This article pulls together primary source information concerning Exercise Vigilant Guardian on the morning of September 11, 2001. Some have argued, based on conversational fragments from the audio files of the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), that the exercise hindered the nation’s air defense response that morning. Others have inferred, based on listening to those audio files, that the exercise caused procedural problems on the NEADS operations floor. In context, both the argument and the inference are in error.
I have posted bits and pieces of this story elsewhere. In this article I pull all that together in one location to tell the complete story for the benefit of future researchers and historians. My work can be replicated. I begin with Exercise Vigilant Guardian, itself.
Exercise Vigilant Guardian
The NEADS audio files for Sep 3-11, 2001 are archived in the Commission’s files at NARA, and NARA has provided me a copy. It took five months of work, off and on, to piece together the exercise as it actually occurred. I documented that work in a series of articles as a reference for anyone interested in the subject.
Briefly, the exercise was building gradually over the days and, as of 9/11, NEADS was poised to move to 24-hour operations, twelve-hour shifts, as the pace accelerated. The exercise was not continuous activity. Rather, it was a series of discrete events, one or two major ones each day, some overlapping, some not.
One important task exercised was the assumption that one of the three sectors–NEADS, WADS (Western Air Defense Sector), and SEADS (Southeast Air Defense Sector)–became incapacitated thus requiring an adjustment in coverage. Specifically, on the night of September 10, WADS became incapacitated and NEADS had to assume air responsibility for the western United States. Concurrently, SEADS assumed air defense responsibility for the Northeast from NEADS. In both cases the assumption of air sovereignty was for both exercise and real world activity.
The expansion, as it was called, transferred radar sites, one by one, a deliberate process that took time. That nightime expansion by NEADS to the west and then reassumption of air sovereignty for the Northeast was the last Exercise Vigilant Guardian event. The scheduled resumption of exercise play on the morning of 9-11 was overtaken by real world events.
Because NEADS was poised to resume the exercise, the Battle Cab was fully manned and additional watchstanders were on the premises and immediately available. There was no need to recall anyone. That state of readiness was succinctly captured by William Scott in the title of an Aviation Weekly and Space Technology article, written in 2002, “Exercise Jump-Starts Response to Attacks.” That jump start began with the initial call to NEADS from Boston Center and we begin with Joe Cooper’s phone call to Sergeant Powell.
Exercise-related floor conversations
Powell, as trained to do and as practiced habitually during the previous days, immediately asked the critical question: “Is this real world or exercise?” That question and answer immediately established that NEADS was dealing with a real world event. 0911121716 Phone Rings Boston Calling
Subsequent mentions of the exercise were NEADS personnel answering outside calls, commenting among themselves or to themselves, or directing specific action. For anyone who has worked in a 24-hour operations center, with both real world and exercise responsibilities, all the commentary captured on the NEADS tapes is normal, routine, and expected. There is nothing that can be construed, in context, as a hindrance.
The first reference, at 0843, came from Major Fox, the Senior Director. Fox, a long-time NEADS watchstander, had participated in the last real world hijacking event nearly a decade earlier. He was intimately familiar with sector procedures. As he launched into action he mused that “he had never seen so much real world activity during an exercise.” 0843 real world stuff
At 0844 the Air Surveillance Technician shifted his assets to accommodate the real world requirement. He had one crew on the floor and, as did Powell before him, reacted based on his training and experience without the need for guidance from above. He simply shifted one of his surveillance technicians, commenting that “the exercise is gonna’ have to go on a little bit of hold here, that’s all.” 0844 AST Shift one of these guys down
At 0857 the Mission Crew Commander, Major Nasypany, during a briefing to Colonel Marr in the Battle Cab, opined with a laugh, “think we put the exercise on hold, what do you think?” 0857 MCC Exercise on hold
At 0915 an off duty person called in asking the ID section if the exercise had been put on hold. He was told “not at this time, no, but I think they’re going to.” At that time, exercise activity for the day had not yet started. 0915 Not at this time
In perspective, NEADS had now been involved with real world activity for thirty seven minutes and, other than the initial call, there had been just four exercise references, two in passing (Fox, Nasypany) one a statement of intent (AST) and one a response to an outside call. It would be another fifteen minutes before the exercise was again mentioned.
At 0930, two quick comments on two different channels provide explicit information that the electronic exercise feed had started and was immediately recognized by the MCC, Major Nasypany, as such. Without seconds of Nasypany’s direction to suppress the feed a floor announcement was made to the surveillance section to turn off sim [exercise] switches. As earlier, NEADS training kicked in and floor personnel responded immediately to orders. Major Nasypany effectively terminated the exercise as soon as it started, he did not wait for guidance or direction from above. Here are two clips containing the MCC order and the rapid execution of that order. 0930 MCC Get rid of that crap 0930 Turn off sim switches
Ten more minutes passed before another reference was made concerning what was being seen on the scopes. Although the comment appeared to be exercise related it was not. The commenter said, “get the Goddam friendlies out of my face.” That was the head of the surveillance section speaking on the same channel that contained the “turn off sim switches” order earlier. He was interested in primary tracks, only. 0940 friendlies out of my face
There was a single additional exercise reference prior to 1000. Sergeant Powell had called a unit asking for their help and the person at the other end questioned the authority for such a request. At the end of the call either Powell or another voice joked, “are you sure this isn’t an exercise.” Here is that statement, in context. 0946 You sure this isn’t an exercise
At 1006 at the MCC Technician position, MSGT McCain took an outside call. The caller asked if the exercise was knocked off. McCain responded, “the exercise was cancelled, torn all that apart, sir.” That call established the reality of the situation at the key position on the NEADS floor, the MCC position. The exercise had long since gone by the wayside. 1006 Exercise cancelled torn all that apart
Two minutes later, at 1008, MSGT McCain, in reaction to MSGT Dooley providing detail about a bomb on board UA 93, commented, in near gallows humor, “if this is an exercise input, it’s a good one.” 1008 If exercise input, a good one
At 1011 Captain Nagel, a weapons controller, received a call from Cheyenne Mountain tech control requesting that all exercise inputs be terminated. The caller had the wrong number and Nagel referred him to the right number. Captain Nagel answered the phone “sim,” and immediately corrected himself. That was not an exercise reference. Captain Nagel had been working in the sim cell previously and simply forgot his new position which was activated at 0947 to handle the Midwest and the search for UA 93. 1011 Cheyenne Mt call
at 1014 Sergeant Richmond, the Air Surveillance Technician, got the followup call from Cheyenne Mountain. He was told to terminate all exercise inputs, “exercise side only.” Richmond responded, “looks like all our exercise tracks are down, are gone.” 1014 Cheyenne Mt terminate all exercise inputs
At 1020 Cheyenne Mountain again verified in a conference call that all sectors had terminated exercise tracks. NEADS responded, “Northeast, nothing going out, exercise.” 1020 Cheyenne Mt roll call
That bit of higher headquarters housekeeping ended the technical side of Exercise Vigilant Guardian. The people side never started that morning and when the technical feed started Major Nasypany stopped it in its tracks, long before Cheyenne Mountain got around to a system-wide shutdown.
In the space of 100 minutes there were fourteen possible exercise-related references in the NEADS tapes, including the original alert from Boston Center. That is a rate of one every seven minutes. However, five of those references were after UA 93 crashed and the battle was effectively over. Three of those five were housekeeping actions by Cheyenne Mountain technicians.
Of the nine references during the battle, three were NEADS floor operational decisions, two related to the MCC immediate decision to stop the electronic exercise feed once it started, and one related to the Surveillance Section shifting resources to the real world event. One was the original call from Boston Center, and one was an outside caller asking for information.
That left just four references as possible sources of confusion. Three were musings or opinions, one by Major Fox, one by Major Nasypany, and one related to Sergeant Powell. None of the three related in any way to the three major activity centers on the NEADS operations floor–Identification, Surveillance, and Weapons Control. The fourth apparent reference was not exercise related.
Based on the primary source information of the day, the voices of NEADS personnel at work, there was no exercise-related activity that interfered with the real world air defense mission.