NORAD: Safety Net in the Sky

NORAD: Safety Net in the Sky

Billy Mitchell was court-martialed while trying to convince the U.S. military of its importance. Isoroku Yamamoto delivered an “infamously” unforgettable demonstration of its effectiveness. And in the tense, dangerous first years of the Cold War, the mainstream military finally understood. Air power was the key to victory in any future global conflict.



Out of this strategic vision, the U.S. Air Force was created in 1947, and a year later, the Air Defense Command (ADC) was established to coordinate the efforts of different Air Force commands within the United States. The goal was simple to describe: detect incoming enemy aircraft in time to prevent an attack on the continental U.S. The eventual implementation involved the national governments of the U.S. and Canada, and required coordination with multiple branches of the service.


At the close of the World War II, the chief threat to the U.S. was the Soviet Union. The cutting-edge aerospace technology of the day, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, was the long-range bomber. The first Soviet bomber developed at the end of the war was the Tupolev Tu-4, which had a range of 3,355 miles. By 1949, the Soviets introduced the Tu-85, which had a range of 6,500 miles, making it capable of reaching the United States and returning to its home airbase over a polar route. It became apparent that North American defense required two key components: first, an early warning system which could detect any incoming threats and sound the alarm; and second, the ability to strike airborne targets quickly and effectively, preferably before they were over populated areas.

NORAD Command Center, Cheyenne Mountain
NORAD Command Center, Cheyenne Mountain

The Air Defense Command (ADC) of the newly formed U.S. Air Force (USAF) was created in 1948 to coordinate communication between existing facilities, but it rapidly became evident a truly integrated solution was required, involving increased monitoring of the airspace over the pole and a strike force capable of both defense and retaliation. Operating out of Ent Air Force Base (AFB) in Colorado Springs, Colorado from 1951, the Air Defense Command was soon seen as insufficient for the kind of coordinated response that would be required in the event of all-out war. By 1954, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) oversaw joint operations involving the Navy, Army, and Air Force. However, it was the Air Force which developed and operated the radar warning systems which served as the first line of defense against an attack.

The need for maximum warning time made it crucial to the defense plan that CONAD obtain sites in Canada, so that enemy aircraft could be detected as early as possible. As early as 1940 (the year before the U.S. would enter World War II but nearly a year after Canada declared war on Germany), the Ogdensburg Declaration had outlined a plan for joint military defense between the U.S. and Canada. Further agreements in light of the Korean conflict led to the construction of early-warning radar sites in Canada. Completing the defensive network was a system of radar ships that patrolled both the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, as well as radar-bearing aircraft to warn of attacks from the ocean, as had been proven so decisively at Pearl Harbor.

By April 1962, the Cheyenne Mountain Combat Operation Center was under construction, near the original site of the ADC, CONAD and NORAD center of operations at Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.
By April 1962, the Cheyenne Mountain Combat Operation Center was under construction, near the original site of the ADC, CONAD and NORAD center of operations at Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

By 1957, after an exchange of liaison officers between the USAF and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the two nations had agreed on the details, and on September 12 of that year, the new North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) become operational at Ent AFB.

The best guard dogs, however, don’t just bark to let you know there’s an intruder: they also have teeth to back up the alarm. And if NORAD was the bark, the bite was provided by the Strategic Air Command (SAC). While the SAC had its roots in a collection of different units (some in the Atlantic theater, others in the Pacific) during WWII, the SAC as it came to be known during the Cold War was the work of General Curtis LeMay. LeMay served in the European theater, where he developed the box formation for B-17 bombing runs on Nazi industrial targets. In August 1944, LeMay was transferred to the Pacific theater, where he became the architect of the campaign of low-level bombing flights using B-29 Superfortress bombers. Before LeMay’s arrival, fewer than five percent of the bombs reached their targets when dropped from the B-29’s high-altitude range of 20,000 feet. A powerful jet stream over the Japanese homeland scattered the bombing loads, so LeMay switched (as recommended by other senior tactical commanders) to low-level night-time bombing. The horrific death toll resulting from these raids — official estimates claimed half a million Japanese casualties in 66 cities, as well as reprisals against U.S. prisoners of war in Japan — were cause for discussion and reflection, but as LeMay was quoted in the New York Times, “if the war is shortened by a single day, the attack will have served its purpose.”


A pre-construction diagram of the layout of Cheyenne Mountain.
A pre-construction diagram of the layout of Cheyenne Mountain.

In 1948, contemporaneous with the founding of the Air Defense Command (the predecessor to NORAD), LeMay became head of the SAC, replacing Gen. George Kenney. The SAC’s headquarters, Offutt AFB near Omaha, Nebraska, was significant as the construction site of the first two bombers to drop nuclear weapons. Throughout the Cold War, LeMay’s insistence on training and preparation helped ensure that NORAD was backed up by the ability to scramble fighters and bombers for both defensive and retaliatory actions in the event of an actual attack. His insistence on minimal-interval take off (MITO) techniques, in which bombers and tankers were scrambled at intervals of 12-15 seconds respectively, was a crucial part of his rapid response strategy.

But there’s a well-known axiom in military history, that every war is initially fought with the strategies of the previous one. And just as Pearl Harbor had proved Billy Mitchell’s insistence on the superiority of air power over naval power to a military still devoted to the dreadnought battleship, the Cold War introduced a new threat that required a response faster and more comprehensive than scrambling a few squadrons of F86 Sabrejets: the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The system is fully self-sustainable as these turbine engines provide the complex with emergency power if there is ever a grid failure.
The system is fully self-sustainable as these turbine engines provide the complex with emergency power if there is ever a grid failure.

Even then, however, LeMay and the SAC retained bombers and fighters, offering the following comment on the necessity: “It is important to recognize, however, that ballistic missile forces represent both the U.S. and Soviet potential for strategic nuclear warfare at the highest, most indiscriminate level, and at a level least susceptible to control. The employment of these weapons in lower level conflict would be likely to escalate the situation, uncontrollably, to an intensity which could be vastly disproportionate to the original aggravation. The use of ICBMs and SLBMs [submarine-launched ballistic missiles] is not, therefore, a rational or credible response to provocations which, although serious, are still less than an immediate threat to national survival. For this reason, among others, I consider that the national security will continue to require the flexibility, responsiveness, and discrimination of manned strategic weapon systems throughout the range of cold, limited, and general war.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 200, Defense Programs and Operations, LeMay’s Memo to President and JCS Views, Box 83.)

The massive door (one of two) that leads into the complex is rated to withstand a direct nuclear blast.
The massive door (one of two) that leads into the complex is rated to withstand a direct nuclear blast.

NORAD’s role in this changing view of the nature of conflict was to develop anti-missile defense systems and a space-based satellite observation system. In addition, they took on the responsibility for the protection and survival of command, control, and communication centers and systems. Much of this had been learned and applied during the construction of the Combat Operation Center in Cheyenne Mountain (see sidebar), and in the design and construction of NORAD’s computer network, the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE). SAGE, which became operational in 1959, identified and tracked incoming targets and automatically communicated tracking information to the closest resources. Any actual orders to scramble or launch, however, were still under the control of operational staff at NORAD.


The weapons changed as well. Where the initial SAC response strategy included jet fighters and long-range bombers with in-flight refueling capability, the ICBM-era NORAD arsenal changed to include missile-based defense systems, initially using Nike and Bomarc missiles. The first successful test of a Nike missile against an airborne target (a remotely operated B-17) was conducted on July 14, 1952; by 1958, the SAGE system was able to identify, track, and destroy an incoming QB-17 drone at a distance of 78 miles and an altitude of 30,000 feet. On June 3,1960, a Nike Hercules missile shot down a Corporal missile in the first instance of one missile destroying another.

NORAD’s role changed further in the post-9/11 world. No longer were the primary threats expected to cross over the Pole or from the oceans, but had been proven to be delivered from anywhere. In an eerie preview of the grounding of all commercial flights in the days after the World Trade Center attack, NORAD had — on October 14, 1961 — conducted a test called “The Day the Planes Stood Still.” For 12 hours that day, NORAD conducted the largest airborne military exercise in history, when 1,800 NORAD fighters flew 6,000 sorties, requiring the delay of 2,900 commercial flights. Today, NORAD communicates with civilian law-enforcement agencies in tracking and intercepting illegal drugs coming into the U.S., and acts as a center of command and response against the ongoing threat of terrorism.

Billy Mitchell

The first U.S. military figure to predict the critical importance of air power in future conflicts, William “Billy” Mitchell is regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force. His service in France during World War I demonstrated the effectiveness of air attacks, and in particular he felt that the tradition of building “dreadnought” battleships — huge vessels with vast armament but little maneuverability — was a waste of resources. He correctly predicted, as early as 1919, that the Air Service could develop a bomb with the capability of sinking a battleship.

His outspoken support of air combat made him no friends in the military or in the civilian leaders of the armed forces, and his ideas were publicly declared “pernicious” by then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Within a few years, Mitchell successfully demonstrated that aircraft could destroy a battleship, when the captured German battleship Ostfriesland was eventually sunk after tests that took place over several days.

In a rare lapse of prescience, Mitchell discounted the effectiveness of aircraft carriers in an attack on the Hawaiian Islands: “not only can they not operate efficiently on the high seas but even if they could they cannot place sufficient aircraft in the air at one time to insure a concentrated operation.” (Mitchell, William. “Strategical Aspect of the Pacific Problem” as quoted in Clodfelter, Mark A. , ‘Molding Air Power Convictions: Development and Legacy of William Mitchell’s Strategic Thought’, in Melinger, Phillip S. ed., The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Air Power Theory, Alabama, Air University Press, 1997, 79–114, p.92.)

Mitchell’s final conflict with the military establishment came about in 1925, after the September crash of the Navy dirigible Shenandoah and the loss of three seaplanes in a flight from the West Coast to Hawaii. Mitchell accused senior leaders of incompetence. The following month, Mitchell was charged on the direct order of President Calvin Coolidge, and his trial began in November. After seven weeks, and in spite of testimony from war hero Eddie Rickenbacker and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Mitchell was found guilty and suspended without pay from active duty for five years. The youngest member of the 12 judges presiding over Mitchell’s court-martial was Douglas MacArthur, who found Mitchell not guilty. Although President Coolidge later changed the suspension to half-pay, Mitchell resigned from the service on February 21, 1926.

Cheyenne Mountain

How do you safeguard the nerve center of the operations charged with defending the United States in the event of a nuclear attack? You drill a mile-long tunnel into the granite heart of a mountain in the Colorado Rockies, making sure that the tunnel will deflect most of the blast in the event of a megaton detonation within one nautical mile of the center. Inside the mountain, you construct a steel complex (behind 25-ton blast doors) inside a shell of granite 2,000 feet thick, built from 3/8” thick continuously-welded low-carbon steel plates supported by steel structural frames. The metal walls act as a Faraday cage to absorb electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. You mount this structure on more than 1,300 steel springs, each weighing half a ton, which allow the complex to move 12 inches in any direction. And how big is this structure? The main excavation includes three chambers, each one 45 feet wide, 60 feet high, and 588 feet long, intersected by four chambers 32 feet wide, 56 feet high and 335 feet long. Inside these interior chambers are fifteen freestanding buildings, twelve of which are three stories tall.

That’s the layout of the Cheyenne Mountain Combat Operations Center, usually referred to simply as Cheyenne Mountain. Construction began on May 18, 1961 and the center was completed on May 1, 1964, delayed due to the discovery of a geological fault in one of the intersections. The fault was reinforced with a concrete dome, costing an additional $2.7 million. On February 6, 1966, the NORAD Combat Operations Center became operational, and on April 20 of that year, operations were transferred from the original site of NORAD, Ent AFB in Colorado Springs.

Cheyenne Mountain tunnel construction.
Cheyenne Mountain tunnel construction.

Upgraded and enhanced over the years, the Operations Center continued to provide ballistic missile warnings during Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s. Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites tracked the heat signatures from missile plumes and provided warning to civilians and military personnel in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In 2006, NORAD moved the majority of Cheyenne Mountain’s operations to Peterson AFB in Colorado Springs, Colorado — for which the address is Ent Avenue, named for Major General Uzal Girard Ent, for whom the initial site of the Air Defense Command, NORAD’s progenitor, was named. Ent was responsible for selecting Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets to lead the organization that dropped the atomic bombs that ended World War II. Ent himself was seriously injured during takeoff in a B-25 from Fort Worth Army Airfield, Texas; paralyzed from the waist down, he retired (due to disability in the line of duty) in 1946 and died in 1948.

War Games— For Keeps

In the late 1970s, several events occurred that made it clear why the advanced computer systems used by NORAD still required human intervention. On November 9, 1979, a test simulation of a missile attack on North America was accidentally transferred to the operational side of the 427M, the warning and response computer inside Cheyenne Mountain, which directed nuclear retaliation. The simulated data was mistakenly interpreted as an actual attack, and the simulation’s missiles showed up on warning consoles in the command post and on the computer screens of command centers nationwide. The false attack data were visible for roughly eight minutes, before NORAD officers finally verified that it was in fact a simulation that had somehow crossed to the operational system. Intense interest both among the general public and members of Congress caused NORAD to initiate corrective actions.

In spite of these corrective actions, on June 3 and then again on June 6, 1980, a malfunctioning computer chip inside a line multiplexer (a Nova 840 computer, responsible for conveying information between computer systems) in the NORAD Control System, sent false missile warning data to the Strategic Air Command, the National Command Center, and the National Alternate Command Center. A further round of technical and procedural changes followed. If any of this sounds familiar, it should be: it served as the basis for the (fictional) 1983 movie, War Games, in which a young computer-gaming enthusiast, played by Matthew Broderick, discovers a secret, not-too-secure “back door” into a military computer and nearly starts World War III. Compared to that, driving his friend’s dad’s Ferrari off the carport was nothing.


Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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