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.