plane crosses international boundaries.

The main challenge, Blondin says, is communication. This has been a recurring problem. Following a live exercise in 2010, Canadian Air Force Col. Todd Balfe wrote in the The Canadian Air Force Journal (.pdf) that “communication between former Cold War adversaries was an immense obstacle.” NORAD wouldn’t comment to Danger Room whether these challenges have been overcome, but Balfe noted problems were resolved with translators and communicating over Skype — not the most secure, but it worked. Balfe also noted difficulties working with “highly process-driven and top-down Russian decision making.”

This year’s exercise, though, takes place during a period of seeming anxiety between the U.S. and Russia. Moscow has taken flak for the jailing of punk rockers Pussy Riot. There’s the mutual finger-pointing between the two countries’ diplomats over who is arming whom in Syria. When Congress returns in September, it may approve the Magnitsky Act, which would ban human rights offenders in Russia from entering the United States. Vladimir Putin is not happy about that — but then again, neither is Barack Obama.

This month, Russia finally joined the World Trade Organization after 18 years of trying. The U.S. has been supportive, but Congress hasn’t yet followed up and granted Russia permanent normal trade relations status. And, of course, there’s the acrimony over the U.S.’s plans to install a missile defense shield in Europe and Russia’s displeasure with new sanctions against Iran.

On the other hand, that’s only one side of the story, and doesn’t mean relations have degraded to a level that’s simply unworkable. “I don’t think that we have entered any ‘new’ period, that Russia has taken a harsher stance toward the United States (as the media sometimes put it), that our priorities have changed and that the ‘reset’ has winded down without any results. This is absolutely wrong,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told the Times of London last month.

And for those worried about a coming naval Arctic war, the U.S., Russia and Norway met up in August to train together and “perform firing exercises at an above-surface target,” Russian navy spokesman Vadim Serga told RIA Novosti. The exercise ended over the weekend, and also included training to counter piracy and terrorism.

Still, training at sea — and in the air — is one thing. Training with Russian officers inside NORAD’s headquarters, given its history as the watchdog for a dreaded catastrophic war with a rival superpower, is a sign that we probably don’t need to worry that much about going to war with the Ivans.