WILLIAM B. SCOTT, Aviation Week & Space Technology, June 10, 2002
In the days following terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, U.S. and Canadian military service personnel worked round-the-clock, trying to balance two objectives: protecting the North American continent from more attacks and rebuilding a functional U.S. airspace system.
Typically, they were working in uncharted territory. Never before had all commercial, business and general aviation aircraft been grounded in a few hours. Never had hundreds of fighters, air refueling tankers and surveillance aircraft been airborne 24 hr. a day, seven days a week, protecting the U.S. heartland from a deadly, faceless aggressor. And nobody knew if or from where the next attack might come.
Preplanning and exercises had built a framework, though, and specific organizations knew they were responsible for certain airspace control functions. For several weeks after the attacks, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad) -- with its subsidiary regions and sectors -- and the joint Defense Dept./FAA Air Traffic Services Cell (ATSC) became the primary pivot points for all government and civilian air traffic within the U.S. The latter quickly formed a bridge between military and civil air operations on Sept. 11, set up a makeshift command center in a conference room at the FAA's Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Va., and started recommending who should and shouldn't be allowed to fly. The ATSC phones never stopped ringing for the next few weeks (see following story).
Norad had been protecting the continent's air sovereignty for 43 years, but its focus had always been outward, guarding against attack from outside the U.S. and Canada. Now, the command also had to handle radar surveillance and combat air patrols inside those countries' boundaries, a role that required rapid changes in equipment and procedures.
The tragic events of Sept. 11 have redefined many things . . . and one of those is the role of [Norad], Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, Norad commander-in-chief, said earlier this year. On Sept. 11, we were looking out -- looking for the external threat. We assumed anything inside the United States was authorized to be there and did not constitute a threat. Tragically, we were wrong.
So now, we are not only looking out for the external threat, but we are also looking in. We have increased our radar coverage; designed ways [to route FAA radar data] into our facilities so we see what they see; and increased our connectivity, our coordination and collaboration with the FAA, so anytime there's an anomaly out there, we are ready to respond.
Norad's immediate need for better radar coverage within the continental U.S. was partially solved by getting E-3 AWACS, Navy E-2C Hawkeye and Customs Service P-3s into the air, strategically positioned across the nation to detect, assess and monitor anything that flew. These eyes-in-the-sky also helped control the more than 100 fighters -- F-15s, F-16s, F-14s, F/A-18s and A-10s -- flying combat air patrol (CAP) over 15-16 major population centers (AW&ST Oct. 1, 2001, p. 37). For a while, even Navy Aegis cruisers contributed radar information. Later, Customs' radar-bearing aerostats tethered along the Gulf of Mexico also were feeding data to Norad.
The number of military aircraft flying surveillance and CAP meant air-refueling tankers were in high demand, as well. Refueling tracks were established at strategic locations, where KC-135, KC-10 and KC-130s maintained racetrack patterns, ready to provide fuel for crews flying day and night.
Initially, hundreds of aircraft were airborne, involved in protective or emergency response missions, but those numbers have dropped in recent months in favor of random CAPs. Most fighters are on ground-alert now, ready to respond in seconds to any potential threat. Exactly how many and where they are located is considered sensitive information.
Last February, Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, commander of the Continental U.S. Norad Region (Conar), provided a snapshot of homeland defense air operations at that time. Normally, on any given day, we have more than 107 fighters in the air and about 80 tanker and AWACS locations operational. Initially, two round-the-clock CAPs were maintained over Washington, and one over New York. Random CAPs were flown over other cities as required.
As concern arose about the security of nuclear power plants, weapon storage facilities and laboratories, CAPs were established over them. Then came worries about air coverage of chemical storage sites, sporting events and wherever large groups of people congregated, Arnold said.
At the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Rome, N.Y., and Conar sectors in the southeastern and western U.S., surveillance and identification technicians scanned their radar scopes for any unusual air activity. There was a lot going on the first three days [after the attacks]. When a track popped up with no identification, we'd lock on to them. Some were military, some law enforcement flights, said Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Lamarche, who heads NEADS' air surveillance section. And some unknown tracks were just private pilots who weren't aware of what was going on.
Lamarche told of a retired airline mechanic living in upstate New York who had been on vacation, returned home and decided to take a short hop in his homebuilt airplane. He hadn't turned on the news yet, so he took off from his backyard and made one loop around the pattern. A local law enforcement [officer] got on the radio and told him to get down! He had been fishing, hadn't heard any news and had no clue what was going on. That happened a lot the first few days. It's a wonder no one was shot down.
Intense localized flight operations and stringent airspace restrictions peaked during Special Conar Operations, such as CAPs over Washington during President Bush's state-of-the-union address, the Super Bowl football game in New Orleans and the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. We've been working very closely with the U.S. Secret Service and the Customs Service, Arnold said. We had the most restrictive temporary [no-fly] area I've ever seen during the Super Bowl.
When compared with past years' operations, the ramp-up in homeland defense air activity -- under what is called Operation Noble Eagle since Sept. 11 -- has been staggering. Norad flew 140 sorties in all of 2000, said Lt. Col. William E. Glover, Jr., chief of the command's air defense operations at Cheyenne Mountain Air Station, Colo. As of late May, U.S. and Canadian aircrews had flown more than 21,000 sorties under Noble Eagle -- and that includes both fighters and [support] aircraft. The majority of these have been by the Air National Guard.
Norad and the FAA also worked quickly to enable combat-level air control and a better ground-based radar picture of the U.S. homeland's interior. To that end, air control squadron personnel from the Air Force, ANG and other branches were deployed to 21 FAA air traffic control centers to help direct military air operations in concert with AWACS and FAA controllers. These troops normally set up air control centers in remote locations to direct combat air movements.
In turn, the FAA kept a representative in the Norad command center 24 hr. a day until about mid-November, when the agency's daily presence was decreased to 16 hr. That has helped tremendously, said Canadian Forces Maj. Pierre Berube, who commanded Cheyenne Mountain's air warning center Charley Crew on Sept. 11. Our job is to get information to the bosses . . . so they can make decisions, and having an experienced FAA person available often smooths the military/civil interface.
In contrast to their outwardly looking posture on Sept. 11, U.S. air defense regions and sectors now are linked to 51 long-range FAA radars throughout the nation's interior. The new network allows surveillance down to about 5,000 ft. above ground level over most areas, Arnold said. Still, certain regions need additional ground or airborne radars for adequate monitoring.
He lauded the FAA's proactivity in connecting Norad, Conar and its sectors to radars within the country's heartland. As of early this year, the FAA had spent about $ 34 million to improve military radar coverage and communications. An estimated $ 79 million is needed, though, with about a $ 12-million annual budget to support the Norad/FAA network.
This is really a national issue, not just a Defense Dept. or FAA issue, Arnold said.
To handle the increased information flow via enhanced FAA-Norad connectivity, new equipment already under development -- called the Norad Contingency Suite -- was quickly deployed to Conar and its sectors. A limited-capability version was installed in Cheyenne Mountain's command center, and should be upgraded soon.
The [suite] was brought online quickly by Solipsys, a small company with about 37 employees, and it's working better than we thought it would, said Maj. Phillip J. McCarthy, chief of command and control systems at NEADS. The new equipment is a [Microsoft] Windows-based system that gives us more capacity; it can handle more data than the Q-93 [a mid-1970s-vintage command and control system]. It has expanded our situational awareness and identification capability quite a bit. We're not talking about specifics [for security reasons], but we're looking at more area now and we've shortened our reaction timelines.
Another project will improve the ability of NEADS and other Conar sector personnel to receive data link information from aircraft. AWACS-developed track data, for example, can be merged with FAA radar information to provide a much better picture of airspace activity.
New equipment and better integration with FAA radars have given Norad sectors and Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center operators the tools for unprecedented national surveillance and more responsive control procedures. From a Norad perspective, we're much better off, Glover said. If we hear that an aircraft has lost its radio, we know immediately where it is. We don't have to sit back and wait for the sector and the region to tell us about a hijacking. We're already in the loop; we know all the details.
Communications also have been enhanced significantly. An FAA conference loop -- essentially an always-open conference call -- is active all day, every day, linking Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs), the FAA command center, federal security offices, Customs Service, Norad and a number of other control centers. This connectivity, backed by increased vigilance nationwide, has greatly increased the number of incidents reported to Norad's command center.
If a commercial airliner hasn't checked in [when crossing an ARTCC boundary], the sector calls us, Glover said. Before, they'd try to handle it themselves, but there's no problem too small anymore.
Private citizens don't hesitate to contact Norad, either. A caller from Texas reported a white substance that seemed to be falling from an air transport. When local law enforcement officials investigated, they discovered clusters of migratory spiders that had spun webs, and they were blowing in the wind, Glover said. Crop dusters and even aerobatic demonstration teams that dispense colored smoke have prompted reports.
Training focused on hijacking and other airborne threats over the U.S. has become commonplace, with the entire Norad complex participating in dry-runs almost daily. The command worked with Delta Air Lines to conduct an exercise last week, simulating a hijacking to add realism for [CAP] pilots running an intercept, an officer said. No passengers were on board the transports during the exercise.
While national leaders were quick to showcase fighter CAPs, AWACS flights and other military activities immediately after Sept. 11 -- demonstrating that protective measures were being taken -- their philosophy has changed in recent months. We're still flying CAPs and random patrols, but we're not talking about what we're doing, said Army Maj. David G. Johnson, chief spokesman for Norad's Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center. We like to say we're in a 'threat-based air defense response' status. But we're not as forthcoming as we were before. We don't want to show the bad guys our cards.