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1958-1999: NORAD Reduces Number of Fighters on ‘Alert,’ Protecting American Airspace

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

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