Noble Eagle Without End

Feb. 1, 2005

It does not attract much attention any more, and it has undergone a dramatic transformation, but Operation Noble Eagle is still going strong more than three years after the Sept. 11 attacks that brought it into being.

Noble Eagle now features a greatly expanded network of sensors, aircraft, and airmen devoted to the homeland air defense mission. The scale of the effort has been large enough to put a considerable strain on the Air National Guard, which provides most of the mission’s personnel.

US air and space forces have seen no overall letup in the defense of American airspace. To the contrary, the mission has in some ways broadened and deepened.

At first, Noble Eagle was an emergency stop-gap defense anchored by combat air patrols (CAPs) over major cities, launched in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. Now, Noble Eagle has become a steady-state affair. Nobody expects the mission to go away anytime soon.

North America’s homeland defense system has been overhauled to reflect its new demands, but officials say that much still needs to be done to make it an effective, permanent mission.

The US still has “a long way to go” in defending itself, said Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, the recently retired commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Northern Command.

Without question, Air National Guard units have taken on an enormous new responsibility—and without a manpower increase.

The Long Haul

“While we still call it Noble Eagle, it’s really a more steady-state air defense,” said USAF Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr., commander of the D.C. National Guard. The ANG, he said, is trying to “program” for the long haul.

Homeland defense began changing on Sept. 11, 2001, and it still is evolving.

Some changes were organizational. For example, US Northern Command, a new four-star unified command, was created in October 2002 and given the mission of defending North America. In January 2003, the Department of Homeland Security was established, unifying a hodgepodge of security entities, including the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration.

Air defense has similarly evolved.

Initially, Noble Eagle CAPs were flown over cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., supported by E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft and tankers. These flights defended major urban areas against further 9/11-style aerial attacks and served as a visible symbol of government protection.

However, the CAPs proved to be unsustainable, in that they put a major strain on pilots, aircraft, maintainers, and the military budget. Cost estimates for the nonstop CAPs ran as high as $200 million a month, and the Pentagon began looking for more cost-effective ways to defend America.

In the end, DOD settled on a plan based on increased strip alerts, supplemented by random and threat-based air patrols.

NORAD has always maintained alert bases—sites where fighters sit fueled, armed, and ready to take off on short notice. During the early years of the Cold War, North America was ringed by alert bases ready to intercept approaching Soviet bombers. To many planners, however, the end of the Cold War meant the end of the threat. US air defenses were allowed to atrophy.

At the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NORAD maintained 26 alert sites around the United States, said USAF Gen. Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former NORAD commander.

By Sept. 11, 2001, however, the number was down to seven.

“The threat was not perceived to be so evident, … so forces were scaled down,” Myers told the 9/11 Commission. “Alert facilities, which are expensive to maintain, were closed, and we wound up with those seven sites.”

None of the seven were particularly close to al Qaeda’s targets on that September day. Fighters from Otis ANGB, Mass., responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York, while aircraft from Langley AFB, Va., were called to the capital’s airspace after the attack on the Pentagon.

Eberhart told the commission that, as a result of a major cost-benefit debate in the 1990s, “we came close to having zero airplanes on alert.” He said that the zero-alert option “almost went to the endgame.” Now, said Eberhart, no one questions the need to have air defense aircraft ready to scramble.

By 2002, NORAD was overseeing alert sites at more than 30 locations. Some Cold War units, such as ANG’s 177th Fighter Wing at Atlantic City Arpt., N.J., have permanently reactivated their air defense mission. One ANG unit—the 113th Wing at Andrews AFB, Md.—acquired alert status for the first time.

The Air Force varies the number of aircraft that it keeps on call and also changes their flying schedules, the better to keep potential terrorists guessing about their deployments.

No More 9/11s

Pentagon officials assert that another 9/11-style attack would not succeed this time around. On Sept. 11, 2001, NORAD had only nine minutes of warning before the first hijacked airliner hit the World Trade Center at 8:47 a.m. That was the only advance warning the US military received about any of the attacks on that day. (See “Sept. 11, Minute by Minute,” October 2004, p. 70.)

Had today’s systems been in effect that day, NORAD would have had “at least 17 minutes” of warning before the first attack on the North Tower, Eberhart told the 9/11 Commission. “We would be in position to fire for eight minutes,” he said, adding that it would be enough time to determine if it were necessary to shoot down the aircraft.

Communications and connectivity make the biggest difference between then and now, officials say.

Rear Adm. Charles J. Leidig Jr., the senior watch officer at the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center during the 9/11 crisis, said “the most significant lesson” from that day was the need to open communications channels and bring leaders together to make decisions in a timely manner.

Leidig told the 9/11 Commission that poor command and control hampered the nation’s military response that day and that “any improvements in that area would be significant.”

NORAD has given high priority to strengthening command and control. Under construction is a new command center and other upgrades at NORAD headquarters. Command posts at the alert units have also been significantly enhanced.

NORAD officials now have “multiple” ways of securely communicating with operational units, an official at the 113th Wing said. “They like to have redundancy.”

Just having more alert bases would not have been enough to thwart the attacks in New York.

“We still had a time and distance problem,” Eberhart told the commission members. “We would not have been able to respond to these threats. [Fighters based at] Atlantic City … would not have been able to get there in time.”

However, if today’s battlespace awareness and communications fixes had been in place, said Eberhart, “we would be able to shoot down … all four aircraft.”

NORAD and the Federal Aviation Administration now have a common situational awareness, integrated radars, and established lines of communication. These advances have eliminated a major American vulnerability, exploited on 9/11. At that time, NORAD radars were looking “out” from the borders of the US, while the FAA radars were looking “in” over domestic territory. NORAD was blind to what the FAA was seeing.

Take No Chances

NORAD, based under 2,000 feet of granite at Cheyenne Mountain AFS, Colo., now keeps a close eye on the domestic air picture that was once seen only by the FAA. The new terror threat keeps the binational command busy. The US has suffered no more hijackings and air attacks, but NORAD evinces a “take no chances” attitude about the threat.

Each day, NORAD scrutinizes roughly 7,000 “tracks” of aircraft approaching US airspace. By day, there may be as many as 10,000 aircraft in the air at any given time. In all, there are more than 80,000 domestic departures and landings daily, and NORAD watches all of them.

Airliners have flight plans they must follow, and small private aircraft need to stay out of restricted areas.

When an aircraft gets off track, NORAD is “aware of it nearly instantly” now, said Brig. Gen. Duane W. Deal, commander of the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center.

Deal said this type of awareness would go far toward eliminating any repeats of the situation on 9/11, when DOD had no inkling the attacks were developing. As Deal said, the first airplane had nearly reached the North Tower “before someone bothers to call us up.”

According to NORAD, alert fighters were scrambled roughly 125 times for assorted reasons in 2000. Since Noble Eagle began, there have been about 1,000 scrambles—a pace of nearly three times the pre-9/11 rate.

The new US air defense setup also depends heavily on combat air patrols, which have undergone dramatic changes.

In 2000, there were no CAPs over the United States. Since Noble Eagle began, however, fighters have not only flown a large number of CAPs but also have been diverted from CAP flights to check out possible problems roughly 1,500 times.

The number of diversions has not declined despite the elimination of nonstop air patrols. In the first 10 months of 2004, for instance, NORAD had diverted fighters from CAPs more than 450 times.

Most of these tactical actions were triggered by commercial or private aircraft straying off course or their pilots turning off transponders or accidentally signaling that a hijacking was in progress.

While most of NORAD’s actions are never publicized, a few have gained public prominence. For example, the command responded to the threatening actions of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid during a flight in December 2001, ordering fighters to shadow the Paris-to-Miami flight until it was safely on the ground at a “divert site” in Boston.

In June 2004, NORAD diverted two fighters and scrambled two others to intercept an airplane carrying the governor of Kentucky. The aircraft had entered restricted airspace over Washington, D.C. A series of interagency miscommunications resulted in an evacuation of the Capitol building.

As such situations develop, NORAD can quickly call a “Noble Eagle” or “domestic event” conference to discuss it and determine a proper course of action. These conferences include participants “up to and including the Secretary of Defense,” Deal said.

Rapid communication and established rules of engagement are important, he said, “because we could have to order a shootdown.”

Last Resort

Officials stress that shooting down an airplane would always be the last resort, but it may be necessary if an aircraft appears to be a valid threat, will not respond, and is headed for a target. If NORAD is forced to order a shootdown, it must be to prevent “a bad situation from getting worse, because everybody on that airplane will die,” said Eberhart.

“During this entire time, we’re trying to work all the alternatives,” Deal added. “We’re trying to give passengers every … chance that we possibly can for them to take over.”

NORAD’s rules of engagement call for air defense aircraft, faced with a suspect aircraft, to follow a sequence of steps such as firing warning flares. These measures are designed to prevent a shootdown “unless it becomes a major national decision” to prevent an even greater tragedy, Deal explained.

Before the 9/11 attacks, the mission of watching for enemy aircraft and missiles was not that complicated. “You pretty much knew what you were looking at,” Deal said. “It was a straightforward mission.” Now, he went on, “there are a lot more variables in what we’re doing and a lot more information we have to fuse.”

NORAD headquarters is currently building a larger command center inside Cheyenne Mountain to meet its C2 requirements. The unit includes space for FAA personnel, air battle managers, and other officials to sit alongside the existing command center personnel.

One official said Noble Eagle was “designed for a sprint” but that air defenders are now “in a marathon.” This changeover has been particularly difficult for the Air National Guard, which handles the lion’s share of the alert mission.

NORAD’s area of responsibility is divided into three regions: Alaskan Region, headquartered at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska; Canadian Region at Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Continental US Region at Tyndall AFB, Fla. Tyndall’s 1st Air Force is responsible for guaranteeing the air sovereignty of the entire CONUS airspace. As a fact sheet notes, “All combat and support elements [in 1st Air Force] have come from the Air National Guard.”

The 113th Wing at Andrews has responsibility for guarding the national capital area. It began performing air sovereignty missions for the first time on 9/11 and is composed primarily of traditional, part-time Guardsmen.

Members of the wing recognize the importance of their mission. They can hardly forget it; each day, as they make their way to the flight line, wing pilots pass by a memorial plaque, mounted on a block of stone that was part of a Pentagon wall demolished by a hijacked airliner.


One official noted that the 113th has not gained any personnel since 9/11, even when the wing added the 24/7 alert mission. Being an alert unit requires “two or so” aircraft to be ready to scramble, with pilots and crew chiefs standing by, in a “firehouse” environment. The command post is also manned around the clock to receive orders from NORAD and coordinate air patrols and emergency scrambles.

All of the Guard units performing air defense are tasked “well beyond their 9/11 levels,” one pilot said, but units “haven’t caught up in the force structure yet.” The problem is “recognized, … and hopefully [it is] something that’s going to get addressed.”

The problem is especially acute in the command posts, which used to be part-time operations at locations like Andrews and Atlantic City. At the 113th, every command post operator is a traditional Guardsman, one of its officers said. The demand for more work hours has been met by Guard volunteers with understanding employers.

“I don’t know how long you can operate on a temporary fix,” the command post official said. “I think we need a plan with some legs to it.”

The combat aircraft assigned to duty in Noble Eagle—USAF F-15s and F-16s and Canadian CF-18s—are seen by some as less than ideal.

Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, argued that such “legacy” fighters are probably not the most efficient systems for air defense. “I’m convinced technology can give us a better way to do this,” he said.

The D.C. National Guard commander said one of his frustrations is that the 113th Wing is not part of 1st Air Force. “We’re not on their distribution list,” said Wherley, who was commander of the 113th Wing on 9/11. Instead, the wing belongs to 9th Air Force, which is oriented toward US Central Command needs in the Middle East.

“That was a huge disadvantage, not being assigned to 1st Air Force,” said Wherley.

The 113th directed the first fighter operations over the Pentagon on Sept. 11. The wing’s F-16s, returning from a training mission as the Pentagon was hit, were armed only with practice rounds. Wherley ordered one aircraft to head to the Pentagon. NORAD fighters from Langley arrived shortly thereafter.

The wing’s experience that day highlights the importance of command and control improvements. Wherley also launched the first CAP aircraft over the nation’s capital, but the fighters “didn’t have orders through military channels.” The Secret Service “had called asking for support,” Wherley said. He returned the call and was asked by a Secret Service agent to intercept any aircraft that approached the D.C. area airports or downtown.

That allowed Wherley to establish “weapons-free” rules of engagement and prepare two F-16s for launch.

Because of the confusion and concerns about accidental shootdowns, NORAD fighters initially had no authority to shoot at an airliner but NORAD was not running the F-16s out of Andrews when those aircraft were first cleared to shoot that morning, Eberhart said.

When the 113th Wing got its official rules of engagement from NORAD, wing officers were relieved to see that they were essentially the same as those issued by the Secret Service.

NORAD was worried about further attacks, said Eberhart, but, “frankly, we were just as concerned about making a mistake” and erroneously shooting down an airliner.

Staying Ahead of the Threats

Terrorists avoid well-defended targets. They look for vulnerabilities. Homeland defense planners know that, after they correct a weakness, they must immediately set about looking for the next potential target.

US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command officials feel that, with defense against hijacked airliners in relatively good shape, it is time to focus attention on other weaknesses.

Among the publicly mentioned vulnerabilities: the nation’s inability to identify and stop low-flying cruise missiles and remotely piloted aircraft, and its lack of a system for detecting a hostile ship among thousands of innocuous-seeming vessels approaching North American ports.

Maritime security is a major concern.

“It is just a matter of time until terrorists try to use a seaborne attack,” said Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, the recently retired commander of US Northern Command and NORAD.

Canadian Lt. Gen. Rick Findley, NORAD deputy commander, pointed out that, taken together, the US and Canada offer an attacker nearly 250,000 miles of coastline. That creates “some vulnerabilities on the maritime side.”

Officials tout the importance of stopping enemies before they get to North America. NORTHCOM performs a “day-to-day operational net assessment” to anticipate potential threats and plan responses, said Navy Capt. David Jackson. “The biggest threat to the US” comes from the massive number of unmonitored shipping containers arriving at domestic ports, he said.

Jackson, deputy director of the command’s Standing Joint Force Headquarters-North, noted in an interview that NORTHCOM’s area of responsibility extends roughly 500 miles out from the coast. That provides ample opportunity to play “the away game.”

Current efforts are labor-intensive. The Homeland Security Department’s Container Security Initiative, which sends US inspectors to foreign ports, was cited by Jackson as an effective “part of the away game,” but more automation and better intelligence is needed. There is no situational awareness of commercial shipping akin to what NORAD provides for the air.

One step toward a solution may be to expand the aerospace defense command to include sea defense, or to create a separate “Maritime NORAD.” Findley said the binational NORAD agreement is up for renewal in 2006, at which time it may be expanded to include maritime defense provisions.