Black September 11

Sept. 1, 2002

On Sept. 10, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted in a speech that the US military was still using a planning process designed to deal with a Soviet-style challenge–a predictable, slowly evolving military threat that emerges over a period of years and changes incrementally.

The system, therefore, was ineffective for dealing with the rapidly changing threats that had come to characterize the post-Cold War world, said the Pentagon chief, adding, “Our foes are more subtle and implacable today.”

The iron cage of bureaucracy prevented DOD from adapting to evolving threats “with the speed and agility that today’s world demands,” he said in his speech. Streamlining Pentagon operations thus was “a matter of national security.” The world had become a place where threats “arise from multiple sources, most of which are difficult to anticipate and many of which are impossible even to know today,” he added.

The next day was Sept. 11.

In a shocking attack, 19 al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four US civil airliners loaded with fuel for cross-country flights and slammed them into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and after a passenger revolt, an empty patch of Pennsylvania countryside, killing 3,000 all told.

On that day, the US was forced to confront the sort of invisible and unpredictable threat Rumsfeld had warned about and deal with an entirely new kind of enemy and battle.

The Air Force is playing a leading role in the response to this new security challenge, providing the aircraft and personnel for Combat Air Patrols to secure US skies against further airline hijackings while also supplying bombers and airlift that were central to the war on terrorism in Afghanistan halfway around the globe. USAF bombers dropped most of the weapons on Taliban and al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.

An oft-repeated phrase in the days after Sept. 11 was that “nothing will ever be the same.” This is not entirely true, of course, but the Air Force has seen major, long-term changes to the way it goes about its business.

Two-Front War

For starters, the service is now at war on two fronts–against terrorism worldwide (Enduring Freedom) and to ensure air sovereignty in the United States (Operation Noble Eagle). Both of these missions are expected to continue indefinitely.

After the collapse of the Soviet threat, the Air Force perhaps understandably had grown complacent about securing United States airspace. The United States at the height of the Cold War was ringed by air bases with fighters on strip alert, meaning jets were ready to scramble on a moment’s notice to intercept incoming Soviet bombers.

As the Soviet bomber threat faded into the background, the number of bases on alert was repeatedly scaled back, until only seven remained in September 2001. It was an F-15 unit from the Massachusetts Air National Guard that scrambled to New York when word came from the Federal Aviation Administration that something was wrong. Similarly, it was a Guard unit based at Langley AFB, Va., that raced to Washington, D.C.

Lacking lead time, neither group of fighters was able to reach the hijacked airliners before they struck their targets.

Now, the Air Force has once again increased the number of bases on alert. Although nonstop Combat Air Patrols have ceased, CAPs are still flown on a random basis over New York City, Washington, D.C., and other prominent areas.

The concept of air sovereignty is viewed differently now. Shortly after the attacks, Maj. Gen. Paul A. Weaver Jr., the now retired director of the Air National Guard, said scaling back alert bases in the 1990s had been noncontroversial. The threat was seen to have dried up, and keeping fighters and crews ready to scramble is expensive. Similarly, North American Aerospace Defense Command officials said the policy was for NORAD to monitor external threats approaching the nation while FAA watched internal activity.

On Sept. 11, this disconnect between military and civil radar coverage worked to the advantage of the terrorist hijackers. Because US airliners were considered friendly by origin, NORAD depended upon FAA notification that something was wrong that morning.

Now, cooperation between the two sides has increased dramatically, the government is taking an interagency approach to radar improvements, and DOD is leading a task force charged with determining the best way to create a common air picture for both civil and military needs.

No More Troops

Although Congress has made additional money available to pay for homeland security initiatives and the material costs of the war on terrorism, Rumsfeld has indicated no additional personnel will be forthcoming. Consequently, the dual strains of war in Afghanistan and the homeland air defense mission have affected many units as mission requirements increased.

The Air National Guard unit responsible for securing air sovereignty over the northeast US flew nonstop Combat Air Patrols for months without significant external help. The New Jersey ANG’s 177th Fighter Wing drew heavily on mobilized Guardsmen to meet its needs.

Over time, mission taskings began to wear heavily on certain USAF career fields such as pilots, maintainers, and command post operators. Officials at the 177th FW said most Guardsmen have taken a wait-and-see attitude toward their lives because it is unclear when the part-timers will be demobilized and sent back to their civilian careers.

The New Jersey F-16 pilots acutely felt the demands of the new security environment. These pilots had to not only defend US airspace but also suffered a long-term training backlog. The homeland defense mission pre-empted months of flying normally devoted to training for conventional combat missions. According to New Jersey ANG officials, the wing is still expected to prepare for a possible deployment to Saudi Arabia when its normal turn comes up in the Aerospace Expeditionary Force cycle next year.

The New Jersey Guard’s 24/7 CAPs ended last spring, but Atlantic City Airport has now been designated a strip alert base–meaning a minimum of two (and sometimes six) pilots and fighters are kept ready to scramble.

Further, the base has been instructed to continue normal operations, meaning its crews are attempting to catch up on training missed after Sept. 11 to prepare for their possible AEF deployment.

Planners know the competing demands can be a problem. Maj. Gen. Timothy A. Peppe, USAF’s special assistant for AEFs, said “things have gotten to a point” in certain instances “where training back home has been hindered” by other wartime obligations.

Col. Mike Cosby, 177th FW commander, said the New Jersey Guard was given the northeast air defense mission for good reason. For starters, the base has a history with the air defense mission–Atlantic City Airport was an alert base until 1998, when the Guard unit was redesignated a general-purpose unit with an air-to-ground mission. Atlantic City is also centrally located to likely terrorist targets.

“There are four major metropolitan areas that this base services,” Cosby said, noting that Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City are all a short flight from the New Jersey base, as is Wilmington, Del., which gets occasional CAP protection because of the city’s oil port.

The Squeeze

The 177th FW is leaning on many formerly part-time Guardsmen to meet its staffing needs. Because of that, Cosby said, the base is seeking additional manpower–“100, 125 additional folks full time.” These individuals–primarily aircraft maintainers–would be used to support the extra tempo of maintaining random CAPs, sitting on alert, and maintaining enough training sorties. Cosby said the Noble Eagle mission in six months burned up an entire year’s worth of planned flying hours. Not included in that total were all of the base’s “regular” flying missions.

The strip alert aircraft require maintenance and support teams independent from those needed for regular-duty F-16s, said MSgt. Marty Schellhas, a 177th FW crew chief. Operating around the clock to support both strip alerts and regular training operations, maintenance teams now have fewer people per team but more work. Maintenance has managed to keep its teams properly staffed with the correct experience levels, Schellhas said, but “it’s been tough. … We could always use more help.”

The Noble Eagle mission also began to wear on the pilots. CAP flights are not like combat training, and pilots are trying to make up for lost time.

“It’s hard to stay focused–by your fifth or sixth hour, you become pretty weary” on a CAP, said Lt. Col. Randall King, 177th FW assistant operations director.

The fire has also been turned up overseas. Although many in government were keenly aware of the threat Osama bin Laden posed to US interests–owing to his suspected involvement in the bombing of the Navy destroyer Cole–a global war on terrorism was hardly expected a year ago.

What the Loggies Did

Likewise, military strategists knew Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban faction harbored and supported al Qaeda terrorists, but a war in that country wasn’t in the plans. When the time came to take the fight to the terrorists, the Air Force basically had to improvise. The service was suddenly responsible for moving tons of equipment to Central Asia.

“We made it up for Afghanistan as we went along,” said Lt. Gen. Michael E. Zettler, USAF’s deputy chief of staff for installations and logistics.

There was ample “opportunity for failure” in preparing for the operations, he said, because everything was needed at that time in South Asia. Afghanistan, landlocked and distant from the US network of bases concentrated in Europe, brought bomber capabilities to the forefront.

Early in the conflict, some fighter missions were flown from bases in the Persian Gulf region, but the distances involved made bomber operations much more efficient. As was the case over Kosovo in 1999, B-2s flew from Missouri, while the lack of air defenses in Afghanistan made it attractive to use B-1B and B-52 bombers to attack from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Navy fighters operating from big-deck carriers in the Indian Ocean generated most of the Enduring Freedom sorties, but Air Force bombers dropped most of the ordnance and did the most damage. According to Air Force officials, heavy bombers flew about 10 percent of the early combat missions over Afghanistan, but hit more than 70 percent of the aim points. The bombers delivered more than 80 percent of US ordnance dropped in the first days of the conflict.

The logistical challenges involved in fighting a war in Afghanistan have certainly caught the attention of senior defense planners. The regional warfighting commanders and Air Force Secretary James G. Roche are studying options for new contingency bases in the Asia-Pacific region so that DOD doesn’t have to start from scratch the next time a battle must be fought in an isolated location.

More bases are also needed because of the vast distances to cover in the region. Otherwise, shorter-range aircraft might not be used to their full potential.

The Air Force’s role in Enduring Freedom gradually receded into the background, but the service remains deeply committed to the war. As of July, USAF had 9,900 airmen deployed to the Afghanistan region in support of Enduring Freedom.

The Air Force had not anticipated sustained operations as large as Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle when it created its system of rotating Aerospace Expeditionary Forces. Rather than abandon the system, however, the service has chosen to bolster its AEFs to support the new steady state of operations, according to Peppe, the AEF planner.

The most obvious change was the need to get more people into the AEF system so that more airmen would be available for deployment on the scheduled 90-day rotations. Peppe said that, as of July, some 175,000 airmen were postured for AEF deployments through Unit Type Codes, which link personnel to their mission. The goal, he said, is to have well over 200,000 people postured for AEF deployments.

“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Peppe said, given how 18,000 airmen had been added to the UTCs in the past month, and the goal is to have the entire Air Force headquarters staff available for AEF deployment if necessary. “Will they all go? No,” Peppe said–but they should be available to fill needs.

Fixing the Holes

Also helping to fill holes in the AEF system will be the troops and equipment from two stand-alone Air Expeditionary Wings. The AEWs, based at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, and Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C., were designed to back up the 10 permanent AEFs with additional assets as needed. However, the assets of these AEWs have not been used very much, Peppe said, while the AEFs are being run ragged. Thus, the Air Force in June began to integrate AEW forces into the AEFs.

High operational tempo generated by recent operations is placing an exceptional burden on high-demand career fields, and officials are now working to alleviate this strain. For example, Peppe said that some personnel were being deployed much longer than the standard 90-day cycle. “Some are staying for 135 days and a small percent will need to remain for up to 179 days,” he said.

Peppe added in July that the preference is not to deploy anyone for more than 120 days. “That will be the stated goal,” he said.

Reaching that goal, however, will require long-term solutions such as increased accessions into the stressed career fields, which include security forces, air traffic control, and crews for low-density, high-demand assets such as Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft.

Peppe believes the AEF concept will survive the enormous pressures generated by the post-attack US response. He said USAF will stick with the 10-AEF force, though it did consider going up or down. The bottom line, he concluded, is that the Air Force is expeditionary, and in wartime the demands go up.

And so far, they haven’t come down.

The First 12 Hours

What follows is a chronology of events on Sept. 11. Eastern Daylight Time is used throughout.

8:40 a.m. FAA notifies NORAD’s North East Air Defense Sector of problem with American Airlines Flight 11 (Boston–Los Angeles).
8:43 a.m. FAA notifies NEADS of problem on United Airlines Flight 175 (Boston–Los Angeles).
8:45 a.m. First hijacked aircraft, AA Flight 11 crashes into north tower of World Trade Center.
8:46 a.m. Fighter scramble order given at Otis ANGB, Mass.
8:52 a.m. Two F-15 fighters airborne.
9:03 a.m. Second hijacked aircraft, UA Flight 175 slams into WTC south tower.
9:24 a.m. FAA notifies NEADS of problem on AA Flight 77 (Washington Dulles–Los Angeles) and UA Flight 93 (Newark–San Francisco) .
9:24 a.m. Fighter scramble order given at Langley AFB, Va.
9:30 a.m. Two F-16 fighters airborne.
9:30 a.m. In Florida, President Bush says events of the morning are result of an “apparent terrorist attack.”
9:38 a.m. Third hijacked aircraft, AA Flight 77 hits Pentagon, setting it ablaze.
9:40 a.m. FAA halts US flight operations, orders aircraft to land.
9:45 a.m. White House workers evacuate the building.
9:57 a.m. Bush departs Florida for Barksdale AFB, La.
10:00 a.m. WTC south tower collapses.
10:03 a.m. Fourth hijacked aircraft, UA Flight 93 on a heading to Washington, D.C., crashes in Pennsylvania.
10:10 a.m. Part of Pentagon collapses.
10:24 a.m. FAA diverts all inbound trans–Atlantic flights to Canada.
10:28 a.m. WTC north tower collapses.
10:45 a.m. US evacuates all federal buildings in Washington, D.C.
11:02 a.m. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani orders evacuation of New York City, south of Canal Street.
12:15 p.m. The INS imposes highest state of alert on borders.
1:04 p.m. Bush, at Barksdale, addresses nation, puts military on worldwide alert.
1:48 p.m. Bush departs Barksdale for Offutt AFB, Neb.
2:30 p.m. FAA bans commercial air traffic until further notice.
4:30 p.m. Bush departs Offutt for Andrews AFB, Md.
5:20 p.m. WTC Building 7 collapses.
6:40 p.m. Rumsfeld holds news conference, says DOD is functioning.
6:54 p.m. Bush arrives at White House.
8:30 p.m. Bush addresses the nation, declares US will pursue those who planned and executed the attacks and nations harboring them.

Adam J. Hebert is senior correspondent for, an Internet defense information site, and managing editor for Defense Information and Electronics Report, a Washington, D.C.-based defense newsletter. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Responsive Force,” appeared in the July 2002 issue.