The military screw-up nobody talks about.


Scott Shuger
The military screw-up nobody talks about.
Tue Mar 5 04:46:00 2002

The military screw-up nobody talks about.
By Scott Shuger
Posted Wednesday, January 16, 2002, at 2:20 PM PT


According to NORAD's official 9/11 time line, the FAA notified NORAD
at 8:40 a.m. Eastern time that there was something peculiar going on with
American Flight 11. But NORAD didn't issue an order for fighters to
scramble until 8:46 a.m., the time when American Flight 11 hit the first
WTC tower. Six minutes later, at 8:52 a.m., two F-15 fighters responded to
the order by launching from a base 153 miles from New York City. They
still were not on the scene at 9:02 a.m. when the second airliner, United
Flight 175, hit the second WTC tower. They wouldn't get there for another
eight minutes, at 9:10 a.m. A NORAD senior officer, Major Gen. Larry
Arnold, told NBC that when the fighters took off, they were flying straight
to New York City. He also said that they were going "about 1.5 Mach,
which is, you know, somewhere‚€”11- or 1,200 miles an hour." But note
that the F-15 fighters took 18 minutes to cover those 153 miles, which
comes out to more like 510 mph. Yet, according to the Air Force, the F-15
has a top speed of 1,875 mph. So, you have to wonder, why were they
flying at less than a third of what they're capable of?

According to NORAD, the FAA notified it at 9:24 a.m. that there was
something suspicious with American Flight 77. Two F-16 fighters were
immediately ordered launched, and they got airborne at 9:30 a.m. The New
York Times reports that at first, they were headed to New York at "top
speed" reaching "600 mph within two minutes," before vectoring toward
Washington instead. These planes didn't arrive in the vicinity of the
Pentagon until 9:49 a.m., 12 minutes after American Flight 77 hit it. (They
then stayed in the skies above Washington to protect against the fourth
errant airliner, United Flight 93, with orders to shoot it down if necessary, a
command mooted by an apparent passenger insurrection that caused that
plane to crash in a Pennsylvania field.) The F-16s covered the 130 miles of
their journey in 19 minutes, which would be an average speed of about 410
mph. Now, that's artificially low because these fighters spent several
minutes flying toward New York, but even allowing for this, you don't
come up with anything like what the Air Force (which may know better
than the New York Times) says is the plane's top speed of 1,500 mph. So,
again, why didn't NORAD feel the need for speed? It wasn't because of
FAA regulations prohibiting supersonic flight over land in U.S. civil
airspace. A NORAD spokesman told me that fighters violate that speed
restriction "when circumstances warrant."

That is, in both cases where NORAD launched fighters, a closer look
suggests that it's just false that there was nothing they could have done. For
one thing, they could have flown faster.

But the flawed time/distance argument isn't NORAD's only excuse. Gen.
Arnold told NBC that even if U.S. jets had intercepted the airliners, "No
one would have known the intent of the hijackers. And without that, I don't
think anyone would have been able to order them to shoot down that‚€”that

That may be true, but it's misleading. Arnold leaves out other tactics the jet
fighters could've tried. According to a Boston Globe article, when
intercepting aircraft, NORAD practices a graduated response. The
approaching fighter doesn't immediately shoot down the bogey: It can first
rock its wingtips to attract attention, or make a pass in front of the plane, or
fire tracer rounds in its path. So even though on 9/11, the NORAD pilots
working the first three airliners didn't have shootdown authority (they got it
only after the Pentagon was hit), they would or should have been ready to
try these other techniques, which might well have spooked or forced the
hijackers into turning, which might have given the fighters a chance to
force them out to sea. And even if the hijackers decided instead to fly right
into a fighter in their way, wouldn't an airburst have killed fewer people
than two collapsed flaming skyscrapers did?

After 9/11, NORAD said it adjusted to the new realities. In October, Gen.
Eberhart told Congress that "now it takes about one minute" from the time
that the FAA senses something is amiss before it notifies NORAD. And
around the same time, a NORAD spokesofficer told the Associated Press
that the military can now scramble fighters "within a matter of minutes to
anywhere in the United States."

Scott Shuger is a Slate senior writer who spent five years in the U.S.
Navy and served overseas as an intelligence officer


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