While September 11, 2001 is well known as the day when the U.S. suffered its worst terrorist attack, what is little known is that it was also a day when large sections of the armed forces around the nation had been preparing to fight a simulated nuclear war, as part of major training exercises being conducted at the time. In their annual exercises “Vigilant Guardian” and “Global Guardian,” the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the United States Strategic Command (Stratcom) were scheduled to carry out what has been described as a “simulated air war,” a “full-blown nuclear war” exercise, a “fictional nuclear war,” and a “practice Armageddon.”

No official attempts have been made to fully investigate these exercises and what effect they had on the military’s response to the 9/11 attacks. But evidence indicates they caused at least some confusion over what was “real-world” and what was simulation, and they may also have been a factor behind the communication problems experienced by military personnel that day. Other evidence suggests that some actions that have been presented as reactions to the terrorist attacks may actually have been related to these exercises–actions such as raising the alert status of American armed services to Defcon 3 and closing the huge “blast doors” to NORAD’s operations center in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. There is also evidence that other “practice Armageddon” exercises were being conducted at the time of the 9/11 attacks, but details of these are unknown.

Perhaps the most important exercise to consider is NORAD’s exercise called “Vigilant Guardian.” Close examination of this exercise is imperative due to the crucial role NORAD had to play in responding to the 9/11 attacks.

NORAD is the military organization responsible for monitoring and defending U.S. airspace. It was created during the Cold War, to protect North American airspace against nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union. Its Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (CMOC) in Colorado, where numerous staffers were involved in Vigilant Guardian, was described by the BBC as “the nerve centre of North America’s air defense.” [1] The center’s role, according to the Toronto Star, was “to fuse every critical piece of information NORAD has into a concise and crystalline snapshot.” [2] And NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Rome, New York, which was also participating in the exercise, was responsible for trying to coordinate the military’s response to the hijackings on September 11. [3]

Vigilant Guardian, described as a “Cold War-style training exercise,” was held annually by NORAD. It was reportedly scheduled to last two weeks and was several days underway on September 11. [4] All of NORAD, including its subordinate units, was participating in the exercise that day. [5] NORAD’s CMOC was fully staffed for the exercise, with more than 50 members of staff in the Battle Management Center taking part. [6] According to Ken Merchant, NORAD’s joint exercise design manager, the National Military Command Center (NMCC) at the Pentagon–which also played a key role in the military’s response to the 9/11 attacks–regularly contributed to NORAD exercises. It was therefore presumably set to play a role in Vigilant Guardian on September 11. [7]

Full details of Vigilant Guardian are unknown, but various accounts have given indications of what it involved. The 1st Air Force’s book about the 9/11 attacks described Vigilant Guardian as a “simulated air war” and as “an air defense exercise simulating an attack on the United States.” [8] It was a “transition to wartime operations command post exercise,” according to an information page for exercise participants. [9] Ken Merchant called Vigilant Guardian a “full-blown nuclear war” exercise. [10] According to the Denver Post, it would involve “ever-escalating scenarios, from strained diplomacy to the outbreak of conventional warfare that headed inexorably toward nuclear conflict.” [11]

Lieutenant Colonel William Glover, the commander of NORAD’s Air Warning Center on September 11, said Vigilant Guardian involved NORAD “simulating war,” with “attacks coming from the outside, Soviet-style bombers coming in, cruise-missile attacks, that type of thing.” [12] The 9/11 Commission Report said the exercise “postulated a bomber attack from the former Soviet Union.” [13] According to Merchant, it included “bomber response and intercontinental ballistic missile response.” [14]

The imagined enemy in Vigilant Guardian was Russia. [15] Merchant told the 9/11 Commission that “NORAD must use Russia in its exercises at the strategic level since no other country poses a great enough threat to NORAD’s capabilities and responsibilities.” [16]

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