Yesterday, June 15, 2009, I received an email from author Phil Shenon asking what I knew about a recent document posted on Scribd by History Commons. That document, posted and discussed here, is one of many work papers I created during my work on the 9-11 Commission Staff. I had forgotten about it until Phil jogged my memory. The document was prepared to list what we knew about exercises before we traveled to NORAD Headquarters. On that trip, concerning exercises, we were primarily interested in talking to Ken Merchant, purported to know more about the history of NORAD exercises than anyone else. A copy of the MFR of our conversation with him prior to going to NORAD is here.
Every day in the military is a robust training day. 9-11 was no different, especially in the air. Fighters were airborne in multiple locations, especially on the Atlantic seaboard. At Otis Air Force Base, six fighters were in the air on a training mission immediately after the two air defense alert aircraft took off in response to the events in New York City. When I saw that activity on the radar files of the day I immediately sent an e-mail to CONR asking how many aircraft Otis scrambled? The answer was just two; Panta 45 and 46, the dedicated air defense aircraft.
Before Panta 45 and 46 were scrambled three fighters from Andrews Air Force Base took off for scheduled training at Dare Range over eastern North Carolina, even though the Wing had just returned from an extended training mission in Nevada and was on a training stand down the day before. (Bolded words added on July 7 to correct the record, based on training records of the day.)
The Virginia/North Carolina border area on the coast was an especially busy place in the air that morning. Among others the alert fighters at Langley, themselves, were scheduled for two v two training with the regular Wing at Langley. Because it was a robust training day tankers were plentiful and NEADS was easily able to refuel its air defense fighters.
A good web discussion of NORAD exercises (and war games) is this analysis. The analysis is consistent with my recall of what the Commission staff learned. It concludes, as did we, that ongoing exercises involving NORAD—Vigilant Guardian and Global Guardian—did not interfere with NORAD’s real world mission that day. At NEADS, exercises as an intervening variable was dismissed in seconds when Boston ATC called for the first time.
Jeremy Powell: “Is this real world or exercise?”
Boston ATC: “…not an exercise, not a test.”
That simple exchange focused NEADS on the task at hand. As with training, the overall impact of exercises was positive. Key staff was already in position at all NORAD echelons which meant that the Battle Cab at NEADS was fully manned and operational when Powell sounded the alarm.
The most serious event and potential threat of the day was a scheduled Russian cruise missile live-fire exercise. This was a first in nearly a decade and signaled a return of the old Soviet threat. In response, NORAD was participating in Operation Northern Vigilance; not an exercise. Although air defense aircraft were forward deployed in Canada and Alaska, there was only one slight effect on the air defense mission for the Continental United States. Because air defense fighters were loaded with extra armament and fuel their top speed was limited, but that didn’t matter. The Otis and Langley fighters were not going to go that fast anyway.
Air defense techniques and procedures are well established and they call for air defense fighters to fly subsonic. NORAD specified in its September 18, 2001, press release that the time for the fighters to travel to a given location could be determined using a speed of .9 Mach. There are very good reasons for this. First, the fighters must arrive safely at their destination through traffic without running into something. Second, they need the capability to remain on target—dwell time–until tanker support can be arranged. Third, they need to be going slow enough on arrival to spot a slower moving target.
There are two issues concerning training, exercises, and war games. First is the notion that the US Government, NORAD specifically, had an exercise history which specified that hijackers would seize multiple aircraft and use them as weapons. Second is the impression that ongoing exercises and war games on 9-11 impeded or hampered the air defense response. The answer to the first issue is that the exercise history did not prepare either NORAD or the US Government to face the threat it did on 9-11. While exercise scenarios generally included a hijack as one event, such play was notional, a paper exercise. The answer to the second issue is that the ongoing training, exercises and war games were a net positive for the air defense response that day.