Chaos Theory: 9-11; a battle not a war

Summation to date

We have previously established that chaos is one descriptor of events on 9-11 by participants, researchers, and the media.  We have established that the Theory and its language can be used at least metaphorically to discuss events of the day.  In this article we will discuss the attack on 9-11 as a battle in a larger war and will continue to use the language of Chaos Theory to do so.

In an earlier article, we introduced the construct that NEADS and ZBW (Boston Center) were strange attractors in the sense that they become the focal point for the expedient exchange of information.  We also identified a third strange attractor but one with no DoD partner, the FAA’s Herndon Center.  It is at the level of the strange attractors that the battle should have been fought and was fought that day.

Relevant and non-relevant voices of the battle of 9-11

Considering the events of 9-11 as a battle allows us to identify four relevant voices of the day and, concurrently, allows us to set aside the national level voices as immaterial. The four relevant voices are Colonel MARR, NEADS Commander; Ben Sliney, the FAA’s National Operations Manager; General Arnold, CONR Commander; and Jeff Griffith, FAA’s senior Air Traffic Control voice on 9-11. The immaterial national level voices are the President, the Vice President, the Secretaries of Defense and Transportation, the Acting Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and CINC NORAD.

There is one additional voice of interest, another strange attractor, Richard Clarke. Clarke’s attempt to establish the White House Situation Room as a focal point failed to attract a meaningful flow of information. There is anecdotal evidence that Clarke’s effort was actually a detractor, destructive feedback in the language of Chaos. We know from FAA tapes that the FAA leadership was called away at one time (9:49-9:50) to participate in Clarke’s secure video conference. We also know from the interview of an NMCC staff officer that the senior military leadership was also called away at critical times to participate in the same conference.  Interestingly, that same staff officer referred to activity in the NMCC as “managed chaos.”

Battles and wars

There is a difference between fighting a war and fighting a battle. Generals (and Presidents), and their civilian equivalents in the case of FAA, do not fight battles, they fight wars.  Battles are fought by the rank and file.  And in the battles in the war on terror the rank and file includes civilians.  Battles are managed by some echelon between the rank and file and the senior leadership.

The Battle of 9-11was fought by NEADS and the Herndon Command Center but they were never in meaningful contact during the battle.  The battle was fought valiantly but ultimately ineffectively by Colonel Marr and Alpha and Delta flights at NEADS, and by Ben Sliney and his national traffic managers at Herndon.

The Battle was managed by the next higher echelons, CONR for NEADS and FAA Air Traffic Control for Herndon. The battle was never managed effectively despite the personal efforts of CONR, General Arnold, and Air Traffic Control, Jeff Griffith.

One reason is that chaos reigned and could not be harnessed. Chaos is deterministic, not random, and the flow of information and response that morning was going to inevitably follow the path of least resistance. Arnold and Griffith, acting separately and, themselves, never in contact were unaware that the path of least resistance was to/from NEADS and the en route air traffic control centers acting separately. For there to be any chance at all to interdict the attack that path of least resistance had to be between NEADS and Herndon. Even then, the only potential opportunity was to interdict the southern two-pronged attack against the nation’s capital.

For it to have been different, the warfighters—the generals, senior civilians and the National Command Authority—would have long before had to have identified the threat posed by the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center, and to have identified who it was that would fight a terrorist battle brought once again to American soil. That required a clear and early understanding that the attack would be from the air. Absent that understanding no one in a position of authority had the acumen to understand that a terrorist air attack on the East Coast would be fought by NEADS and Herndon.

The battle unfolds

Prior to 9:03 there was little awareness that a battle was in progress. ZBW/ZNY declared a hijacking in progress at 8:25, linear response processes kicked in and the event was managed accordingly. However, ZBW circumvented one linear process, the hijack protocol, and notified NEADS directly, an initiative that had the detrimental effect of short-circuiting the national level.

There was no awareness at any echelon that the attack was multi-pronged and the northern prong, itself, two-pronged. The traditional mindset that the hijacker would seek safe landing prevailed; institutions reacted accordingly. No one thought to connect NEADS to Herndon. Even if the national level at some point was prescient enough to have made the connection the opportunity to do so was pre-empted by ZBW.

All that changed dramatically when UA 175 struck the south WTC tower and ZBW determined that Atta said, “we have some planes.” Linear processes were set in motion at all government echelons, military and civilian. However, no national level management process was capable of managing the fast moving chain of events. Only NEADS and Herndon were focal points for information and they weren’t talking to each other. NEADS relied on ZBW but also reached out quickly to four other air traffic control centers—ZNY, ZDC, ZID, and ZOB—New York, Washington, Indianapolis, and Cleveland. And that is where battle managers failed the battle commanders. Herndon was also talking to precisely the same set of sources.

No one had the situational awareness to redirect the flow of information. The battle managers got no help from higher up. At the most crucial time national level entities were pulling standard operating procedures off the shelf and attempting to jump start antiquated and outmoded linear processes. Not one of them was successful; not the NMCC’s significant event conference, not FAA’s primary net, and not Clarke’s secure video conference. Arnold and Griffith were left to their own devices. In Griffith’s case he established an air traffic control operations center separate from FAA’s Washington Operations Center. In Arnold’s case he only knew what Colonel Marr knew. Neither battle manager was value added because they weren’t talking to each other and they did not know that NEADS and Herndon were not exchanging information.

The battle escalates

We will likely never know how sophisticated the attack actually was but the record is clear that the first clues emerging at Indianapolis Center about a southern attack came at the same time UA 175 was identified as a problem and then flew into the south WTC tower. In the language of chaos theory the attack bifurcated into two prongs, each with two prongs. No one, battle commanders and battle managers alike, had any situational awareness of an attack of that complexity. Moreover, that double bifurcation was beyond the capability of any national level entity to grasp or manage. And no one at any level knew that the southern attack was two-pronged. The stark simplicity of the one-two punch thrown at New York City advertised a similar attack on the nation’s capital. No one saw that second combination punch coming and it is only in hindsight that we can now see the symmetry of it all.

No awareness at the national level

Neither President Bush in a classroom in Florida, nor Vice President Cheney, Norman Minetta, Donald Rumsfeld and General Myers in Washington, nor General Eberhart at his headquarters office away from Cheyenne Mountain had situational awareness nor should they be expected to. They fight wars, this was a battle and echelons well below them were struggling to gain situational awareness.

The only place awareness could have emerged was at NEADS and Herndon acting jointly. Both had the manpower and the wherewithal to act but the window of opportunity was brief. American Airlines flight 77 was bearing down on the nation’s capital and no one knew it. Retrospectively, we now know that by 9:10 NEADS, properly cued, had the capability of quickly tracking AA 77. No one told them where to look.

In a perfect world

Only with the clarity of hindsight can we see what might have been. ZID knew it had a problem and notified two higher authorities, one FAA and one DoD; neither one of them NEADS or Herndon. By 9:10, at the same time AA 77 showed up again in NEADS radar, ZID had notified the FAA’s Great Lakes Region and the DoD’s Rescue Coordination Center that AA 77 was lost.

It is by no means certain that NEADS and Herndon, acting jointly, would have made a difference. What we do know is that both Battle Commanders demonstrated the capability to make swift, transcending decisions. Ben Sliney, on his own recognizance, initiated a nationwide ground stop. Colonel Marr initiated an intensive effort to generate fighter sorties from wherever he could muster them. It is not unreasonable to expect that the two of them, knowing that AA 77 was lost, would have put out an all points bulletin by the most expeditious means.

Under this scenario NEADS surveillance technicians would have established a track on AA 77 in a matter of minutes. The identification technicians would have had critical information if the false report of AA 11 still airborne then surfaced. Even sooner, The Senior Director and Mission Crew Commander would have scrambled Langley to a specific target.


Our discussion now leads to the third article in the Scott Trilogy which speaks to the issue of Rules of Engagement. I am still sorting that article out in my mind. Scott speaks to the largely irrelevant Andrews fighters and not to the fighters who would have been charged to intercept AA 77, the Langley air defense fighters. All informal time-distance analyses that I have worked through in my mind indicate that AA 77 and the Langley fighters would have arrived over greater DC skies at about the same time. And the unanswered question is, “then what?”

Where we stand

In this article we have identified 9:10 as the critical time for the nation’s battle commanders to take positive action to protect the nation’s capital. Ironically, that is the same time that NEADS first considered scrambling Langley but changed the order to battle stations only. Only NEADS and Herndon, acting jointly, could have fought the battle and then only against the southern attack. The northern attack was over before anyone at any echelon had the situational awareness to counter it.

The ultimate irony

In the aftermath the two officials charged with reconciling the FAA and DoD/NORAD timelines were General Arnold and Jeff Griffith

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