When North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) sensors detect a missile launch, they automatically transmit the launch data to the NORAD Cheyenne Mountain Complex for evaluation. To determine whether or not a missile launch is a valid threat, the NORAD Command Director immediately communicates with sensor sites worldwide. Simultaneously, the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon starts a Missile Display Conference with the NORAD and SAC Command Posts. The NORAD Command Director quickly tells all conferees if the missile launch is a threat to North America. The NORAD tactical warning and threat assessment system routinely repeats this scenario as it responds to foreign missile launches.
The task of detecting threats to the American homeland, assessing those threats, and providing that assessment to the people who must decide if a response is necessary is a sensitive, critical job. Called Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment (TW/AA) by those who do it and use it, it involves those systems we have established and planned for detecting "air-breathing" threats—bombers and cruise missiles—and ballistic missile threats, both ICBMs and SLBMs. As Edward C. Aldridge, Under Secretary of the Air Force, told a recent AFA Space Symposium, "The Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment functions have become critical in a modern world where the consequences of surprise can be disastrous."
In the early days of the Soviet bomber threat, the United States maintained not only an extensive, ground-based radar network (256 radars), but also EC-121s, Texas Tower radar stations offshore, picket ships, Bomarc and Nike-Hercules missiles, and interceptor aircraft to warn and defend against intruding bombers. The original North American air defense radar system was built with Canada in the 1950s. It consisted of more than 400 radar stations that provided overlapping coverage for the US and Canada. Part of that system included the radar stations the US and Canada built across Arctic Alaska, Canada, and Greenland to form the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line.
Today, the Texas Tower radars, missiles, and EC-121s are gone (although limited in numbers, the Airborne Warning and Control System fulfills the role of the EC-121s and does more), and the few radar stations left can give us a picture of what goes on in our airspace under normal situations. In general, during the past several decades, we have seen a decline in our overall air defense capabilities.
However, strategic aerospace defense is now receiving renewed attention. The current emphasis is on providing a thorough warning capability against ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and bombers. Although the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) has renewed interest specifically in ballistic missile defense, Gen. Robert T. Herres, Commander in Chief of NORAD, points out that "it doesn't make any sense to build a house with a roof over our heads—such as ballistic missile defense—while we forget to put walls around the sides."
The decline of NORAD air defense capabilities in the 1970s has amplified concerns about the rapidly improving Soviet bomber force. The Soviets continue to produce the Backfire as well as a Bear cruise-missile carrier—and they are flight-testing a B-1 look-alike Blackjack heavy bomber. These aircraft, together with a growing family of Soviet cruise missiles, pose an increasing, serious problem for NORAD planners and operators. As General Herres has said, "We need bomber and cruise-missile warning for a balanced deterrent posture and to eliminate the no-warning bomber option that could be attractive to a Soviet war planner."
Where do we stand today in our ability to detect and respond to the Soviet strategic air threat?
NORAD on Alert
NORAD has thirty-one alert sites; twenty-nine in the US (including Alaska), and two in Canada. Two fighters at each are on constant alert, ready to intercept any incoming aircraft. Should the threat increase, these alert Units will get help from other Air Force, Navy, Marine, and Canadian fighter units in the CONUS and Canada.
The US has about 280 planes devoted to air defense—five active and eleven Air National Guard fighter-interceptor squadrons. Many are twenty-year-old F-106s and F-4s. The Air Force has begun to convert active F-106 squadrons to F-15s and to modify air defense F-16s to carry the all-weather AMRAAM missile. It also plans to assign F-16s to our Air Guard squadrons. Also, Canada has converted one CF-101 squadron and is converting a second to CF-18s (twelve aircraft in each squadron).
The aging SAGE network has been replaced by the Joint Surveillance System (JSS). Shared with the Federal Aviation Administration, JSS has forty-seven sites with 2,000 people assigned (including the Region Operations Control Centers—ROCCs) in addition to the Alaskan Seek Igloo and Canadian radar sites. These sites are connected to the seven ROCCs—at McChord, March, Griffiss, and Tyndall AFBs, plus one in Alaska and two in Canada. During an emergency, these ROCCs are augmented with AWACS aircraft, which also help provide "low-level gap" coverage. Also, the AWACS can take over the command and control responsibilities for a region, if necessary. In fact, NORAD people at Tinker AFB, Okla., train regularly with AWACS crews, flying on all NORAD AWACS missions to interface training.
The problems with our air defense system are fairly basic. Existing radars can't see far enough out from our coasts to give adequate advance warning. And second, because we have fewer radars, Soviet planes and cruise missiles could slip through the gaps. Consequently, the United States and Canada, through NORAD, have developed a master plan to renovate and strengthen the air defense of this continent.
The Master Plan
The North American Air Defense Master Plan calls first for Over-the-Horizon Backscatter (0TH-B) radar systems to be installed on the east and west coasts and covering southern approaches to the continental United States (CONUS). The east coast radar system is being built by General Electric Co. The 0TH-B will bounce radar beams off the ionosphere and back down to earth and can look out from 500 miles to 1,800 miles across a 180-degree swath.
The east coast 0TH-B, under construction in Maine, will be operational in the next few years; the west coast 0TH-B and a central US radar site (looking south) should reach initial operational capability in the 1990s. As now planned, the whole 0TH-B program will cost around $2.4 billion.
Second, the plan calls for a renovation of the DEW Line. The "North Warning" program will fill those low-level gaps while modernizing equipment. The plan will replace the existing DEW Line with fifty-two new radars. Thirteen General Electric FPS-117 minimally attended long-range radars and thirty-nine unattended short-range radars will reduce manpower requirements by two-thirds and operation and maintenance costs by more than half.
The high-altitude, long-range FPS-117 will replace radars we deployed almost twenty-five years ago at strategically located sites in the DEW Line. The unattended, short-range radars will be used to fill the gaps and will be sited to assure continuous low-level coverage.
Because of several highly publicized false alarms, a lingering skepticism remains with some critics about the safety and sureness of the warning system. In 1979, a test computer disk was inadvertently loaded into the operational system, producing a false attack warning. The warning error took NORAD officials only three minutes to realize and correct.
Months later, in 1980, a forty-six-cent faulty chip on a circuit board displayed false attack signals on SAC and National Military Command System (NMCS) monitors. Within a minute or two, other sources proved the signals to be false. Neither event was significant from the standpoint of potentially leading the world into a nuclear war. However, some changes were obviously needed.
To correct the first problem, NORAD built a separate Off-Site Test Facility near the Cheyenne Mountain site. Tests and other necessary drills of the system are now worked apart from the active system. To correct the second problem requires an extensive replacement of the dated computer capabilities at NORAD—and that project is in the program definition stage. The current system consists of several different computer systems that don't interrelate easily. The new designs will make each subsystem function as a subset of one main computer system. It will, however, take several years to complete, and each changeover will occur with both old and new units on line simultaneously, with no interruption in the system's protection.
In the meantime, NORAD has developed and installed a cyclical redundancy check in the computer software to ensure the validity of each message sent. Now NORAD monitors what it is seeing and—at the same instant—what its users (SAC and the NMCS) are seeing. At all points in this system, humans play a vital part, checking and verifying data.
In November 1980, experts from the Department of Defense and the computer community gave the NORAD computer system an exhaustive test. It passed convincingly and has performed flawlessly since.
The other side of Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment is the threat from ballistic missiles. The United States maintains an elaborate array of sensors to guard against that threat. They include satellite resources, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), Pave Paws, the AN/FPS-85, the AN/FSS-7, the Perimeter Acquisition Radar, Attack Characterization System (PARCS), and Cobra Dane.
Early warning satellites usually provide the first indication of an ICBM launch. Clearly, the sensitivities of our satellite missile-detection capabilities emphasize the importance of satellite survivability and protection. This early warning capability is obviously a prime first target in any planned attack.
Minutes after initial satellite detection, radar detects the missile, confirms the attack, and predicts impact locations. No significant action occurs (except in cases of early, substantial single-source evidence) until another source besides satellites verifies the sighting. A missile indication, for example, will show up soon after on Cobra Dane, Pave Paws, or one of the other warning systems.
BMEWS provides TW/AA information to NORAD from three sites specifically located to detect ballistic missile attacks from the Sino-Soviet landmass, most Arctic Ocean areas, Soviet SLBM fleet ports, and northern patrol areas. The sites are Thule AB, at North Star Bay on the west coast of Greenland, about 1,550 kilometers from the geographic North Pole; Clear AFS, located about 100 kilometers southwest of Fairbanks, Alaska; and Fylingdales, UK, the Royal Air Force.
All high-speed data circuits from BMEWS travel to NORAD via redundant transmission facilities. NORAD processes BMEWS data and forwards it to the other command centers over the Missile Warning ASCII and Missile Warning Teletype networks. RAF Fylingdales transmits data to both NORAD and RAF operations centers.
Pave Paws radars are dual-faced, phased-array surveillance and tracking systems. One is on the east coast at Otis ANGB, Mass., and the other is on the west coast at Beale AFB, Calif. Two more are planned for the southeast at Robins AFB, Ga., and the southwest near San Angelo, Tex., and should be operational in the late 1980s. Each has a triangular-shaped main building that contains the radar, computer, communications, and support equipment. The two flat antenna arrays are attached to two of the three sides of the building. Each Pave Paws high-speed data circuit is routed two ways from the site to each command center.
The radars are solid-state, electronically steered antennas. When they are tracking, the two faces operate independently according to the number of objects to be tracked. Pave Paws does two important jobs as part of our TW/AA defensive shield. It provides identification, type of object, launch time, and time and predicted location of CON US impact and tells which Pave Paws site is responding. In addition, the Pave Paws operator passes on his or her confidence in the validity of the report.
Although Pave Paws is relatively new, the Air Force already has improvements planned to keep up with the surge of technology. Pave Paws Otis and Pave Paws Beale will be modified to provide a power increase to improve count and attack assessment capabilities. The Air Force also plans improvements in signal processing, data processor throughput, memory capacity, and software,
The AN/FPS-85 is a single-plane, phased-array radar system located at Eglin AFB, Fla. Until the Robins and Goodfellow Pave Paws sites are complete, AN/FPS-85 is our only southern-facing missile detection system. Its information is also sent two ways directly to NORAD; NORAD then forwards the processed data to the other three command centers over the Missile Warning ASCII and Missile Warning Teletype networks. The Eglin AN/FPS-85 is a computer-driven, phased-array radar that uses electron tube technology to watch satellites and SLBMs.
The AN/FSS-7 is a mechanical radar at MacDill AFB. Fla., that sends its warning information to NORAD when the target parameters indicate the radar has acquired an SLBM.
An AN/FPQ-16, north-looking, single-faced, phased-array radar at Cavalier AFS, N. D., about thirty-two kilometers south of the Canadian border, PARCS was originally part of the Army's Safeguard antiballistic missile system. Its mission is to provide warning and assessment of SLBM attacks against the CONUS and southern Canada originating from the near-Arctic areas behind BMEWS. The secondary mission is to provide warning and attack characterization of an ICBM attack from the Sino-Soviet landmass. Its tertiary mission, like most of the others, is to provide surveillance, tracking, reporting, and space object identification data to the NORAD Space Surveillance Center.
At the tip of the Aleutian Island chain is Cobra Dane, a single-faced, phased-array radar system used to watch Soviet ballistic missile tests. This 100-foot-high radar also provides early warning of ICBM launches and detects and tracks satellites. It communicates digitally with command centers to receive operational directives and transmit radar data and reports on missile events. Like the other resources, its information is routed two different ways to NORAD. Also like the other resources, when Cobra Dane detects and verifies a target, it performs a correlation check; for missile targets, it computes predicted impact points.
Primary Command Centers
The data from all these systems has to be handled quickly and smoothly. The command center structure of this system does this job effectively. The primary TW/AA command center is the NORAD Cheyenne Mountain Complex (NCMC) in Colorado Springs, Colo. NORAD is responsible for providing warning and assessment for missile and air-breathing threats to the North American continent. The SAC Command Center at Offutt AFB, Neb., the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon, and the Alternate National Military Command Center at Fort Ritchie, Md., all use the information, the NCMC collects and provides them.
Deep within Cheyenne Mountain south of Colorado Springs are fifteen steel buildings resting on huge antishock springs and interconnected by steel walkways. Some 1,400 people operate the NCMC on a twenty-four-hour basis; if necessary, it could be completely self-sustaining for thirty days.
The SAC Command Center exercises command and control of land-based bomber and ICBM forces, strategic reconnaissance, and the EC-135C aircraft that function as the airborne alternate command posts.
The National Military Command Center supports the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is the primary command center for the National Military Command System. Day-to-day operations of the NMCC are performed by five rotating teams who monitor crises, assemble information, analyze it, and brief decision-makers.
The Alternate NMCC is 130 kilometers north of the Pentagon (thirty minutes by helicopter—ninety minutes by auto). Logistics and support are provided by Fort Ritchie, Md.
The National Emergency Airborne Command Post uses four nuclear/EMP-hardened E-4Bs whose main operating base is Offutt AFB, Neb. The command and control of the E-4B is the responsibility of the Director of Operations, OJCS.
Communications and Coordination
TW/AA information relies on four main communications systems to pass data between sites and command centers: the Defense Communications System, the commercial telephone system, special purpose systems, and the Defense Satellite Communications System. The Ground Wave Emergency Network (GWEN) and the Milstar communications System are planned improvements. In most of these cases, the data travels encoded.
To coordinate all aspects of the complex job of strategic defense, including warning and assessing possible attacks, DoD has begun a Strategic Defense Architecture (SDA-2000). The first phase of SDA-2000, dealing with the projected strategic air threat, is complete, and Phase II—which will treat ballistic missile and space defense and update air defense—is just beginning.
As technology adapts science to even faster and more precise military uses, the importance and accuracy of tactical warning and attack assessment will increase geometrically. The implications alone of the role of computers in deciding instantaneous defensive response will generate heated debate. Until the technology of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) is reality, TW/AA will remain our only true defense against ballistic missile attack. Even then, some form of existing TW/AA systems will be central to the final SDI architecture.
Lt. Col. Richard S. Cammarota, USAF, has been the Deputy Chief of the Secretary of the Air Force's Staff Group since 1983. He holds a bachelors degree from Union College, Schenectady, N. Y., a master's from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University. During his Air Force career, he has served as Associate Professor of English at the Air Force Academy and as Special Assistant to the Commander of Air Force Logistics Command.
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag