War Stories


The military screw-up nobody talks about.

For all its successes, the U.S. anti-terror war was conceived in sin, the sin of U.S. government negligence. As much post-9/11 journalism has pointed out, there was the foreign-policy error of abandoning post-Soviet Afghanistan after having infused it with weapons, the CIA’s failure to act more forcefully on tips and intercepts regarding al-Qaida operatives overseas, and the FBI’s and INS’s similar failings regarding suspicious characters already in the United States. And the FAA’s (and the airlines’, the airports’, and security firms’) breakdown on airport security. However, there has been a good deal less focus on another federal fubar, that perpetrated by the Air Force’s North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

The NORAD home page declares its mission to include “the detection, validation, and warning of attack against North America whether by aircraft, missiles, or space vehicles.” It may seem ungallant to say the obvious, but since no one else has, I will: At the aircraft part of this mission, NORAD sucks.

How does NORAD explain its failure to intercept any of the hijacked airliners on 9/11? Its commander, Gen. Ed Eberhart, pointed out in congressional testimony that the FAA has the primary responsibility for hijackings in U.S. airspace, that NORAD can only help respond once the FAA notifies it, and that on 9/11 the FAA delayed precious minutes before doing so. Eberhart has also said that while before 9/11, NORAD had practiced responding to a hijacked plane trying to slam into a target in the United States, the exercises assumed that the flight had originated overseas, giving intercepting jet fighters more time. More important, he also said that even if his aircraft had practiced the domestic scenario, it wouldn’t have mattered. Why? “I really think that, for sure in the first two instances, and probably in the third, the time and distance would not have allowed us to get an airplane to the right place at the right time.”

It’s certainly true that the FAA didn’t give the Air Force the speediest heads up: Newsday reported that the FAA delayed 29 minutes (!) before telling the military about the third (!) suspicious plane, the one that ultimately hit the Pentagon. And before 9/11, a domestic-hijacked-airliner-suicide attack was admittedly not the most probable of worries. But it’s simply wrong to say that therefore, there probably wasn’t anything NORAD could have done to change history.

According to NORAD’s official 9/11 time line, the FAA notified NORAD at 8:40 a.m. Eastern time that there was something peculiar going on with American Flight 11. But NORAD didn’t issue an order for fighters to scramble until 8:46 a.m., the time when American Flight 11 hit the first WTC tower. Six minutes later, at 8:52 a.m., two F-15 fighters responded to the order by launching from a base 153 miles from New York City. They still were not on the scene at 9:02 a.m. when the second airliner, United Flight 175, hit the second WTC tower. They wouldn’t get there for another eight minutes, at 9:10 a.m. A NORAD senior officer, Major Gen. Larry Arnold, told NBC that when the fighters took off, they were flying straight to New York City. He also said that they were going “about 1.5 Mach, which is, you know, somewhere—11- or 1,200 miles an hour.” But note that the F-15 fighters took 18 minutes to cover those 153 miles, which comes out to more like 510 mph. Yet, according to the Air Force, the F-15 has a top speed of 1,875 mph. So, you have to wonder, why were they flying at less than a third of what they’re capable of?

According to NORAD, the FAA notified it at 9:24 a.m. that there was something suspicious with American Flight 77. Two F-16 fighters were immediately ordered launched, and they got airborne at 9:30 a.m. The New York Times reports that at first, they were headed to New York at “top speed” reaching “600 mph within two minutes,” before vectoring toward Washington instead. These planes didn’t arrive in the vicinity of the Pentagon until 9:49 a.m., 12 minutes after American Flight 77 hit it. (They then stayed in the skies above Washington to protect against the fourth errant airliner, United Flight 93, with orders to shoot it down if necessary, a command mooted by an apparent passenger insurrection that caused that plane to crash in a Pennsylvania field.) The F-16s covered the 130 miles of their journey in 19 minutes, which would be an average speed of about 410 mph. Now, that’s artificially low because these fighters spent several minutes flying toward New York, but even allowing for this, you don’t come up with anything like what the Air Force (which may know better than the New York Times) says is the plane’s top speed of 1,500 mph. So, again, why didn’t NORAD feel the need for speed? It wasn’t because of FAA regulations prohibiting supersonic flight over land in U.S. civil airspace. A NORAD spokesman told me that fighters violate that speed restriction “when circumstances warrant.”

That is, in both cases where NORAD launched fighters, a closer look suggests that it’s just false that there was nothing they could have done. For one thing, they could have flown faster.

But the flawed time/distance argument isn’t NORAD’s only excuse. Gen. Arnold told NBC that even if U.S. jets had intercepted the airliners, “No one would have known the intent of the hijackers. And without that, I don’t think anyone would have been able to order them to shoot down that—that aircraft.”

That may be true, but it’s misleading. Arnold leaves out other tactics the jet fighters could’ve tried. According to a Boston Globe article, when intercepting aircraft, NORAD practices a graduated response. The approaching fighter doesn’t immediately shoot down the bogey: It can first rock its wingtips to attract attention, or make a pass in front of the plane, or fire tracer rounds in its path. So even though on 9/11, the NORAD pilots working the first three airliners didn’t have shootdown authority (they got it only after the Pentagon was hit), they would or should have been ready to try these other techniques, which might well have spooked or forced the hijackers into turning, which might have given the fighters a chance to force them out to sea. And even if the hijackers decided instead to fly right into a fighter in their way, wouldn’t an airburst have killed fewer people than two collapsed flaming skyscrapers did?

After 9/11, NORAD said it adjusted to the new realities. In October, Gen. Eberhart told Congress that “now it takes about one minute” from the time that the FAA senses something is amiss before it notifies NORAD. And around the same time, a NORAD spokesofficer told the Associated Press that the military can now scramble fighters “within a matter of minutes to anywhere in the United States.”

But lo and behold, earlier this month when 15-year-old student pilot Charles Bishop absconded with a Cessna and flew it into a Tampa skyscraper, NORAD didn’t learn of it until it overheard FAA radio calls about the situation, and it wasn’t able to launch its fighter jets until 15 minutes after Bishop had already crashed into the building. Those fighters didn’t arrive on the scene until 45 minutes after Bishop took off.