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Context of 'Before September 11, 2001: US Government Prepares for Hijackings, Some of Them Involving Multiple Planes'

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The NORAD emblem.The NORAD emblem. [Source: NORAD]The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the military organization responsible for monitoring and defending US airspace, gradually reduces the number of aircraft it has on “alert”—armed and ready for immediate takeoff—in response to the changing nature of the threats it has to defend against, so that there will be just 14 fighter jets on alert across the continental United States when the 9/11 attacks take place. [Jones, 2011, pp. 7-8 pdf file]
NORAD Has 1,200 Interceptor Aircraft in 1960 - NORAD is a bi-national organization, established by the US and Canada in 1958 to counter the threat posed by the Soviet Union. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 16] It is initially responsible for intercepting any Soviet long-range bombers that might attack the Northern Hemisphere. By 1960, it has about 1,200 interceptor aircraft dedicated to this task. But during the 1960s, the Soviets become less reliant on manned bombers, and shift instead to ballistic missiles. In response to this changed threat and also budget constraints, the number of NORAD interceptor aircraft goes down to about 300 by the mid-1970s.
NORAD's Mission Changes after Cold War Ends - With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the threats NORAD has to counter change significantly. During the early 1990s, NORAD’s mission consequently changes from one of air defense to one of maintaining “air sovereignty,” which NORAD defines as “providing surveillance and control of the territorial airspace.” The new mission includes intercepting suspicious aircraft, tracking hijacked aircraft, assisting aircraft in distress, and counterdrug operations. [General Accounting Office, 5/3/1994, pp. 14-15; 9/11 Commission, 2/3/2004 pdf file; Jones, 2011, pp. 7 pdf file] As this change takes place, the number of aircraft defending American airspace is reduced. In 1987, there are 52 fighters on alert in the continental United States. [Filson, 1999, pp. 112-113] But by December 1999, there are just 14 alert fighters remaining around the continental US. [Airman, 12/1999]
Number of Alert Sites Goes Down Prior to 9/11 - The number of NORAD “alert sites”—bases where the alert aircraft are located—is also reduced in the decades prior to 9/11. During the Cold War, there are 26 of these sites. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 16] By 1991, there are 19 of them, according to Major General Larry Arnold, the commander of NORAD’s Continental US Region from 1997 to 2002. [Filson, 2003, pp. v] By 1994, according to a report by the General Accounting Office, there are 14 alert sites around the US. [General Accounting Office, 5/3/1994, pp. 1] And by 1996, only 10 alert sites remain. [Utecht, 4/7/1996, pp. 9-10]
Military Officials Call for Eliminating Alert Sites - In the 1990s, some officials at the Pentagon argue for the alert sites to be eliminated entirely. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 16-17] The Department of Defense’s 1997 Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review indicates that the number of alert sites around the continental US could be reduced to just four, but the idea is successfully blocked by NORAD (see May 19, 1997). [Filson, 2003, pp. iv-v, 34-36; 9/11 Commission, 2/3/2004 pdf file] However, three alert sites are subsequently removed from the air sovereignty mission. These are in Atlantic City, New Jersey; Burlington, Vermont; and Great Falls, Montana. [American Defender, 4/1998]
Seven Alert Sites Remain - By December 1999, therefore, there are just seven alert sites around the continental US, each with two fighters on alert. These sites are Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida; Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida; Portland Air National Guard Base, Oregon; March Air Reserve Base, California; Ellington Air National Guard Base, Texas; Otis Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts; and Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. Only two of these sites—Otis ANGB and Langley AFB—serve the northeastern United States, where the hijackings on September 11 will take place. [Airman, 12/1999; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 17]

Entity Tags: North American Aerospace Defense Command, Larry Arnold

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommends that the number of aircraft dedicated to defending US airspace be reduced, a recommendation echoed by the General Accounting Office (GAO) over a year later. The continental air defense mission, carried out by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), was developed during the Cold War to protect against any Soviet bombers that might try to attack the US via the North Pole. In 1960, NORAD had about 1,200 fighter jets dedicated to this task, but now its US portion comprises 180 Air National Guard fighters, located in 10 units and 14 alert sites around the US. In February 1993, Powell issues a report in which he suggests that, due to the former Soviet Union no longer posing a significant threat, the air defense mission could be transferred to existing general-purpose combat and training forces. In May 1994, the GAO issues a report agreeing with Powell, saying that a “dedicated continental air defense force is no longer needed.” The report also says: “NORAD plans to reduce the number of alert sites in the continental United States to 14 and provide 28 aircraft for the day-to-day peacetime air sovereignty mission. Each alert site will have two fighters, and their crews will be on 24-hour duty and ready to scramble within five minutes.” [US Department of Defense, 2/12/1993; General Accounting Office, 5/3/1994] NORAD will play a key role in responding to the hijackings on 9/11. By then, it will have just 14 fighters available around the US on “alert”—on the runway, fueled, and ready to take off within minutes of being ordered into the air. [Code One Magazine, 1/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 17]

Entity Tags: General Accounting Office, Colin Powell, North American Aerospace Defense Command

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Logo of the 1st Air Force.Logo of the 1st Air Force. [Source: 1st Air Force]The 1st Air Force air sovereignty team, which, as part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), is responsible for the air defense of the continental United States, scores an unprecedented “grand slam” in a four-day evaluation of its effectiveness in performing the air sovereignty mission. The three air defense sectors responsible for protecting the skies above the continental US—the Northeast, Southeast, and Western sectors—have their command and control skills tested in the Air Combat Command Operational Readiness Inspections (ORI). The 1st Air Force headquarters is concurrently tested in the NORAD Operational Evaluation (NOE). All are rated “outstanding,” the highest score possible on a five-tier scale. Only recently, on October 1, 1997, the Air National Guard had assumed command and control of the 1st Air Force and the Continental United States NORAD Region. Retired Col. Dan Navin, former 1st Air Force vice commander, says, “No transition can be truly complete until it is proven that the mission is being performed the right way. This ‘ORI’ proved exactly that, and validated the confidence the senior leaders of the Air Force had in the Air National Guard.” [Filson, 1999, pp. vi, 114-115, 184; American Defender, 3/1999] The Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) is responsible for an area of over 500,000 square miles of airspace, including that over New York City and Washington, DC. All the hijackings on 9/11 will occur within this area. [Filson, 1999, pp. 51; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 17] Despite its “outstanding” rating two-and-a-half years earlier, NEADS will fail to intercept any of the four hijacked airliners.

Entity Tags: North American Aerospace Defense Command, 1st Air Force, Northeast Air Defense Sector

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Based on interviews with FBI officials, the New Yorker will report that, for several years prior to 9/11, the US government plans for “simulated terrorist attacks, including scenarios [involving] multiple-plane hijackings.” This presumably refers to more than just the Amalgam Virgo 02 exercise (see July 2001), which is based on the scenario of two planes being simultaneously hijacked. [New Yorker, 9/24/2001] Similarly, NORAD will state that before 9/11, it normally conducts four major exercises each year at headquarters level. Most of them include a hijack scenario, and some of them are apparently quite similar to the 9/11 attacks (see Between 1991 and 2001 and Between September 1999 and September 10, 2001). [USA Today, 4/18/2004; CNN, 4/19/2004] According to author Lynn Spencer, before September 11, “To prepare for their missions in support of NORAD, the Air National Guard pilots—some of the finest pilots in the world—often use hijacking scenarios to train for intercept tactics.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 84-85] John Arquilla, an associate professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, later says that while “No one knew specifically that 20 people would hijack four airliners and use them for suicide attacks against major buildings… the idea of such an attack was well known, [and] had been war gamed as a possibility in exercises before Sept. 11.” [Monterey County Herald, 7/18/2002]

Entity Tags: North American Aerospace Defense Command, United States, Air National Guard, John Arquilla

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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