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News | Sept. 9, 2011

In their own words - NORAD members recall September 11: Steve Armstrong

By NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - Steve Armstrong was the NORAD Chief of Plans and Forces on Sept. 11, 2001. He was in the Cheyenne Mountain command center during the attacks. Today he works in the NORAD Operations Directorate.

A: As the Chief of Plans and Forces on 9/11, my primary responsibility was to write the NORAD Concept Plan or NORAD CONPLAN 3310. We were in the process of re-writing 3310, and we were planning on using information gleaned from the exercise to be used to feed into the 3310. It was actually called 3310-96 that we were working on – or that we were working from – and we were actually writing 3310-98. The 98 or the 96 just has to do with the year that the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan tasked the Combatant Command, or in this case, NORAD, to write the plan.

Q: For those of us who are unfamiliar with those kind of plans, what are they?

A: The CONPLAN is basically a document that describes NORAD’s specific missions and how we employ aircraft; to include fighters, tankers and airborne early warning aircraft. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the gist of it. Basically, it’s our employment manual for the NORAD mission. You have to remember that, on 9/11, our primary mission was to look outside of the continental U.S., I know a lot of folks understand this but, back then, all of our radars were pointed up toward the north because our primary mission focus was to look for Russian long-range aviation aircraft, and we didn’t have any interior radars.

Q: This was 10 years after the end of the Cold War. What was the most activity you had seen in NORAD up to that point?

A: You know, we’ve really gone up and down as far as the number of responses that we’ve had to make against what we call out-of-area flights. So most of our focus was on training through exercises, etc.

Q: September 11, 2001, -- how’d the day start?

A: Started off like any other day. We came in thinking it would be a normal day, although we had been in the exercise for a few days already, we did a standard shift changeover in the morning and we were getting right into where we were at in relation to the exercise. We’d been into the exercise for I want to say three or four days, maybe longer by the time the event occurred. I’d have to go back and really take a look at it, but I think we were into the exercise for at least three or four days. We completed the standard stuff that we would normally do. We’d do a crew changeover. We’d say, “Okay, here’s what happened during the night shift (or the day shift),” and we’d give each other an update and then we’d start planning for whatever was on the agenda for that day. And, again, we were responding to an exercise scenario and the exercise would play out, just like we do today, that says, “Okay, last night this happened,” and now we have to take that information and turn it into some kind of an operational plan or request for forces or whatever the case might be—it was just predicated on how the scenario was unfolding.

Q: Was there any inkling or hints of what was coming before the hijackings occurred?

A: Absolutely none.

Q: How did you hear about the hijackings? When did you actually start hearing that something was going on?

A: We basically started getting a little information about a possible plane crash, and we turned the TV on right away and were pretty much following it on the TV. You know, we didn’t have direct connections with Western Air Defense Sector or Eastern Air Defense Sector or any of those folks at the time. So, we’d get a sporadic phone call or two that said, “Hey, there’s something going on.” But we turned on the news and pretty much watched the story unfold on CNN.

Q: So what was NORAD’s role at this point?

A: In the beginning, we really didn’t have a role because we thought it was – a small plane crash as indicated by the TV, “Hey, a small plane had just crashed into one of the towers.” So we were thinking, “Okay. Well, that highlights our interest,” but again, wasn’t part of the NORAD mission set at the time. So we were monitoring it and then, the information started to flow in that a second aircraft had hit and now, all of a sudden, we got information about hijackings, etc., and that kind of re-caged our focus and that’s when we started getting into the mode of scrambling airplanes and – and trying to get jets airborne in order to go out and counter the threat. But again, at the Headquarters, we didn’t really have much of a play in that. That was all being done down at the tactical level or sector level. Again, we were just kind of watching it unfold on CNN, and then we started making the phone calls and we tried to start building a bigger picture; and how to secure additional resources if the attacks continued.

Q: Can you describe the scene in the Command Center when the first and second towers were hit? What was going through your heads?

A: Well, I think when the first one hit, you know, we didn’t really know that it was anything other than perhaps a general aviation aircraft because those were the first indications that we had was it was just a reported like a small, maybe a general aviation aircraft that had hit one of the buildings. And then about the time the second one hit is about the time that we actually started seeing the video, so when we saw the video, we said, “Wait a second. Those are commercial-size airplanes. Those aren’t general aviation aircraft.” That obviously changed the situation significantly.

Q: How did NORAD react? Was there anything the organization could do?

A: Not initially, but, you know, once we started taking an active role – and, again, most of this stuff was occurring down at the tactical level, so when Northeast Air Defense Sector started getting folks airborne, the guys out of Otis were the first airborne, if I recall correctly, then Langley got airborne, and then we started standing up fighter units and launching other fighters to be able to be in some kind of position to take action, if required. But Otis and Langley were the primary guys that were out there. You have to remember back on September 11th, too, we only had seven locations where we were sitting active alert. And they were in the four corners, basically one up on the northeast corner, one on the southeast corner, northwest corner, southwest corner. So we really didn’t have the capability to respond inside the U.S., again because the focus was looking out toward the long-range aviation that might come into the U.S.

Q: What was the big fear at this point?

A: I think the big fear was that there were just gonna be continued hijackings with more attacks. We just didn’t know how many airplanes were out there. And then we got word that there was a third, and then we got word that there was a fourth, and we actually got word that there was another two airplanes possibly out there that were headed toward either D.C. area or other areas in New York.

Q: So the attack’s in full swing. You’re hearing that there could be as many as six airplanes - can you describe what’s going on in the Command Center?

A: You know, it wasn’t real frantic, but folks were running around and, to be honest with you, we were in almost completely void of information at the time. All the information we were getting at the time was really off the TV, so we were reaching out to the Sectors and everybody else that we could to try and get information; but, as you can imagine, they were pretty busy trying to run fighters and do intercepts and figure out where the bad guys were. So, you know, we were out there in an information void just looking for anything that we could find.

Q: What were the priorities for NORAD at this point and your Section in particular?

A: Well, you’ve got to recall, as the Strategy Section, Strategy kind of looks out longer range. The current operations guys are responsible for ongoing and currents ops and look at operations that are shorter in nature, typically up to about 24 hours. So we all collectively started working together. The Strategy didn’t become part of that process because we looked out three or four days in the future at least, and longer. So now we collectively started working together, again, to go into the information gathering. We were wanting to get fighters airborne, we wanted to get additional fighters, and that’s when we started getting in the mode of basically calling all of the fighter units that were out there all over the U.S. to not only include the Air Force, but we included Navy and Marines and we got aircraft carriers and we got cruisers, we got everything that was available and we stood it up as soon as we could. Now, obviously, it took hours and hours to get that capability, but, by the next morning, we literally had hundreds of fighters available to us. Again, we were standing up combat air patrols over major metropolitan cities, especially New York and Washington, DC, but we were in the process of trying to ensure that all airplanes—both commercial and general aviation were being put on the ground. FAA had implemented a ground stop and were putting airplanes on the ground so we were doing our part to help facilitate that process. Again, we kept hearing that there might be other airplanes out there inbound, so at the tactical level, those guys were trying to find them in the meantime. Again, we’re talking about hours after we’re trying to get those additional fighters and assets for our use.

Q: So it’s been hours. There hasn’t been another attack yet. What’s going through your mind? What’s happening?

A: We didn’t know that there weren’t gonna be waves of attacks that followed on, so we were concentrating on getting as many assets available to us as we could to either put them on alert or put them up in airborne patrols. I don’t recall the specific time that was associated with getting all aircraft on the ground, but I think it was in the neighborhood of five to six hours to get all of, not only general aviation, but commercial aviation aircraft on the ground again. Airplanes were stacking up like cordwood at airports all over the country and in Canada and everywhere else. I mean, we were parking airplanes on taxiways and any other location we could put them. We did what we needed to do as far as putting airplanes on the ground. Now I say “we”; that’s a collective “we” with the FAA. Again, they were the guys that were running that show.

Q: How long do you think before you actually started to breathe a little?

A: We kept track of how many airplanes were left airborne throughout that time frame, and, as we knew that there were fewer and fewer numbers of airplanes that were still airborne, we began to become more comfortable with the fact that, “Hey, you know, with fewer airplanes available, the likelihood of an attack is even less.” And, again, you’ve got to remember that we had a lot of fighter assets up and we started getting not only the confidence with fewer airplanes airborne, but we also had more fighters and tankers airborne able to support as well.

Q: And on a personal level, after you had some time to absorb all of this, what was your reaction?

A: Well, first and foremost, we couldn’t believe it happened. As the guys that were writing the CONPLAN, we never envisioned that commercial aviation airplanes would be used as a weapon. And maybe that’s something that we kind of looked back on collectively and thought maybe that should’ve been thinking out of the box a little bit more and thought about those kind of capabilities but it wasn’t our mission. Now there’s been stories over the years about, yeah, people had thought about that, but it certainly didn’t resonate to me or my leadership that anybody was thinking about using commercial airplanes as weapons of mass destruction. Otherwise, we certainly would have considered it in our CONPLAN.

Q: Looking back, is there anything that you could’ve or should’ve or would’ve done differently, you think?

A: Not really. I mean it’s one of those things you do the best with what you have. And, again, since we never imagined a scenario like that, it’s hard to say that you would’ve done something differently unless you would’ve envisioned that scenario and planned accordingly.

Q: Okay. You’ve been here before 9/11 and since 9/11.

A: Right.

Q: What kind of changes have you seen come into the organization as a result of this?

A: I came back here in the summer of 2005 as the Inspector General for NORAD and NORTHCOM. And, as part of that process, one of my primary responsibilities on the NORAD side of the house was to go out and ensure that the NORAD assets that were sitting alert were ready to do the mission. The biggest change that we saw since then was the number of sites that we have that sit day-to-day alert has more than doubled. We now have airborne early warning aircraft and tanker aircraft that are available to us if we need that kind of capability as well. In my opinion, probably the best thing that came out of 9/11 for us in the mission execution phase is what we call the Domestic Events Network (or the DEN), and that is a full-time, 24/7, open line of communication with about 150+ players that includes folks like the FAA, the TSA, the National Counterterrorism Center, U.S. Secret Service, etc. Quite a few of the major airlines have their operations center on there as well. There’s about 150 folks that are on this conference, and we talk instantaneously about any abnormal activity in the national airspace system. It’s instantaneous, so we, as the guys that are the goalies, if you will, for bad guys that may want to hurt us, we have information and we can start planning or acting accordingly as soon as we hear the slightest thing go wrong. We’ve done a lot of other great things collectively as well; like hardened cockpit doors, federal air marshals, federal flight deck officers, and passenger screening.

One of the most important things is passenger awareness now, too. There isn’t a whole lot that folks will put up with on an airline anymore. If you’re flying and somebody starts getting out of hand, passengers will get up out of their seats and take appropriate action to assist aircrews to make sure that that person doesn’t do anything that they think in their minds’ is wrong. We see it occur on a fairly frequent basis.

Q: You spoke earlier of, during the attacks, NORAD being in a void of information.

A: Yeah.

Q: Do you think the DEN addresses that adequately?

A: Absolutely. Not only do we have the DEN, but we also have what we call the Operation Noble Eagle Conference and we also have a couple of other conferences that are basically classified phone conversations with all the appropriate people, to include decision-makers and people that just provide information. We execute an Operation Noble Eagle Conference predicated on what we’re hearing on the Domestic Events Network and we get all the decision-makers on there, so we’ve got folks that can make decisions if decisions need to be made right away.

Q: Okay. Now you bring up Operation Noble Eagle and that’s something I want to talk to you about next.

A: Yeah.

Q: As part of the J5 and planning, Noble Eagle – and correct me if I’m wrong – got started essentially the day after, September 12th. You were a part of making that happen, weren’t you?

A: Yeah. In fact, a few days after 9/11, General Eberhart, who was the Commander of NORAD at the time, actually sent me to Washington, DC, to be the liaison with the Joint Staff and the air staff and literally everybody within the Washington, DC community to make sure folks not only understood what the NORAD mission was but how we executed it; and, as part of that process, one of the very first things we did was write Operation Noble Eagle. And through several iterations with the Vice Chairman, who was General Pace at the time, and the Chairman, we wrote Operation Noble Eagle. We briefed General Eberhart on it and then, ultimately, we took the briefing to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then on to the Secretary of Defense and then on to the President. The Secretary of Defense approved the plan and we’ve been operating under Operation Noble Eagle since. Now we rewrite the plan on a regular basis. In fact, it is in the process of being rewritten right now and we hope to have the new Operation Noble Eagle Execution Order, as we call it, out on the streets here within the next month or two.

Q: And for those who may be unfamiliar with ONE, can you describe briefly what it is?

A: ONE, Operational Noble Eagle, is basically NORAD’s day-to-day mission that is really designed to counter terrorist attacks through either commercial or general aviation. And we do that primarily through alert forces on the ground. Like I said, we’ve more than doubled the number of alert sites that we had on 9/11. We also have integrated air defense capability in the National Capitol Region. Around the National Capitol region, there’s been vast changes to protect Washington, DC proper from any kind of attacks, to include what we call Airspace Control Measures (or “ACMs”) where we actually have restricted airspace, if you will, that has specific requirements. To be able to fly in that airspace, you have specific things that you have to do. We have also put more radars in there to be able to detect folks that are flying in there that shouldn’t be, and that’s tied into the Integrated Air Defense System.

Q: Did you ever expect that it would last 10 years?

A: Based on the severity of the attacks and what it did to the country, yeah, I kind of did, to be honest with you. You know, it was a pretty significant event that occurred not only to our nation’s psyche, but to our economy and to many other areas that really had a huge impact on how we do business and, you know, it’s completely changed our way of life. You can’t go to the airport and just go up to the gate like you used to before 9/11. You know, I remember going up and meeting relatives or friends at the gate when they would come in and things like that; those things are a thing of the past. I mean, it has literally changed the way we do business here in the U.S.

Q: Since September 11th, NORAD has responded to more than 3,500 potential air threats and intercepted more than 1,400 aircraft. How do you measure Operation Noble Eagle’s success? I mean, can you look at the numbers and say, “This is working,” or is it something else?

A: Well, I guess like President Bush always said. One of the things that he was most proud of is the fact that we never had another terrorist attack on U.S. soil when he was President. And I guess that’s kind of one measure of effectiveness, the fact that we haven’t had an event now.

Q: When you look back at that day, what stands out the most in your mind?

A: I think there was a lot of firsts that occurred. I mean, that was the first attack on our nation, especially on the continental U.S., since World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor. That was a pretty significant event. The fact that we closed the blast doors up in Cheyenne Mountain that day, too, was a significant event. And, if I’m not mistaken, that is the only time since Cheyenne Mountain came into existence that they were closed for a real world event. So we knew it was a significant event.

Q: Knowing what we know now and having made the changes that we have, do you think a 9/11 type of attack would be as successful as it was 10 years ago?

A: Absolutely not. I think we’ve established significant mitigation efforts such as passenger screening, no-fly lists, hardened cockpit doors, increased federal air marshals, and heightened passenger awareness, I think an attack of that nature would be very difficult to execute. Now it doesn’t mean it would be impossible and that’s why we continue to train like we would have to execute at any time, but based on all those mitigating factors that we’ve put into place, I think it would be very, very difficult to pull off an attack like 9/11. Now that doesn’t mean that the terrorists aren’t very adaptive as we’ve seen them change their tactics based on our changes to mitigate seams in our defenses over the years. They are working every day to figure out a way to continue to use aviation to attack America. And you saw with the shoe bomber and other types of attacks, Al Qaeda and other terrorists are determined to continue to attack America. And they’re pretty adaptive. They’ve done a good job of trying to figure out ways around the mitigating factors or defensive measures we have put into place. They are continuing to work that.