The Battle of 9-11: An Act of War; the Principles of War, considered


Heretofore, the conventional wisdom has been that the event known as 9/11 was a terrorist attack. Many analyses, including mine, have bounced along that road, poorly defined, with predictable results. The literature, published or web, has yet to come to grips with what happened that day.

In this article I take a new approach. After months of reflection, measured in years, my understanding is that the chaos of the day, in the days thereafter, and continuing to this day, is the aftermath of a deliberate military strike, an attack on two axes of advance, each axis with two prongs.  The purpose of such an attack is to cause confusion and chaos that becomes unmanageable for those who defend against it.

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to begin a new discussion, one that will ultimately lead us to chaos theory. We begin with a classical approach, consideration of the Principles of War.

The Principles of War

All students at the several military colleges and schools, to include the service academies, and ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) chapters at high schools, universities and colleges have learned these principles by studying significant battles of history, such as Gettysburg, for example. It is time to add the battle of 9/11 to the study list.

Here are the principles as published Army doctrine, as taught at the Worchester Military Institute. The order of listing provides a convenient memory aide MOOSE MUSS, the first letter of each principle.

9 Principles of War

The nine Principles of War, as defined in the Army Field Manual FM-3 Military Operations:



Mass Concentrate combat power at the decisive place and time
Objective Direct every military operation towards a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective
Offensive Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative
Surprise Strike the enemy at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he is unprepared
of Force
Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts
Maneuver Place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power
Unity of
For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander
Security Never permit the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage
Simplicity Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding

The Principles and the Battle of 9/11

Mass. The attackers concentrated combat power at the decisive place and time.  The matter of scale does not matter. The attack was small scale in terms of the actual mass; it was large scale in terms of the effect of that mass.  Grade: 100/100.

Objective. The attackers directed the operation towards two clearly defined, decisive, and obtainable objectives. The preliminary objective was to overwhelm the National Airspace System (NAS) by commandeering four commercial aircraft operating in that system.  The final objective was to use those four aircraft as missiles and damage or destroy four specific targets; the two towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Capitol. Grades: 100/100 and 75/100, respectively.

Offensive. The attackers seized, retained, and exploited the initiative. They successfully passed through every barrier to entry to the NAS, to include secondary screening at security checkpoints. A misstep occurred when Mohammed Atta became visibly angry when he learned he would have to pass through security a second time at Logan International. The attackers failed to retain and exploit the initiative after they seized United Airlines Flight 93 (UA 93).  Grade: 74/100.

Surprise. The attackers struck the enemy at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he was unprepared. Surprise was near total, at all levels of government, highest to lowest. The attackers did not maintain the advantage of surprise aboard UA 93. The remaining crew and passengers on that flight learned enough of the battle plan to thwart the attack on the final target. Grade: 88/100. (half credit for UA 93, initial objective achieved, final objective not achieved)

Economy of Force. The attackers allocated no essential combat power to secondary efforts.  Further, retrospectively, they assessed that each attack element required 5 members; two in the cockpit, one to guard the cockpit door, and two to control the passengers. We know there were two in the cockpit based on the cockpit voice recording from UA 93. At some point, a tactical decision was made to allocate just four attackers to flight UA 93. This is an indicator that New York City was a higher priority than Washington D.C. Grade: 95/100.

Maneuver. The attackers placed the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power. Once the aircraft were commandeered their combat power resided in the transponders. We know, retrospectively, that each of the four transponders was manipulated differently and each manipulation provided a different problem to a separate Air Traffic Control Center.

Boston Center had to decide what to do with an airplane that ceased transponding before its turn towards target. Boston Center retained responsibility for American Airlines Flight 11, leaving the AA 11 flight plan in the system because the Center concluded it could not hand the plane off to New York Center.  New York Center, therefore, had to enter a new track, AA 11A, in order to follow the flight.

New York Center, while engaged in the hunt for AA 11/AA 11A, was confronted with a Mode C intruder, code 3020/3321. The intruder was United Airlines Flight 175, a transponding aircraft that did not correlate to anything in the air traffic control system.

Indianapolis Center had to decide what to do with an airplane that ceased transponding during its turn towards target. Further, Indianapolis Center lost the capability to display American Airlines Flight 77 as a radar target on its air traffic control scopes. Indianapolis Center concluded that the plane was lost, perhaps down, and it initiated rescue procedures by contacting its next higher headquarters while concurrently notifying the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Langley AFB.

Cleveland Center had to decide what to do with an airplane that ceased transponding after its turn toward target. Cleveland Center concluded that it could transfer control to Washington Center and did so by entering a new flight plan for United Airlines Flight 93 into the system.  Whereas Boston Center left the flight plan for AA 11 in the air traffic control system, Cleveland Center entered a new flight plan for UA 93. United 93 “landed” notionally at National Airport at 10:28 EDT.

The attackers ability to maneuver was transcendent. It did not matter whether or not they had any idea of what would transpire in the defense. It was sufficient for them to understand that four different situations presented to four different air traffic control centers would be problematic. Grade: 150/100. (bonus points awarded)

Unity of Command. The attackers, for every objective, ensured unity of effort under one responsible commander. The planners delegated significant authority to the attacking party. The attacking party responded to the leadership of Mohammad Atta. Even though the fourth pilot, Ziad Jarrah, designated pilot for UA 93, was consistently distracted that distraction did not detract from this principle of war. Grade: 100/100.

Security. The attackers, with the exception of those in the cabin of UA 93, never permitted the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage. With the exception of Atta’s anger, as discussed previously, not one attacker flinched or betrayed that attack at any point while entering the NAS. The attackers lost the advantage of security aboard UA 93 because they were short one member and those in the cabin did not deny the passengers contact with the outside world. Grade: 80/100.

Simplicity. With the understanding that this was not a simple attack, the attackers did prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding. Every attacker understood his job and everyone was well prepared for the task at hand. The Last Night document attests to the detail of the planning.

By extending the scope of the attack to include an assault on Washington D.C., the attackers introduced a level of complexity that, while unnecessary for an attack against New York City, was necessary to cause uncertainty and confusion in the defense. Atta’s pronouncement to the air traffic control world, “we have some planes,” was, in my estimation, deliberate.  The attackers disregard for simplicity in favor of complexity was intentional. They took their chances with this principle of war. Grades: 100/100 for execution, 75/100 for planning.


Overall, in terms of the principles of war, the attackers met nearly every requirement for a high, but not perfect, score.  The attack was necessarily complex, it lacked focus in the southern axis of attack, and it lacked a 20th attacker to round out the fourth crew.

The battle of 9/11 was a preemptive military strike against an unprepared enemy and it caused chaos, the ripple effect of which is felt to this day.

What’s Next

I will publish two additional articles in this series. The next article will discuss the military aspects of the operation as they might have been drawn up by a planner or tactician using the staff officer’s tool of choice, a powerpoint. The final article will extend the discussion to chaos theory.

An attack on two axes each with two prongs is intended to cause confusion and chaos in the defense. And that is exactly what happened.