FORWARD: The recent 10th anniversary of 9/11 once again gave rise to questions about NORAD's role and performance during the attacks and to the now-familiar conspiracy theories.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was officially established on Sept. 12, 1957, during the Cold War.
A couple of weeks before, the Soviet Union had announced the successful launch of a multi-stage ballistic missile.
Less than a month later the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first man-made satellite.
The mission of NORAD then and for the next several years was to protect the North American continent against an attack that used strategic bombers -- the "air-breathing threat."
As the threat evolved, NORAD's charge also expanded to include the monitoring of man-made objects in space and the detection, validation, and warning of attack against North America whether by aircraft, missiles, or space vehicles.
To provide the eyes and ears against such attacks, the U.S. and Canada gradually established around their peripheries and, subsequently, in faraway and remote places such Diyarbakir, Turkey and Thule, Greenland, a network of ground-based radars and sensors, airborne radars, communications and command and control systems to detect, identify and track the various threats. NORAD also had at its command fleets of fighter-interceptors to engage and, if necessary, destroy enemy aircraft.
These systems -- all feeding into the NORAD Cheyenne Mountain Complex -- had one thing in common: Spread around the periphery of the North American continent, they "looked outward" towards the Soviet Union, towards other potential enemies and into space. They focused on the external threat.
This is not to say that NORAD didn't have or would not acquire additional responsibilities with respect to U.S. and Canadian airspace. Yet, conspiracy theorists would later ignore or mischaracterize these fundamental features of the system -- to a certain extent, limitations -- to support their "theories."
These systems were later replaced or upgraded to include defense against sea-launched ballistic missiles and space-based systems and to detect and provide timely warning of missile and spacecraft launches.
Gradually -- and still before 9/11 -- NORAD was assigned additional missions and responsibilities. Among these, the support of counter-drugs operations, including the tracking of small aircraft entering or operating within the U.S. and Canada. Commercial aircraft were not perceived to be a threat then ...
Interestingly, only three months before 9/11, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued Joint Staff Instruction CVJCSI 3610.01A, instructing NORAD on how to deal with "AIRCRAFT PIRACY (HIJACKING) AND DESTRUCTION OF DERELICT AIRBORNE OBJECTS."
The instruction specified that NORAD will provide "escort service" when requested by "the FAA Hijack Coordinator," and specifically excluded the "use of military aircraft (fixed-wing or helicopter) or other vehicles as platforms for gunfire or the use of other weapons against suspected hijackers."
The FAA with its sophisticated network of hundreds of radars and air traffic control systems has the equipment, capabilities and responsibility for tracking, controlling and coordinating the thousands of aircraft flying the U.S. skies. (The morning of Sept. 11, "there were more than 4,500 aircraft in the air on Instrument Flight Rules flight plans").
NORAD and our military kept our country safe during the dangerous Cold War years, but neither our government, nor NORAD, nor the FAA, nor the American people were prepared for the unprecedented events of Sept. 11, 2001 -- albeit many would argue that we should have been.
September 11, a day when NORAD was not actively tracking or controlling American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 with 92 people on board that took off from Boston Logan airport at 7:59 a.m., destination Los Angeles. Nor United Airlines Flight 175, nor American Airlines flight 77, nor United Airlines flight 93 ...
A day when, according to FAA records, at 8:38 a.m. -- 39 minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 departed Boston -- the FAA notified NORAD about the suspected hijacking of American Flight 11, the flight which only 8 minutes later, at 8:46 a.m., would crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
A day when, according to later FAA statements, it "alerted NORAD to the hijacked Flight 175 at just about the same time it was crashing into the World Trade Center's South Tower" and a day when "the FAA notified NORAD of the missing -- not hijacked -- Flight 77 three minutes before it struck the Pentagon. NORAD received no warning of the hijack of United Flight 93 until three minutes after it had crashed in Pennsylvania."
Some claim that part of NORAD's mission statement, "ensuring air sovereignty and air defense of the airspace of Canada and the United States," gave NORAD the authority and responsibility to intercept and destroy such hijacked aircraft, notwithstanding the JCS instruction.
Even if fighters had been able to intercept the hijacked airplanes, not knowing the intentions of its fanatic, murderous, suicide hijackers, what would they have done? What could they have done? It wasn't until all four hijacked aircraft had crashed that NORAD received the (vice-presidential) authorization to shoot down "any threatening aircraft in order to save lives on the ground."
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of 9/11 conspiracy stories -- many blaming NORAD for failing to prevent or mitigate the 9/11 tragedy.
Some claim that NORAD, while having the capability to locate and intercept the hijacked aircraft on 9/11, deliberately issued a "stand down order" or deliberately scrambled fighters late to allow the hijacked airplanes to reach their targets without interference, evidence of a Bush administration conspiracy.
This, notwithstanding the fact that the U.S. government has released tapes indicating that the FAA did not tell the military about the hijackings until three of the four planes had crashed.
Of course, things changed for all of us and for NORAD on 9/11. NORAD now has the responsibility for monitoring all aircraft flying within U.S. airspace and for the oversight of Operation Noble Eagle which, among other measures, provides for flying of fighter aircraft combat air patrol missions in U.S. airspace.
And, of course, conspiracy theories and the blaming of NORAD continue.
All I can say -- as someone who, for over half of his Air Force career, flew with dedicated men and women many precarious missions aboard those Early Warning and Control aircraft, or who was "buttoned up" in one of those Air Defense "blockhouses" and bunkers, including the mighty Cheyenne Mountain NORAD complex -- is that every one of these men and women dedicated their days and nights and holidays -- their careers -- to keeping our country safe and would have done anything and everything to prevent 9/11.
For a factual, professional coverage of the military's and NORAD's response on 9/11, please read Aviation Week & Space Technology's "Exercise Jump Starts Response to Attacks."