9-11: Exercise Vigilant Guardian 01; a summation


The purpose of this article is to summarize Exercise Vigilant Guardian for the period September 3 through September 11, 2001, as captured on audio files at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS).  I have told the story of each day, separately, in a series of previous articles. That compilation allows us to make observations about the NEADS state of preparedness for the terrorist attack on the morning of September 11, 2001 (9-11)

NEADS–as does every military unit–trained as it expected to fight.  Exercise Vigilant Guardian 01 was one in a series of annual exercises that prepared NEADS for present and future operations.  NORAD officials described the exercise to the 9-11 Commission Staff as a preparation for war exercise

NEADS protected the East coast of the United States from attack.  Its focus was outward, as NORAD officials testified to the Commission.  The line of defense was the ADIZ, Air Defense Identification Zone.  NEADS activities during Exercise Vigilant Guardian were largely predicated on the ADIZ and the relationship of potential targets to it.

NEADS partner

NEADS activity, both real world and exercise, was routinely coordinated with its primary partner, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  As revealed in Exercise Vigilant Guardian, however, that partnership was strictly with the FAA’s ARTCCs (Air Route Traffic Control Centers), specifically Boston, Washington, and New York Centers.

NEADS also routinely dealt with AMIS (Air Management Information System) at New York Center.  That AMIS-centric relationship was quickly and efficiently extended to Miami AMIS when NEADS expanded to cover for SEADS during Exercise Vigilant Guardian.

The Threat

The threat was any unknown or potential enemy track that penetrated the ADIZ.  Tracks over land, unless they were tagged as a special, were routinely dropped from the scopes of the surveillance trackers because they had no interest in them.

Any commercial flight that originated in the continental United States and was squawking was friendly, by definition.  Any Russian, Cuban, or Chinese commercial or military flight, real world or exercise, was immediately labeled a special track.

NEADS keep close track of DVFR (Defense Visual Flight Rules) flights (see AMIS link, above) and any such track was always reported to NEADS by the FAA Centers.

Such flights—cable checkers, fish spotters, hurricane hunters—typically exited the ADIZ for an extended period of time, often on the order of 10-12 hours.  The flights became problematic on their return if they did not check in with air traffic control or had forgotten to turn on their transponders.  DVFR flights were always of interest to NEADS, both exercise and real world.

Real World vs. Exercise

NEADS habitually distinguished exercise from real world activity, according to the audio files from the various positions on the SOCC (Sector Operations Control Center) floor.  NEADS was capable of operating in separate mode or “mixed mode” for scope display of tracks of interest.  According to the audio files, NEADS operated in mixed mode at least once during the period Sep 3-10, 2001.

On that occasion, NEADS was required to expand operations to cover for the Southeast Air Defense Sector (SEADS), for the exercise.  NEADS elected to make the expansion real world as well and went into mixed mode to do that.  NEADS had little difficulty keeping exercise and real world activity separate throughout the exercise, regardless of the mode of operation.

Essential Points

1.  NEADS was not encumbered by Exercise Vigilant Guardian, in fact just the opposite. A weapons director setting up her position summed it up best in an observation made when she became the Weapons Director for the Midwest mid-morning on 9-11.  She said, “Could you imagine what it would be like on a normal weapons day.”  She then elaborated that at least we have twelve-hour manning here and we are set up to press with twelve hours.  She also set up a scope for someone and turned the sim switches off and exercise bases off, a clear indication of NEADS distinction between exercise and real world.  09111134326 Captain Shelley Comment

Vigilant Guardian was a gradually escalating sequence of discrete events.  The last event before the attack ended at 0430 in the morning.  Thereafter, the SOCC floor was quiet with no exercise activity and little real world activity.  The crew changed, the Battle Cab formed up, and everyone was in place for the morning’s exercise event.  It never came.

Instead, Sergeant Jeremy Powell took a real world hijack call from Boston Center shortly before 0838 local time.  NEADS immediately sprang into action, soon became fully operational, and was able to quickly expand operations as needed without having to recall anyone.

2.  NEADS established and exercised habitual relationships with the FAA’s Air Route Traffic Control Centers. In an earlier article I described the only way NEADS could have tracked and possibly intercepted any of the four hijacked aircraft, given the lack of timely notification on AA 11 and AA 77 and no notification for UA 175 and UA 93.  That required Colonel Robert Marr, the protector of the National Airspace System in the Northeast, to be in close and continuous contact with the operator of the NAS, Benedict Sliney, at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC/Herndon Center).

That never happened that morning, The relationship was not tested, even notionally, during Exercise Vigilant Guardian.  Neither key individual knew of the others existence.

It is clear from the audio files that NEADS habitually worked directly with the individual ARTCCs.  Even when NEADS expanded to cover for SEADS and then WADS they immediately established contact with the ARTCCs in those areas.

That working relationship with the very same ARTCCs that reported to Herndon Center was particularly close with Boston Center, to the point that Exercise Vigilant Guardian controllers used the persona of a military specialist (Colin Scoggins) to place exercise calls to the NEADS SOCC.

In my work on Chaos Theory and 9-11 I refer to the relationship between NEADS and Boston Center as “strange attractors,” in the language of that theory.  They were not strangers to each other. What was “strange” was that relationship was not recognized until after the fact.

3.  NEADS exercised no relevant hijacking or terrorist scenarios, at least up to the morning of 9-11. There was a hijacking of a Cubana flight by persons seeking political asylum and asking to go to JFK airport.  That event was resolved by SEADS before the flight could be “handed off” to NEADS.

There was a terrorist threat to blow up an airplane over New York City, but it was not a hijacking.  The pilot was not aware that he had terrorists on board.  NEADS  was supposed to deny an FAA request to divert the aircraft to Bangor AFB.  The SOCC did not push back and the plane “exploded” after landing.

4.  NEADS did exercise rules of engagement. A rogue F-18 pilot had “shot” his wingman and was harassing civilian air traffic.  Shoot down authority was transmitted to the cockpit but was immediately withdrawn when the pilot “reported” that he was over a populated area.

5.  NEADS knew how to intercept targets, if established. Routinely, both exercise and real world, NEADS demonstrated that it had tactics, techniques and procedures in place to intercept targets.  The predicate always, however, was that they had a defined target to which the scrambled aircraft could be “paired” (linked).

The procedure was straight forward.  The Identification or Surveillance Technicians would identify a target either by observing it on a scope or via an alert from an outside agency, typically an FAA Center.  Once a numbered track was established the Identification Technicians had either two or five minutes, depending on the target and its location to determine it to be friendly or unknown.  If unknown after the set time expired then the MCC would order the Senior Director to scramble air defense fighters from Langley or Otis for real world and, typically from either Burlington or Atlantic City for exercise.  Once airborne, the fighters were controlled by a Weapons Director under the supervision of the Senior Director and vectored to intercept the target with specific instructions on how to proceed.  The process worked time after time after time, given the predicate, a defined target.

During the actual battle of 9-11 there was just one target established and tracked, B089 for Delta 1989, but it was not exploited.  There were no fighters immediately available.  There was one additional target established but not tracked, B032 for AA 77.  The Langley fighters were paired to it, but it faded before it could be exploited or forward told to CONR and NORAD.

There was no target established for either UA 175 or UA 93.  In lieu of a target  for AA 11 NEADS established a “Z” point based on the coordinates passed by ZBW to Major Deskins at 8:40 and the Surveillance Technicians “hit up” targets in a 25 mile radius.  That proved futile as AA 11 was to the south descending over Manhattan and into the north face of the World Trade Center North Tower.  There was no predicate,  Mohammed Atta turned off the best source of information, the transponder.