The Border Guards

NORAD: The eyes and ears of North America

by TSgt. Pat McKenna
photos by MSgt. Val Gempis

American and Canadian servicemembers--working in the North American Aerospace Defense Command's command center inside of Cheyenne Mountain, Colo.--keep an eye on the sky looking for threats aimed at our continent.

It began as a tiny blip.

Airmen monitoring radar scopes at the Northeast Air Defense Sector in Griffiss AFB, N.Y., spotted a track not matching any filed flight plans. At about 3 a.m. on Jan. 24, 1989, they made repeated attempts to contact the pilot for identification, but were unsuccessful.

Consequently, the sector director issued the order to "scramble the Eagles." Within five minutes two F-15 Eagles from Det. 1, 102nd Fighter Interceptor Wing, screamed out of the now-closed Loring AFB in northern Maine, searching for the "unknown rider."

What the Air National Guard pilots discovered was a small twin-engine prop plane that was blacked outexterior and interior lights shut offand not responding to the radio. The guardsmen later learned the pilot was Diego Jose Ganuza, a narcotics smuggler working for Colombia's Medellin drug cartel. He was ferrying 500 kilograms of cocaine with a street value of about $200 million.

As a result of this intercept and another made a month later by the Vermont Air Guard, U.S. Customs busted a $1 billion narcotics ring run by drug lord Pablo Escobar and disrupted the flow of cocaine into our country.

This is the North American Aerospace Defense commandin action and at its very best. The nerve center of NORAD is buried deep within Cheyenne Mountain, a craggy, solid granite peak on the eastern edge of the Colorado Rockies.

Inside this fortress, men and women clad in gray flight suits stare at banks of glowing, iridescent monitors. They are the eyes and ears of North America, and nothing escapes their unsleeping watch.

NORAD is a joint U.S. and Canadian command employing servicemembers from all of the military branches. It's headquartered at Peterson AFB with its operation center inside Cheyenne Mountain, both at Colorado Springs. Using a global web of radar, ground sensors, satellites, aerostat blimps and Airborne Warning and Control System surveillance aircraft, these guardians of our airspace scout the skies in search of unidentified aircraft, missile launches, space objects and falling space debris.

If the continent is threatened, NORAD's command director notifies Gen. Joseph W. Ashy, NORAD's commander-in-chief. He contacts the defense chiefs in Washington and Ottawa, and they, in turn, warn the president and prime minister.

"NORAD surely contributed to the deterrence and the end of the Cold War," said Canadian Forces Lt. Gen. L.W.F. Cuppens, NORAD's deputy commander-in-chief. "There's an overworked expression that says the one ingredient that caused the end of the Cold War was 'Everybody knows that NORAD knows.'

"You cannot launch an object into space, nor can you send an aircraft toward North America without NORAD knowing it," said Cuppens. "And that must have been a tremendous deterrent and one of the contributing factors to the end of the Cold War."

Entombing sophisticated, 20th-century technology in the bowels of a 100-million-year-old mountain may seem like the stuff out of a sci-fi movie or a Saturday morning cartoon, sort of like the Jetsons meet the Flintstones.

Those entering "the mountain" [officially named Cheyenne Mountain Air Station] must first pass a gauntlet of security checkpoints before hopping on a shuttle bus, taking them through the North Portal an entrance reminiscent of "The Bat Cave."

Artificial light bathes the jagged tunnel in a yellowish-green glow, and visitors are greeted by a constant rush of cool air blowing throughout the mountain's innards. One third of a mile inside, a set of towering steel blast doors3-feet thick and weighing 25 tons apieceguard the heart of NORAD's operation center. During an attack, these gates can swing shut within 30 seconds.

Once past the blast doors, visitors step into a 4.5-acre underground city that's home to 1,400 military and civilian personnel. A maze of passageways links 15 buildings, most of which are three-stories high,that contain offices, a fitness center, barber shop, dining hall, chapel, clinic and other amenities that might be found on a small military base. Some sailors have said the mountain reminds them of a Navy ship.

The metal building--stucked into their own separate chambers--rest on a bed of more than 1,300 half-ton springs, which are supposed to swing and sway during a nuclear attack.

Once buttoned up, NORAD's operation center can survive for more than 30 days without aid from the outside world. Six diesel engines and the equivalent of 7,200 car batteries can generate enough electricity to power a city the size of Tampa, Fla. Also in reserve are 1.5 million gallons of drinking water, 400 cots for sleeping, and a cache of food.

Nowadays, however, the chances of riding out the big one are slim. When first constructed in the early 1960s, Cheyenne Mountain was designed to withstand an aerial assault by bombers using gravity-guided bombs. Today's surgically precise Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles carrying payloads of apocalyptic, multiple nuclear warheads could raze the dome and the air station.

With the current political winds, however, the odds of Armageddon are low. As a result, business in the mountain's missile warning center has changed. The center's constellation of infrared-tracking satellites and array of ground-based radar is tracking fewer and fewer rocket plumes.

In 1994, they detected about 200 launchescompared to almost a thousand just six years ago. The tempo spiked, however, during the Gulf War when the warning center pinpointed every SCUD missile Iraq fired. They alerted U.S. Central Command, led by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who directed coalition forces in cueing Patriot defense batteries.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and improved relations with our former adversary have prompted some to call for an end to NORAD's mission, charging Cheyenne Mountain is a relic of the blackest days of the Cold War.

"The three missions that NORAD was given by both our governments remain as valid today as they were when they were first given in 1958," said Cuppens. "It's true the Cold War has ended. But we, at NORAD, talk about two thingscapabilities and intentions. And while the intention seems to have gone away to invade or attack North America, the capability still exists. We need to be ready to defend North America as long as there is a capability to reach out and touch us somewhere in the world."

SMSgt. Glenn French agrees with the general, saying, "If you don't guard the chicken house, the fox will just waltz in and have easy pickings."

French is superintendent of the 101st Fighter Squadron life support branch at Otis ANG Base, Mass. The 101st FS, an F-15 Eagle guard unit out of Cape Cod, is on the tip of NORAD's spear.

And it is primarily the Air National Guard which is tasked with continental American air defense--standing on alert and waiting to intercept unknown aircraft or tracks aimed at our continent. These squadrons, flying F-15s or F-16s from places like Portland, Ore.; Atlantic City, N.J.; Key West, Fla.; and Fresno, Calif., are integral in supporting NORAD's air sovereignty mission and its charter to provide air defense should deterrence fail. Active-duty units perform these missions in Alaska, and Canadian Forces serve the same function in their country.

They work around the clock, and usually have five minutes or less to scramble when the warning klaxon sounds. One command official compared the mission to that of a border guard.

"If you've ever been to Europe, you know that when you cross a border there is a border guard there, and sometimes he checks your passport and sometimes he doesn't. But I imagine if you ran the border without being identified, the police would get after you," said Brig. Gen. James I. Mathers, NORAD's director of plans. "So NORAD is kind of our aerospace border guard. Whenever an aircraft flies across our Air Defense Identification Zone that we can't identify within two minutes, it becomes an item of interest for NORAD.

"If needed, we launch aircraft to intercept and identify the unknown aircraft. That's our way of maintaining control over the airspace of both our countries Canada and the United States," Mathers said.

In NORAD's dimly lit Air Defense Operations Center, surveillance operators examine blips representing aircraft skipping across their consoles and large projection screens. Aircraft are categorized by colorsfor example, a yellow-and-red icon indicates an unknown, green is for special aircraft, like Air Force One, and red is for a hostile aircraft.

These days, the ADOC watchers no longer see Soviet fighters and bombers trekking over the Arctic Circle to challenge and harass our borders. But, occasionally our former foe will jaunt down . . . just for old times' sake.

Today NORAD, which monitors some 7,000 crossings of our airspace daily, has stepped up its focus on a new, more devious villain--South American narcotics smugglers. Since the passing of the Defense Authorization Act of 1989, the command has battled in the trenches and on the front-line of the war on drugs.

Although early warning of attack against North America remains NORAD's primary focus, counterdrug operations have added a new dimension to the command's day-to-day operations. The ADOC's job is to bird-dog suspicious tracks, and the NORAD regions scramble interceptors to investigate.

Federal law prevents the Department of Defense from apprehending smugglers or shooting them down. Fighters can only identify and monitor the planes, then notify law enforcement agencies of their whereabouts.

Out of the 880 aircraft in 1994 initially categorized as unknown, only about 10 to 15 percent were narcotics smugglers. Some agencies estimate that only about 5 percent of the drugs coming into the country arrive by air.

Most mysterious tracks are nothing more than planes that have lost their way, aircraft squawking the wrong codes, malfunctioning radios, or pilots who have improperly filed their flight plan.

"Things can be pretty quiet in here," said SrA. Stacey Knott, a 23-year-old ADOC technician. "But the more senior people have told me the way things used to be during the Cold War."

Tracking drug runners is interesting, she said, adding, "It's good to know we're helping out with the drug interdiction and catching bad guys."

"One of the busiest times is during exercises," she said. "This room fills up. We have the battle-staff and CAT [Crisis Action Team] in heregenerals and admirals are running in and out. The phones are ringing off the hook, and I've got phones in each hand. It's different than the routine and I enjoy it.

"It gives me an idea what things would be like if something were to go down," said Knott, a native of Bartlesville, Okla. "If something actually did happen, we'd be ready for it. It's nice being part of a country that carries some muscle."

NORAD prepares and practices its charter through continuous training and a realistic exercise program. Probably the biggest of these exercises is Amalgam Warrior, which is held twice annuallyin the fall for the East Coast and in the spring for the West Coast. The five-day fall Amalgam Warrior put Americans and Canadians through their paces, challenging forces in three areas coinciding with the command's aerospace warning, air sovereignty and air defense missions.

The exercise was conducted in real time with a fictitious world political scenario, which prompted NORAD forces to transition from a peacetime posture to a war-fighting stance. The threat escalated fromtracking unknown aircraft, which filed bad flight plans or wandered off course, and in-flight emergencies to terrorist aircraft attacks and large-scale bomber strike missions.

Amalgam Warrior 96-1 tested a large number of participants from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and Canadian Forces. The controlling elements included NORAD headquarters; Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center; Northeastern Air Defense Sector, Griffiss AFB, N.Y.; and the Canadian NORAD Region, CFB North Bay, Canada.

Primary units taking part in the exercise were Otis' 102nd Fighter Wing, and the 170th Fighter Squadron's "Fly'n Illini," an F-16 squadron from Springfield ANG, Ill., which also operated out of the Cape Cod base during the exercise.

At Goose Bay, Labrador, located in Canada's far north, CF-18s from the 3rd Wing at Bagotville, Quebec, teamed up with F-16s from the 119th Fighter Squadron, Atlantic City ANG, N.J. The 7th Wing at Dyess AFB, Texas took six B-1 bombers to Bagotville to play in the exercise. Other aircraft flying in Amalgam Warrior included E-3 AWACS, B-52s, C-141s, KC-10s, KC-135s and Canadian P-3s and Electronic Warfare Challenger aircraft.

"This has been invaluable training for us," said CF Maj. Martin Galvin, commander of Canada's 12th Radar Squadron, which set up shop on Dome Mountain near Goose Bay. "We're a deployable radar unit, and if we don't have the opportunity to deploy, our skills deteriorate. So this exercise allows us to practice our field craft."

Only days before Amalgam Warrior started, Capt. Scott "Slim" Mulgrew, 32, was streaking over the Bahamas in his F-16, flying out of Key West to backfill a Florida guard unit. Now, during the exercise, he's taking his jet over North Atlantic icebergs.

"I know I'm going to catch the flu," said the New Jersey Guardsman. "But it's worth it; I'm a believer in NORAD."

Since he was a child, Mulgrew was fascinated by aviation. He went to air shows, made airplane models, and saved money from his paper route in Scarsdale, N.Y., to pay for flying lessons. He began his Air Force career as an enlisted security policeman walking the flightline beat at Niagara Falls ANG, N.Y., guarding F-101 Voodoos that were sitting on alert.

"I used to look at those jets and think to myself, 'One day . . . one day I want to do this too," he said. Mulgrew just ducked the age ceiling for pilot training by four months. Now, he is a full-time alert pilot, pulling about 10 24-hour shifts a month in a bunkhouse only yards away from alert barns housing F-16 Falcons.

"This is what I've always wanted to do," he said. "I don't mind getting waken up at three in the morning by a blaring horn and with all the lights coming on. I don't mind when it's rainy, windy, foggy or cold. Just as long as I fly."

Much like firefighters, alert pilots spend much of their time waiting. To pass the hours, they read, they eat, they sleep, and they watch a lot of television. Some of the biggest battles during alert duty aren't dogfights with enemy aircraft, but skirmishes to see who commands the remote control to the satellite-connected, big screen TV.

"The activity level around here can go from dead boredom to adventure in minutes," said Maj. Sam "Spud" Patellos, an Otis F-15 pilot. "And even though we're at peace today, we take our job very seriously and respond quickly. The air defense mission is still very much needed in our country."

One misconception about the command, propagated by Hollywood, is that NORAD has the means to fire ballistic missiles.

Mathers laughed when the subject of the movie "WarGames" came up.

"What I tell people who've formed their impression from the movie is first off, we keep humans in the loop so a computer can't take over," the general said. "The second point I make is the computer can't fire things from Cheyenne Mountain, because nobody can fire things from Cheyenne Mountain. There's no 'button' at NORAD. We basically warn. We tell the president of the United States and the prime minister of Canada what's coming.

"Our president makes a decision with the chairman, the SecDef [Secretary of Defense], the Defense Intelligence Agency, and all his advisers on which option to retaliate with, and he directs Strategic Command at Omaha, Neb., to do that. They're the people who can fire the submarine launched ballistics missiles or ICBMs and launch bombers for a nuclear retaliatory strike, given one is coming. So you have this separation from warning and offense."

The future of NORAD, however, might include command and control of a ground-based North American ballistic missile defense system. Despite the break up of the Soviet Union, stockpiles of land- and sea-based missiles remain. In fact, Russia and the other republics have more than 25,000 warheads in their arsenal that are available to their military forces. Another 20 or more nations either own or are working on short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and some of these countries are eager to sell high tech to the highest bidder. Theoretically, a rogue nation or terrorists could anchor a small ship 200 miles off the coast of New York City, for instance, and fire a cruise missile at the city, giving NORAD little time to react.

"There's virtually no way to stop it," he said. "Some people think we have some sort of 'Romulan Cloaking Device' to knock down ICBMs. We don't. If they come, they come." Researchers hope to create a system--maybe similar to the Patriot batteries that were successful in the Gulf War--that is capable of shooting down missiles before they reach our shores.

Until that technology is developed and fielded, NORAD has enough on its plate just guarding our own backyard.

"There's always going to be a need for this mission. Who are they going to call if we get attacked?" asked TSgt. Pete Timoney, an F-15 crew chief at Otis ANG Base. "We're needed now more than ever. There's too many unknowns out there, and the world is still a dangerous place."