9-11: Training, Exercises, and War Games; some collected thoughts

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.

22 thoughts on “9-11: Training, Exercises, and War Games; some collected thoughts”

  1. Kevin, hello.

    First let me thank History Commons up front for the massive upload effort you have ongoing. That is a huge, worthwhile undertaking which will serve us all well. I have made several trips to NARA and you have saved me many more.

    Second, go slow with the questions. I am relearning old terrain and it will take a while. My primary interest is in building on what we established and reported and in completing my PhD work. I will be focusing on Chaos Theory and the events of 9-11. I have a short entry on my blog to that effect. I don’t intend to debate the facts of the day; they are well established. Can we add to the sum total of our knowledge? Absolutely.

    Finally, I didn’t see/hear a tape/film of the White House conference. The item of interest to me was the NMCC’s Air Threat Conference Call, which we had access to in both tape and transcript form.


    Miles Kara

  2. Kevin, by the way, are you actually in the Czech Republic? Kara is a Czech name (well, also Russian and Turkish) and my paternal grandfather came from the old country. According to my late grandmother we are, proudly, Bohunks.

    Your second question has a false premise, “the air defense response to the attacks was poor.” That comes at the issue backwards. The air defense response was about as good as it could be, other than the Langley misdirection. The air defenders need a target; the only one they had was the track, B32, just prior to AA77 slamming into the Pentagon. Also, NEADS only had four planes at its command and they had to use them wisely; hence the decision to go to battle stations at 9:09 vice scramble. Boston ATC actions are commendable, they bypassed all existing procedures and worked to contact NEADS directly. They did that two different ways and both efforts resulted in simultaneous calls to NEADS, one from Dan Bueno and a second from Otis Tower which you can hear in the background on the NEADS tapes while Dawn Deskins is talkiing to Bueno. Thanks to the false info about AA11 reborn NEADS responded quickly to what turned out to be AA77. I will have more to say about that in an article at some point. But, for now, read my article about ghosts and transponders.

    The White House conference (presume you mean Richard Clarke) was irrelevant to the response. The solution, as has been in effect since that day, is direct comms between the air defenders and the air traffic controllers. If the NMCC and the White House need to get involved it is too late.



  3. See my article on NORAD’s Sudoku puzzle as a starting point. Also, on the History Commons site look for and find the MCC/T NEADS log, a singularly important document.

  4. Reasonable question. Couple of points for you to consider. What is it that the air defenders were supposed to do? How many targets were they provided? Reread chapter one of the Commission Report.

  5. John, thanks for the interest.

    Spend some time listening to the primary source information, the tapes from NEADS. Sure, there are sporadic comments as you detail, but none of that detracted from the work on the SOC floor as becomes abundantly clear as you listen to the voices of the day. You may wish it to be different, but that’s not the case. The key players, Marr (not on tape, but on the other end of Nasypany’s summations), Nasypany, and Fox, performed well, given the information they had.

    There were no pilots or ground crews to interview, the exercises were Command Post Exercises (CPX) and Northern Vigilance involved the air defenders in Alaska and Canada, not CONUS. Those distinctions are often overlooked. None of the CONUS air defenders were involved in war games that day. The Langley alert fighters were scheduled for training as I said, but that didn’t occur. Otis was able to generate follow-on aircraft to replace Duffy and Nash because of the ongoing training activity there, by the way.

    Rethink your gestalt about the events of the day in light of the above.

    Thank you for the interest and the response.

  6. Well, Kyle, hello and good to hear from you.

    You have some perceptions that I need to clear up, which will help you in your own continuing work.

    First, it is by no means a “simple” question. I have a think piece on my web site on Chaos Theory. Take a look at it; it will tell you where I am coming from on my own work. The “simple” question is complex and it was a chaotic moment. John Farmer and I intuitively believe that the report is actually conflated information concerning AA77, but no one knew where AA77 was. American Airlines thought it was the second airplane into the towers, for example. Colin Scoggins is certain the information came from Dave Canoles at FAA HQ: Dave didn’t remember it that way. At that moment, circa 9:20+, reports of the missing AA77 were being discussed. There was also the issue of what, exactly, hit the towers. We know that New York Center established a new track, AA 11A which was last “seen” south of JFK. See my think piece on transponders and ghosts for more insight on this. Bottom line is the erroneous report triggered the Langley scramble and accelerated the air defense response. John Farmer has a book coming out, “Ground Truth,” and I’m sure he will have more to say on this exceedingly compext issue.

    Second, Mark Gaffney wrote a book based on eye witness accounts, never a good thing to do. He got it wrong, and he now knows it. The “plane” is actually Venus 77, an E4B that took VFR, clearly to support the return of AF1 to the NCA. Here is a link to a document on History Commons that will help you understand that I was well aware of this aircraft while working on the Commission.


    I have since plotted its path out on Google Earth using the radar text files of the day. It flew westerly, north of P56, then turned back to establish a racetrack orbit in the Richmond area. It had no relationship to Guardian.

    Finally, concerning Clarke, he conflates terms. See my link to Andrew Burfeld’s work, posting as Gumboot. He explains quite thoroughly and accurately what was ongoing.


  7. Jon, hopefully that information will emerge as our work files are released by NARA; that will take time. I believe we obtained the MESL (exercise sequence lists) for at least Vigilant Guardian.

    Andrew Burfeld’s rundown (he is Gumboot in the blog world) is accurate and the best existing source on the web. I link to it in my article. I understand from my cousin who follows the blog world that the fact that I happened to reference a JREF posting is suspect. I only did that because Burfeld’s posting is the most available version of his work. Consider him the source, not JREF. The two CPX were Vigilant Guardian and Global Guardian; CPX not FTX. I don’t recall the details of either; but hijackings were not the only theme and certainly not the main theme.

    Be careful on the use of the term “war games.” That is loose language. If there was a “war game” it was the Russian live fire exercise and the NORAD (and national) response to it. That was serious business and several efforts were made early on to get the Russians to call off their plan, which they did.

    I’ll keep a lookout for our on site interview with Ken Marchant, he is the key. In fact, next time I go to NARA I’ll ask for that one, specifically. The one I link to is a pre-visit telephonic interview with him.

    Jon, I appreciate your calm, rational approach to asking questions, much appreciated.


  8. Jon, we are getting into debate mode here, which I am not going to do. You use this terminology, “the highly questionable official account of 9/11.” There is no need for us to proceed, if that is your premise. The Commission, and the Joint Inquiry before it established the facts of the day. They are not going to change. Go ahead and convene a new investigation or even two working separately, but parallel. They will come up with the same findings we did; that is all the evidence will allow.

    We all had the families questions close at hand; the history commons 9-11 files have multiple examples of this. I, alone, worked two of the questions–Payne Stewart and the seismic time of 10:06 for UA93. Both were answered; the answers, ground truth, apparently weren’t acceptable to some since they weren’t the “right” answer.


  9. Jon, you’re welcome. I stand by our work, it was a fact-based effort, both of them. I was also on the professional staff of the Joint Inquiry. My cv is readily available on the history commons site. In the upper right corner you will find a hand-written notation to the effect that I worked BTTR. That is why I was hired. Also, read the item on my site, NORAD’s sudoku puzzle. Don’t forget we made referrals to the DoD and the DoT Inspector Generals to further pursue why the story that came out in the aftermath of 9-11 was not accurate. The fact that the story that emerged wasn’t accurate does not change, in any way, the story that we told, which is accurate. The more history commons uploads our files the more the accuracy of our report is confirmed.

    Keep tuned to my site as I add items.

    Get back to me again in awhile after you’ve had time to digest things a bit more.



  10. Jon, two quick additional comments.

    First, I sometimes comment from memory because our work papers haven’t been released. If I say something that is askew, the work papers prevail.

    Second, here is the Myers response to Cynthia McKinney; hearings I watched, by the way.

    RM: The answer to the question is no, it did not impair our response, in fact General Eberhart who was in the command of the North American Aerospace Defense Command as he testified in front of the 9/11 Commission I believe – I believe he told them that it enhanced our ability to respond, given that NORAD didn’t have the overall responsibility for responding to the attacks that day. That was an FAA responsibility. But they were two CPXs; there was one Department of Justice exercise that didn’t have anything to do with the other three; and there was an actual operation ongoing because there was some Russian bomber activity up near Alaska.

    I’m moving on to other work.


  11. Kevin, Miles here, quick note. I asked NARA to reconsider Team 8, Box 8, withdrawal notices. I visited there today and made a quick review. It appears to me that a substantial portion of the withheld pages have been made available. You may want to have your team revisit that box. Miles

  12. Eric, good morning, and nice to hear from you. I am relying heavily on you and your effort to get our work files in the public domain in some sensible fashion.

    I can’t answer your questions piecemeal, I simply don’t have enough information in front of me and my recall from memory is problematic. For example, I had no active memory recall of the exercise spreadsheet until Phil Shenon jogged my memory.

    Here’s part of the problem. What you are seeing in the NARA files is just the tip of the iceberg. NARA hasn’t even begun to touch our audo files or any of the electionic files, including master data bases. I have suggested that they make the audo file of our NORAD visit to J37 a high priority, by the way.

    Let me comment on what I can, at this point. First, we are talking notional injects into exercises. There were no planes in the skies involved. There was a series of three Guardian exercises, NORAD, SpaceCom and StratCom; I think NORAD played in two of those, according to Myers testimony at the McKinney hearings. Those were both CPX. There was no impact on the air defense mission other than as I have stated–battle cabs were fully manned.

    I don’t recall the DoJ exercise and I don’t recall working on that. Not sure how I got linked to that; please check how you made that equation.

    Nothing detracted from the work on the NEADS floor; the only military element that actually ‘fought’ the battle that day. It is quite clear that the ID Techs are solely focused on getting any information they could and that the Surveillance Techs were continuously looking for tracks and that the WD/SD section under Fox was doing what it was supposed to be doing. I listened to these tapes multiple times and the concentration on the real-world task at hand is clear. Occasional exercise-related comments are just that; occasional and understandable.

    We spent a lot of time working through this whole issue and at the end of the day it was an intervening variable, but not one that was significant.

    I can comment on the NRO exercise since I’m the one that worked that. Eventually our released files will show that NRO provided us the details and there was nothing related to 9-11. NRO lives and works under one of the approach/takeoff paths to Dulles. They have long known that they were vulnerable to an accident. They scheduled an exercise predicated on an accidental crash, nothing more. There is no correlation to anything having to do with hijackings or with the events of 9-11 as they unfolded. The exercise was cancelled.

    For now, let me close with a question of my own. What exactly is it that NORAD was supposed to do if they had received timely notification, which they did not? Once hijacked, a happening totally beyond NORAD’s control, those four planes were going to come down violently. I was about 1/4 mile from the Pentagon on 9-11, see the picture in my article on becoming a Commission Staff member, and I could easily have become a victim, depending on where AA77 came down.

    Thanks again for your hard work on uploading files.


  13. Erik, hi, I’ve given some thought to your lengthy list of questions and I want to provide you a response that helps further your own efforts.

    First, let me estabish the common ground. We are both interested in making public as much of the Commission’s files as possible. We both have the same reason for doing that, to establish the facts of the day. To that end I will do what I can to assist with NARA.

    Second, as I told Jon Gold, Kyle Hence, and Kevin, I am not interested in debating the facts of the day. That is counterproductive to my own stated objectives but more important for your own endeavors. What will happen is we will enter an endless “do loop” where I answer questions and the answers are found wanting, which leads to more questions, on ad infinitum.

    As I told one of the three, in two cases where I was the sole staffer working the issue–Payne Stewart and the seismic 10:06 time for UA 93–it didn’t matter. The answers were not “right,” and not accepted in some quarters. I have now done that in a 3d case, NRO. I was the sole staffer working that issue and as I’ve told you it is a non-issue.

    Third, I have my own question on the table. What is it, exactly, that NORAD was supposed to do? Take it one step further, given perfect information and the time to respond, what is it, exactly, that NORAD was supposed to do? I have had in place a Google Alert “9-11 Commission” since late 2004. I am not aware of anyone who has ever tried to answer that question. It is, in your world, the ‘elephant in the room.’ Might be time to acknowledge that.

    Finally, I have a suggestion to help you and your colleagues further your own work in a meaningful way. It is ultimately not productive for you to engage in a continuing exchange with a single staffer whose personal recall on many of the facts of the day is nearly five years removed from the relevant work files. I submit that many of your colleagues intuitively understand this and its futility. So, if you are truly serious in getting at the issues of the day here is my suggestion.

    First, write an article in a mainstream publication outside the ‘blogosphere.’ I suggest the Washington Post sunday magazine as I example of where to publish. Or, do as Michael Bronner did and publish in a magazine such as Vanity Fair.

    Second, file suit in a court of your choice. I’m sure there are lawyers in your group who can take on this task.

    Third, petition a Congressman or Senator to task the statutory Inspectors General to open an investigation. This is the course of action I recommend. Any number of people have had success doing this. The mother of a Marine killed in El Salvador in the ‘Zona Rosa Massacre.’ petitioned Senator Shelby to find out why her son died. Senator Shelby tasked multiple statutory Inspectors General to answer that question, in detail. A private citizen, Jose Basulto, CEO of Brothers to the Rescue, petitioned Representative Dan Burton to find out why Cuba MiGs were allowed to pursue him within three nautical miles of the Continental US. Representative Burton tasked the DoD Inspector General to answer that question, in detail. You will be interested to know that Jose Basulto leveraged his own website to further his cause. The POW/MIA concerned citizens petitioned Senator Bob Smith to champion their cause. He caused an ad hoc special committee to convene and, unhappy with those results, caused the concerned statutory Inspectors General to conduct a detailed investigation. Finally, Jennifer Harbury, widow of a slain Guatemalan guerrilla leader caused the US Government to investigate the death of her husband. That was accomplished through tasking to the statutory Inspectors General by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

    Erik, I have given considerable thought and have taken the time to give you a detailed response so that you have some meaningful options beyond just nitter-nattering with a single Staffer who happens to have started a blog site to continue his work on the events of the day of 9-11. I need time to do that and engaging in endless questions and answers is not the way I choose to go.



  14. Erik, good morning. I usually go to NARA in the morning hours and target my visits for finite boxes or to do specific things. For example, on my last visit I was allowed to take photos of the poster boards that NORAD (Scott) used at the May 23 hearing and I am ginning up an article to add that information to my NORAD piece. There are, by the way, 8 1/2 by 11 copies of those poster boards in Box 8.

    I can’t answer question 7 and 8 without refreshing my memory on our NORAD trip. I’m not even sure I was in on the Merchant interview. We split up duties and I was pursuing whether or not CMOC had tapes/files of the ‘forward tell’ feed from NEADS and also in tracking down Cheri Gott. In box 8 you will find a couple of briefings that Cheri put together. The sound bite in my head is that Merchant characterized all of the injects as notional, someone’s imagination, not real world inspired.

    In regards to my question, yes that is the NORAD response that is out there, but it ignores the key question. Those four planes were going to come down somewhere and someone on the ground was going to die, perhaps me. No one has thought through the specifics of how diversion/shooting down/ramming was going to save lives on the ground. That is what I am looking for.

    I don’t mind continuing our conversation via PM, your approach is reasonable in this mode.

    Back to NARA, did you know that you can reclama withdrawal notices that aren’t caveated as classified information or closed by statute?


  15. Erik, I’ll need to see much more of our work files to even begin to address this. I’ll also need to take a look at the “Planes as Weapons” part of our work on the Joint Inquiry. The short answer, for now, is that no one put these isolated items into a threat statement that was actionable. There had not been a real-world hijack of CONUS interest for a decade and that one originated overseas. The paradigm at all levels of Government was that a hijacker would seek asylum, despite the occasional notional inject in an exercise to the contrary. No one had put together the threat that materialized on 9-11 and it wasn’t NORAD’s job to do that. That task belonged to the intelligence community and the law enforcement community.

    Couple of additional points to consider. First, the only reason we had any CONUS air defense capability at all is the Air National Guard carved out a niche mission for itself. There were just 14 aircraft available. The focus was outward despite what occasional MESL in some exercises might say, all of which were notional, by the way. The policy was that any transponding aircraft that departed from a CONUS airport was friendly, by definition. NEADS and NORAD didn’t monitor commercial civilian aircraft at all, they had no reason to and didn’t have the assets or the capability to do so.

    Given the plot as it unfolded and the notifications that were given, what is it that NORAD was supposed to do? Were they, alone, supposed to have been aware of the plot ahead of time? I think not.

    We can chat at some point at NARA this summer if convenient. I doubt anyone other than me will be blogging.

    I may end up filing some FOIA requests of my own to get at some of the underlying information, by the way.


  16. Let’s do that. You need a sensing of who I am and where I am heading. Your questions are all interesting but I really need to somehow get access to the pile of documents from which I build the spreadsheet. I’ll see what my NARA POC can do; we likely have the same POC, by the way. Mine is Kris Wilhelm.

    My thought process tells me that the overarching issue is something along the lines of “NORAD; could have or should have done more.” I wll address NRO separately as you likely have seen. That is a set piece distinct from NORAD, plus I was the only staffer that worked that issue. On the NORAD side, it was collaborative and I’m not even sure I was in on the session with Ken Merchant at NORAD.

    Interesting times and circumstances that bring us together.


  17. I’m shooting for Wednesday. I’ll look you up. I am at the mercy of I66 traffic from Prince William County, takes a while. Your POC is Reed, I am told. Miles

  18. It will be a while. I need to find as many of the underlying NORAD documents as I can locate and that may take a FOIA request or two. I will discuss NRO in a separate article sometime soon. Thanks for the interest and the question. Miles

  19. Mark, hello.

    All major government agencies have an Inspector General. The Inspector General position in the statutory IGs (e. g. DoD, State, CIA, DoJ) is filled with the advice and consent of the Senate. In other words the Executive Branch’s nominee must be approved just as Supreme Court nominees are; hearings are held. Since the statutory Inspectors General are approved by the Senate they are attentive to Congressional requests for reviews. The examples I cited are ones that I personally worked on.

    Getting your Congressman or Senator to act is a matter of persistence and the presentation of a case that has some merit to it. I’m not sure the personal connection is mandatory, but it certainly helps. In your case, the statutory IG to query is problematic; perhaps the DoT (Transportation), perhaps Treasury or DoJ. Somehow you will need to make a national level connection beyond the City and State level.

    In your case, you will have great difficulty in making the case because there is no credible evidence to support your hypothesis. Having said that, read my article on A Framework For Analysis. That is a neutral framework which mandates that an hypothesis or thesis be supported by substantial pre-event, event, and post-event facts. Note my use of the neutral term “event,” here. I used ‘attack’ in my article. However, everyone agrees that there was an event on 9-11.

    So, if you are to argue that explosives or accelerants were used to bring down the WTC then it is incumbent on you to tell the back story–who, what, why, when, where, and how were the explosives or accelerants put in place and ignited.

    I didn’t work on the WTC story so I can only tell you what I know and that is that 10 terrorist hijackers commandeered two civilian aircraft and flew them into the north and south towers fatally wounding the entire WTC complex.

    Good luck in your quest and thanks for asking the question.


  20. John, yes the exercise was mentioned subsequently at infrequent intervals at several positions on the NEADS floor. It didn’t interfere with the real work on the floor, especially at the key positions, the ID techs, Fox, Nasypany. Once Powell made the equation the real world prevailed. The unidentified over the White House was, as you likely know, one of the Quit fighters.

    The uncertainty was over whether or not the exercise was cancelled, not what to do about the hijacks. Perhaps a better word for me to have used was “interfering”, not “intervening.” I accept that it can be construed as the latter.


  21. John,

    Vigilant Guardian, I’m sure. Gumboot has the best rundown on all of this. I don’t recall what the specific hijack scenario was but I’ll keep an eye out for it. I’m still dealing with the aftermath of my spreadsheet/worksheet on exercises becoming viral over at 9-11blogger and at history commons. The fundamental problem is that I need access to the paper files from our office. Those are boxed separately by NARA and have not yet been released. It may be a while before I get my hands around all of this. I’ve told Erik Larson that and he understands, I think.


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