NORAD Monitors U.S. Skies to Protect the Homeland
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2003 - On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the
staff at the North American Aerospace Defense Command was poised
to identify a missile test or space launch anywhere in the world,
or to tell exactly how many items of "space junk" were circling
What they didn't know was that four commercial airplanes hijacked
within U.S. borders were launching an orchestrated terrorist attack
on the United States.
That's because, at the time, the eyes and ears of NORAD were
focused on aerospace threats launched far from the shores of the
United States and Canada. The concept of an attack from within
U.S. borders seemed almost inconceivable to a command created in
the 1950s to address Cold War threats.
Today, NORAD's operations division chief says the command is
dramatically changed, with a larger scope and a major role in the
war on terror.
Air Force Lt. Col. Lennie Coleman said NORAD's ground-based radar,
airborne radar, aircraft, satellites and intelligence capabilities
now focus within the United States and Canada as well as offshore
to identify suspicious aircraft or other aerospace threats.
"We've expanded from our Cold War structure to be able to meet
the terrorist threat that's out there," he said.
From its air warning center, deep within Cheyenne Mountain near
Colorado Springs, Colo., NORAD now conducts around- the-clock monitoring
in support of Operation Noble Eagle - the mission to protect the
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Coleman said, NORAD has flown more than
32,000 sorties in support of Operation Noble Eagle. More than 1,500
of these sorties, flown by U.S. F-15 and F- 16 fighters and Canadian
CF-18s from sites throughout the United States and Canada, involved
what Coleman calls "targets of interest."
"In every single one of these cases, the pilots taking off on
the ground or being diverted have no idea if they are going up
to another Sept. 11," Coleman said. "Every mission is taken very
Fortunately, most "targets of interest" have turned out to be
pilots who had mistakenly strayed into restricted air space or
whose communication or navigation equipment had failed, he said.
But in several instances, they proved to be real-life threats.
One was the airliner that carried Richard C. Reid, the "shoe bomber" who
tried to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight just four months after
the 9-11 terrorist attacks. U.S. fighters shadowed the flight until
the pilots made an emergency landing in Boston.
Two other "targets of interest" involved hijacked Cuban airliners.
Again, U.S. fighter jets intervened in both hijackings, shadowing
the aircraft until they landed in the Florida keys.
Coleman emphasized that NORAD does not conduct its expanded mission
in a void. The command works hand-in-hand with a wide range of
government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security,
the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Agency.
"We work closely with them to complement the security measures
that they have put in place since 9-11," Coleman said. "And we've
helped make sure that our defensive measures will be there if those
security measures fail."
Nowhere is NORAD's increased intergovernmental coordination more
evident than with the Federal Aviation Administration.
"Before Sept. 11, the FAA had to physically pick up the phone
and call us if there was a hijacking," said Coleman. "Today, they
don't have to do that. We have constant, real- time communications
with the FAA. So when they have concern about an airplane - even
before they determine that it is a problem - we already know about
it. That's a vast improvement."
But Coleman said NORAD is constantly "exercising the system and
looking for ways to do it smarter, do it better" and to improve
Information sharing is key, he said, to ensuring that each agency
understands its role in a crisis and is prepared to carry it out.
Coleman said regular exercises help reinforce that the system
is working, and serve as a deterrent to would-be terrorists.
"Time and space are our friends," he said. "If we can gain one
extra day, one extra hour, one extra phone call, one extra planning
effort that the bad guys have to take, that gives those intelligence,
law enforcement and security elements in the field that one chance
to catch them before we, the last line of defense, (have) to act."
Coleman said these initiatives are making the United States and
Canada far safer than before Sept. 11.
"We've looked at the terrorist threat very seriously, and we've
expanded our communication, our command-and-control infrastructure
and our interagency coordination to be able to hopefully avoid
ever having another 9-11," he said.
"We're much better postured to meet the threat, no matter where
it comes from - not only externally, but internally as well. And
that's a guarantee."