by Ray Dick
PHOTOS: RAY DICK
It’s a short flight from Denver, Colo., to Colorado Springs, and at first glance there is little to indicate that this community nestled on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains is anything but a popular destination for tourists to experience the attractions of this high desert country.
But a different scene unfolds as the plane loses altitude to land at this expansive and ultra-modern civilian airport. On the southern outskirts is the busy Peterson Air Force Base, headquarters for Norad, the joint Canada-U.S. aerospace defence command, the U.S. Northern Command and the Bi-national Planning Group of defence experts.
To the south looms the legendary Pike’s Peak, its top mantled with snow on this day in early July. On the northern outskirts, less obvious and difficult to find among the many peaks of the Rockies that stretch north into Canada, is Cheyenne Mountain, an ultra security-minded bastion that inside granite walls houses the population of a small town.
It was here that the drama of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded with special significance as the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington killed more than 2,000 people. Although secure inside their mountain cave—a fortress built to withstand a Cold War nuclear strike—it is a day the Canadians and Americans here will never forget.
It is an especially memorable day for Lieutenant-General Eric (Rick) Findley, an Ottawa native who now is second in command at Norad.
He was on duty in Cheyenne Mountain that day, just about to finish a 12-hour shift. The Mountain at that time was exercising its full range of monitoring activities, including some strategic exercises and keeping an eye and ear on a Russian operation that was moving its bombers to a northern area. “The first information we got was that there was an aircraft hijacking in the northeast sector,” said the general. “And the first visuals we got (from the television) was of the damage to the first of the twin towers in New York. About that time an aircraft hit the second tower and we realized it was not an accident but a coordinated attack.” Norad went to battle status, ordered aircraft scrambled and set up air patrols.
There was no panic or shock in the Mountain—a situation he attributes to good training and good reaction. But it turned into a long day’s work for the general. “I tried to put my head down, and perhaps I did for about an hour, but I couldn’t get those images (of the planes crashing into the twin towers) out of my head. On the ride home all I wanted to do was listen to some music, but there was no music on the car radio, just commentaries and news programs on the terrorist attacks. And there were planes roaring overhead.”
When he turned into the driveway of his Colorado Springs home a neighbour came out to meet him. “She grabbed me, gave me a big kiss, and said ‘thanks for being here’. Inside, my wife also had a big welcome waiting.”
It was a peaceful end and a reality check for the general after a marathon shift in the Mountain and the unexpected horrific and shocking terrorist events that cost thousands of civilian lives when airliners crashed into buildings in New York, Washington and in a field in Pennsylvania.
Norad, the North American defence entity created in 1958 at the height
of the Cold War to monitor North American aerospace for nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union, was caught by surprise and unprepared for 9/11. While Cheyenne Mountain’s eyes and ears were focused almost exclusively on possible foreign threats from long-range bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and foreign aircraft hijackings, it was not prepared for the possibility of a co-ordinated terrorist attack in domestic aerospace. “The feeling was total disbelief,” says Master Corporal Daniel Milne, a Canadian from St. Catharines, Ont., and the emergency action controller on duty in the Mountain that day. “Then the phones started ringing like crazy. I could not believe that we were under attack.”
To Findley, however, who was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross for his action on 9/11 to go along with his other awards as Commander in the Order of Military Merit and for NATO and United Nations peacekeeping duties, this was just another day in the life of Norad. “If you look back over the past 45 years and see what Norad was in the beginning and what the threat was perceived to be, and what Norad was structured to deal with compared to what it has become today, you see an organization that has continued to evolve and adapt to whatever the threat is,” he said. Sept. 11 was no different, except for the thought that the unthinkable had occurred.
“We adapted quickly throughout that day and the days afterward,” he said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Norad had 20 aircraft on alert, including two in Alaska, four in Canada and 14 in the U.S. By the end of the day, hundreds of aircraft were in the skies throughout Canada and the U.S., and since then Norad has flown more than 32,000 sorties, diverted air patrols or scrambled fighters on more than 1,500 occasions. The mission for Norad has evolved and increased. New alert sites had been set up and inter-agency co-ordination improved.
“The terrorist attacks…were a call to arms,” said General Ralph Eberhart, the commander of Norad and U.S. Northern Command, in a statement from headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in response to a national commission report on 9/11. “Thousands of innocent men, women and children lost their lives, while many others were injured. We must not let that happen again.”
What this amounts to is the evolution of Norad, this Canadian-American defence group responsible for protecting the airspace of two vast countries—from Alaska to the Florida Keys and from St. John’s, Nfld., to San Diego, Calif. Thousands of U.S. and Canadian military members have worked for more than 45 years to shield North America from the early Cold War threat from Soviet bombers to the evolving threats of missile attacks from space and terrorism from the air.
Describing itself as three regions, two countries, one team, Norad, with headquarters in Colorado Springs and its key action centre in Cheyenne Mountain, has three main operational areas—the Alaskan region (ANR) from Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage, the Canadian region based in Winnipeg and North Bay, Ont., (CANR) and the Continental U.S. region defence sector at Tyndall AFB in Florida.
The Canadian Norad region headquarters at CFB Winnipeg is responsible for providing surveillance and control of the Canadian airspace, and the Canadian Forces Air Command through control centres for east and west sectors located in North Bay routinely provides tracking data, censor status and aircraft alert status to Norad headquarters. It is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week responsibility to provide combat ready air forces to meet Canada’s commitments to the defence of North America and to maintain the sovereignty of Canadian airspace.
The pointy end of that commitment to Norad is made up of the four squadrons of CF-18 fighter aircraft, the 441 and 416 tactical fighter squadrons at CFB Cold Lake, Alta., and 425 and 433 squadrons at CFB Bagotville, Que.
And another sign of the evolution of Norad is that since 1991 more and more focus has been placed on the detection and monitoring of aircraft suspected of illegal drug trafficking. In co-operation with the RCMP and U.S. drug law enforcement agencies, the Canadian Norad region monitors all aircraft approaching the coast of Canada. Any that has not filed a flight plan may be directed to land and be inspected by the RCMP and Customs Canada.
Then came 9/11, and what Eberhart describes as the wake-up call, and since then changes and improvements have been implemented by Norad along with defence and other government agencies to more quickly and ably respond to threats against North America. “Improvements include increased air patrols over the U.S. and Canada, looking both inside and outside our borders at potential threats,” says Michael Perini, director of public affairs of Norad and U.S. Northern Command. “This also includes a greater number of fighter response locations around the U.S. and Canada; rules of engagement for response to domestic airborne threats; and enhanced communications with U.S. government inter-agency partners to ensure rapid response during real-world situations.”
It was another Canadian, however, who was on the firing line for 9/11.
Maj.-Gen. Angus Watt, who grew up in Ottawa, is director of operations at Norad headquarters at Peterson AFB. Responsible for running the everyday business of Norad, he was “one of the first guys they called.”
“There is no way Norad could claim it succeeded in 9/11,” said Watt. “But we can’t say it was a failure either.” No one had anticipated such terrorist actions and “we regret we didn’t succeed in stopping the attacks.” Since improvements to Norad’s operational posture, the general is confident the results would be different now. “We have run scenarios with our current operating posture,” he says, adding he was confident “we could have shot down all of those planes.”
Another evolution due to 9/11 was the addition of U.S. Northern Command in 2002, also commanded by Eberhart from Peterson AFB and including a couple of Canadian liaison officers. The mission is homeland defence and civil support, specifically to:
• Conduct operations to deter, prevent and defeat threats and aggression aimed at the U.S., its territories and interests within the assigned area of responsibility.
• As directed by the president or secretary of defence, provide military assistance to civil authorities.
“To that end, Norad has strengthened its ability to detect, assess, warn and defend against threats to North America,” said Perini. “Surveillance and control of U.S. and Canadian airspace remain critical components of our national security strategy.”
Another offshoot in bilateral defence planning after 9/11 was an agreement between Canadian and U.S. officials to set up the Bi-National Planning Group (BPG) at the Norad complex at Peterson AFB as sort of a neighbourhood watch program to deal with threats in the new security environment. “The environment has changed fundamentally,” says Findley, who is head of the BPG as well as deputy commander of Norad. The sharing of information and intelligence among all defence and security players is the cornerstone of North American defence, he adds, and points out that a country would have difficulty setting up homeland defence without understanding what its neighbours are up to.
The group, set up in December of 2002, has about 30 Canadians and Americans in its ranks. Its activities include: Preparing contingency plans for military assistance in the event of a threat, attack or civil emergency in either country; co-ordinating maritime surveillance and intelligence sharing and assessing such threats, establishing planning and liaison mechanisms with civilian authorities such as police and firemen involved in crisis response; designing and participating in exercises; and conducting joint training programs. “The BPG is an excellent test-bed for the deliberate planning required to the new security environment,” adds Findley.
The test-bed, and the focal point of world attention, during the terrorist crisis of 9/11, however, was on nearby Cheyenne Mountain, Norad’s command and control operations centre. Built in the 1960s, the $142-million mountain enclave was designed to ensure a 70 per cent probability of continuing to function against a five megaton weapon and as protection against fallout and biological and chemical warfare. The 5.1-acre excavation with 2,000 feet of granite overhead consists of 15 steel buildings, most more than three stories tall, resting on more than 1,300 large steel springs, each weighing about 1,000 pounds. Entrance to the Mountain is through a large tunnel, and the entrance to the buildings is guarded by three interior steel blast doors each weighing about 25 tons.
Security is tight. Colorado Springs residents remember when almost anyone who could find their way up the Mountain could be given a tour of the facilities. Not now. Not since 9/11. Inside the now super-secure facility is the:
• Space Control Centre, which detects, tracks, identifies and catalogues all man-made objects orbiting Earth.
• Air Warning Centre, which monitors the air space of Canada and the U.S. for any aircraft or cruise missiles that might present an air threat.
• Missile Warning Centre, which uses a worldwide sensor and communication network to provide warning of missile attacks launched against North America or U.S. and allied forces overseas.
• Operational Intelligence Watch, which gathers intelligence information to assist in analysing, validating and correlating worldwide events.
• Command Centre, the heart of the complex, fuses data from the other centres and passes it on to the leadership of the U.S. and Canada.
The commander of Cheyenne Mountain Operations Centre (CMOC) is American air force Brigadier-General Duane Deal, who is responsible for executing the Norad integrated tactical warning and attack assessment mission, Northern Command’s homeland defence mission and the U.S. Strategic Command’s space and missile warning support. His second in command is Brig-Gen. Jim Hunter of the Canadian Forces.
But the man calling the shots from this mountain fortress as the tragedy of 9/11 unfolded was Findley, whose 12-hour shift in the Mountain ran into some considerable overtime. “I was in contact by telephone several times during the crisis with Gen. Eberhart,” he said, demonstrating the close working relationship between the two countries. At Norad facilities in the U.S., an American is at the helm and a Canadian is deputy commander. It is the opposite in Canada.
One evolution in Norad that military officials are anxiously awaiting is whether Canada will decide to join the proposed U.S. missile defence shield for North America. With or without Canadian involvement, the U.S. plans to begin this fall deploying a series of land-based interceptor missiles that would shoot down an incoming nuclear or biological warhead from a rogue state such as North Korea.
Although Canadian Forces personnel in Colorado Springs were reluctant to speak on the issue which has been controversial in Canada, Findley said in a later interview with the Ottawa Citizen that it makes sense for Canada to join in the missile defence plan. “It just makes sense to me to be part of missile defence, when you’re part of all the other defence functions,” he is quoted as saying. “Why wouldn’t you want to be part of that last chunk? We already do missile warning.”
The two governments have been negotiating for more than a year without a decision. Critics in Canada complain the missile defence shield could lead to deploying weapons in outer space, something the federal government opposes. But U.S. Ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci has weighed into the argument, saying it’s critical Canada join the program. “If Canada decides to take a different route…we’ll have missed an opportunity to strengthen Norad.”