I haven’t posted on Surprise Attack in some time and that’s probably a mistake given that it deals extensively with America’s crisis command and control system, the historical performance of our Presidents in their role as Commander in Chief and with the protocols for responding to a true national emergency. Given contemporary affairs all those elements deserve a lot of thought.

Beyond the broad issues and questions about America’s National Command Authority and how it really operates, an incident occurred a few weeks ago that totally escaped the mainstream media or, just possibly, was avoided by the media upon request due to the fact that it appears to have exposed a massive failure of homeland security – in this case of American air space defense.

In Surprise Attack I cover the failure of that air space defense on 9/11, a failure with many elements but most dramatically the decision to essentially to abandon the American air defense network which had been put in place during the Cold War, a positive defense network including surveillance radar systems and alert aircraft. I imagine most people still don’t realize that the nation had something less than two dozen interceptors on any type of standby in 2001, with only a handful in classic strip alert. I cover that in great detail in the book and its truly sad to see how the Air Force alert pilots and even their regional controllers were totally let down by the system and indeed by high level NORAD command (the regional combat centers and pilots responded in heroic fashion, the system failed them).

The thing is that those failures were obvious and in following months and years were supposed to have been fixed by a system which integrated positive military radar surveillance with FAA transponder radar tracking and set up a protocol to hand off any potential threats or even aircraft emergencies to trained NORAD combat controllers (rather than the FAA personnel who had been left holding the bag controlling military aircraft on 9/11). And a new alert interceptor aircraft network was established, you will find it designated as Noble Eagle.

It all sounded pretty good although actually operations are largely classified – certainly the problems and fixes had clearly been identified. However exactly how well the new system is working was brought into serious question only a few weeks ago.  You can find the details of the incident at the following link:


The basic facts are that an aircraft of either commercial airliner size, or that of the largest private jets, was flying in daylight at commercial aircraft altitudes (35-37,000 feet)on a course that took it up the entire west coast from California past Portland, Seattle and apparently beyond. The FAA attempted to track it although it had no active transponder (something that has actually become in Russian military flights in Europe and off American coasts) and responded to no standard radio queries. This unidentified white aircraft was also “outrunning” 737 commercial jets, just simply cruising on past them as it passed up the stream of commercial traffic going up and down the west coast – which means a speed well in excess of 500 mph, more likely upwards of 600.

Apparently the military had trouble tracking it on their primary defense radars even though FAA appears to have gotten some local tracks on their much more limited approach control radars. Interceptors were scrambled out of Portland (this against an aircraft first observed over southern California).  A close reading of the reports suggests that the unknown aircraft was not effectively being tracked by a number of military and even airliner collision avoidance radars – that is a very bad thing. It’s also unclear if there was any positive attempt to intercept over California at all.

The article I linked to above does mention one very special American test aircraft which could have been involved, but if so it appears there was no NORAD coordination and the aircraft would have been operating across one of the nation’s heaviest commercial traffic patterns and doing so in test mode, without communications, certainly not SOP.  So either someone made a real operational mistake or somebody was operating an aircraft that essentially demonstrated that our post 9/11 air defense just flat does not work even under the best conditions. If we can’t track and intercept a commercial size airliner flying over several states right along with all the other air traffic and in daylight, the implications are obvious. Certainly it appears neither NORAD nor anyone else wants to talk about the incident – which is understandable if not comforting.


5 responses »

  1. Anthony says:

    Thanks for posting this, it is very interesting. I intend to look at this in a bit more detail but may I ask some possibly silly questions?
    a) it reminds me a bit of the SAC exercises you describe in Surprise Attack, testing air defences in unannounced exercise. Is it clear that this would not be done in airspace used for commercial traffic (which sounds sensible to me, but I’m no expert)?
    b) It also sounds like the ferret operations you also describe in Surprise Attack and clearly also go on today, in which case we’d be looking at a Russian or Chinese aircraft. It doesn’t sound like a TU-95 (indications of stealth technology) and too fast for one of their long range drones, but is there any other type we know of which could undertake such long range missions? (As you can tell aviation isn’t an area I know much about).
    c) the description of it as white but being to far away t make out the type is interesting. If I understand it correctly most military aircraft are not painted white for obvious reasons. Grey is quite common. At a distance most non-reflective and non-self luminous objects begin to look dark against the sky, so this white colour seems very unusual. Would that be a reasonable point?
    d) I am also reminded of incidents in the past such as the 1964 USS Gyatt case which aroused concern if new Soviet technology but where the object remains unidentified to this day. Far to early to suggest this may be one for a future edition of Unidentified but some features of this fit that pattern.

    • larryjoe2 says:

      Some very good questions!

      a) An exercise would make sense in terms of radar tracking and alert interceptor response as well as hand-offs between zone responsibilities. In fact I hope they do such tests although I have seen no evidence of “singleton” tests outside larger, scheduled “reaction” exercises. And a real test would indeed require turning transponders off. On the other hand its hard to imagine it being done without communications acknowledgement – if you recall even the routine exercises are announced and FAA is informed, as it was about the actual exercises in process on 9/11. The other problem is that this aircraft appeared to be exceptionally difficult to radar track, suggesting some sort of passive countermeasures and that would mean a technology test rather than an exercise.

      b) If it was a ferret mission it would have been immensely successful since it would have been able to pick up signatures on virtually every traffic control and air defense radar on the west coast. However the risk would be immense given its long flight path – I’m not sure we know the exact track and whether it was over land or to what extent within our actual legal borders. If it was a ferret it would be an exceptional break with all past practices. The real problem here is nobody got close enough to describe it so we don’t know whether it could have been something equipped for in air refueling which means it could be either Russian or Chinese. Worse yet, it was not tracked either entering or leaving our airspace which means it could have actually launched from a domestic field either in the US or Mexico.

      c) The fact that it was described as white is strange although not so much for test aircraft, check the embedded link in the story for an example if you have not. That suggests to me that it was not a true “ferret” in the sense of being military. Which implies it might be a “deniable” civilian aircraft performing something of a ferret role but with the ability to claim equipment failure or some other plausible excuse if actually intercepted.

      d) Indeed an interesting point, I may have missed it but the real question is whether the commercial aircrews were able to positively identify it as an aircraft which it seems they were. Strictly from the perspective of being an unidentified flying object (which by definition it was) this would make one of the longest tracks that I can think of and one of the most dramatic failures to intercept. It would be pretty interesting to see the military reports on this since it must have had a threat report form several commands; I suspect some of the good military bloggers have already placed FOIA’s for just that.

      The bottom line at the moment is that whatever the identity of the craft, the incident appears to reveal a major failure with airspace defense, one visible to all interested parties. Worse yet we are not talking about an advanced performance or even noticeably high tech craft, the speeds, altitude and flight path are routine for commercial or even private aircraft. We couldn’t intercept it even at points where it was being visually described and located or generating some number of FAA radar paints. That’s a real problem…which is why this story should be getting some major attention in military circles and with aviation reporters. Hopefully we will see some follow-up.

      • Anthony says:

        Many thanks. My understanding is that they were unable to identify a type, with it being described as ‘white’ unfortunately the links to the audio din’t work for me, but I shall see if I can get more detail on the physical appearance.

      • larryjoe2 says:

        The airline crews observing it seem to have assumed it was an aircraft but to this point I’ve found no description of wings, a tail structure, etc. It may well be since it was in a commercial air lane, of some size and flying at an altitude only used by commercial or private jets as well as demonstrating no abnormal maneuvers or speeds it was automatically characterized assumed to be an unidentified jet aircraft. I’ve looked for more stories and FOIA’s have been filed so if anyone sees more on this please post it here or email me. Its rather amazing that it has gotten no national news coverage at all, at a time when its SOP to report the new waves of Russian military flights in and around American air space.

      • larryjoe2 says:

        While no one is actually suggesting the aircraft in question is a test-bed aircraft such as the one discussed in the following link, it is interesting to note that a good deal of effort is made to obscure the activities of technology test-bed flight operations. The big differences reflected in this article would be that this aircraft flies with its transponder on, is routinely tracked and under air traffic control and engages in routine air traffic control radio exchanges (albeit using false aircraft identities). Which suggests that the mystery aircraft over California was something other than an American military or aerospace aircraft given that such aircraft generally “follow the rules” even when on quite serious test missions:


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