Planes straddled the runway awaiting orders on how to proceed. These planes were not commercial craft with dozens to hundreds of passengers; they carried a cargo of humanity’s most destructive element. Every year, the United States and its allies coordinate and conduct military exercises of varying degrees and objectives. The clear crisp day at Offutt Air Force Base, located near Omaha, Nebraska on September 11th, 2001 was no different.
Early on Tuesday morning, military personnel from Andrews Air Force Base coordinated with the Strategic Air Command at Offutt and launched the first of three E-4B Airborne Command Posts. These planes are heavily modified Boeing 747s, equipped with special communications and are capable of running the entire country if a nuclear war or national emergency were to occur. The airmen involved were part of the military exercise codenamed Global Guardian, which is classified as Continuity of Government (COG). Two key Bush Administration officials, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, participated in COG exercises during their time in the Reagan Administration. The longest exercise, also during Reagan’s time, involved officials flying throughout the United States and being re-fueled to stay in the air for three days.
A thousand plus miles away and buried beneath Cheyenne Mountain, the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD, who is responsible for the majority of the continent’s air defense, is bustling with activity. All units reporting under NORAD’s command and taking part in an exercise called Vigilant Guardian which postulated an air attack by bombers from the Russian 37th Air Army. In fact, at the time the Russians were conducting their largest exercise, since 1993, the Artic and Atlantic oceans.
At Andrews, Offutt, and NORAD’s command centers, there were increased number of staff members for handling the combined military exercises. The increased staff stems from all branches of the military, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, along with Reserve and National Guard components. The start date of Global Guardian is muddled with confusion, as NBC military analyst William Arkin advised the exercise would take place during October 22-31st, 2001; however sometime after March the dates were moved forward. By the morning of September 11th, the Global Guardian exercise had been ongoing for about a week.
The confusion surrounding the launch date of the exercise has created multiple conspiracy theories and accusations of complicity in the carrying out the September 11th attacks by al-Qaeda. The date and objectives of military exercises are not always set in stone and the days and objectives vary for numerous reasons. More often than not, a lack of available equipment and personnel dictate when an exercise is held, and what kind of scope it will cover. Additionally, military planners take into account when other countries are conducting their own exercises and make try to have a joint exercise. If a perceived rival is conducting their own exercise, the military may carry out their own exercise to act as a counter towards the rival’s ongoing training. Planners also take into account the situation on the ground and may cancel or delay an exercise because of political instability within a region where the exercise is being conducted or who is a part of the exercise. In the case of Global Guardian and Vigilant Guardian being conducted during September instead of October 2001, there is no definitive answer to why the exercises were pushed forward any official reason forward would be contorted by conspiracy theorists.
There are many threats that the United States government prepares for, and by an unfortunate coincidence, one such event turned out to be commercial airliners no longer under control of their pilots. Part of the operational plans for Vigilant Guardian included numerous scenarios where a plane(s) would be used as a means to an end. Before the 1980s, taking over a plane served more as a political statement for organizations which wanted their goals to be heard and met. Under Vigilant Guardian, once such scenario used the ideas of Cubans taking control of a plane and demanding political asylum within the United States. The majority of the exercises followed fictitious terrorist organizations with political demands and only a few hostages being killed and the planes safely being landed.
One of the key objectives of a military exercise is to think of creative scenarios in which a real world attack may be carried out. When your enemy knows no bounds to the rules of war, it is difficult to determine the best response to their move. Two eerie exercises occurred respectively on September 6th and September 9th. The first exercise involved 10 members of a terrorist organization seizing an airliner and issuing demands and will blow up the plane if not met. The resulting outcome of had pilots shooting down the commercial airliner before it could be used as a weapon. The later exercise includes terrorists taking over the plane and plan on detonating explosives over New York City. The military intercepts the plane and is capable of steering away the terrorists who blow up the plane.
On the morning of September 11th, another scenario of simulated takeovers was scheduled to occur. Initially, the staff at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), under NORAD, though when the real-world news of American Airlines Flight 11 occurred, the staff thought the exercise had launched earlier than expected. Within a few minutes the staff throughout NORAD received information from the chain of command that the exercise had been paused and eventually terminated within an hour. Instead NORAD would be coordinating with the FAA in returning planes to the ground and watching over planes which may have been compromised. If a plane were confirmed not under a pilot’s control, military jets would be intercepted and if given the order, the commercial airliner would be shot down.
The military’s preparedness contributed to the conspiracy theorists notion that the armed forces were complicit or at least generally aware of a plot to attack America. The 9/11 Commission thoroughly investigated the issue and while they found faults within the entire apparatus of both the military and the intelligence agencies. The problem with military exercises stems not with the military but rather those whose imaginations run wild, the average conspiracy theorist’s capabilities of hijacking the intent of a military exercise has exponentially increased with the use of today’s social media. In this new wave of reporters, everybody thinks they have the qualifications of an expert but little to none of the understanding what goes on behind the scenes. A conspiracy theorist can never be defeated; for once their breaking news about the latest government plot to install a new world order is on the Internet, it can never be unimagined.