September 11, 2001: A Catalyst for Change

The creation of today's agile Air Force

story by Staff Sgt. J. Paul Croxon

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was brisk and cool. The Alaskan air was turning colder and the sun took just a little longer to peek over the mountains as the commander of Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region completed his morning jog to work. As he approached the headquarters building at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, he noticed an unusually large number of people outside the building. There was an air of nervous excitement; the feeling that something had happened that had massive implications for the future. 

Unknown to the commander—then-Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, who also served as Alaskan Command and 11th Air Force commander—nearly 4,000 miles away a commercial airliner had struck one of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York City, setting off a chain of events that would forever change the world.

Over the course of little more than an hour, three more airliners had crashed: one into the second World Trade Center tower, another into the Pentagon, and a third into a field in Pennsylvania. About an hour after United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania, the pilot of Korean Air Flight 85, en route from Seoul, South Korea, to Anchorage, Alaska, tapped out a code in communications with U.S. air traffic controllers indicating his aircraft was hijacked. 

The message set off a flurry of activity within the Alaskan NORAD Region headquarters.  Officials at Alaskan NORAD Region, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Canadian government immediately began coordinating their efforts as Schwartz ordered a pair of armed F-15 Eagles to shadow the Korean airliner.

“With what happened on the East Coast, we took the threat of a hijacked plane from the Pacific very seriously,” said Schwartz, now a four-star general and the Air Force chief of staff, during a recent interview. “I was prepared to order the fighters to shoot down the plane.”

“We learned the homeland was vulnerable. We also learned that we had to take a stand and defend ourselves by engaging the enemy as far from our soil as possible.” — General Norton A. Schwartz

As the Korean pilots followed FAA and Alaskan NORAD Region directions, it became increasingly clear the aircraft was probably not hijacked, Schwartz said.  The airliner eventually landed safely in Canada, where it was discovered the pilots had only meant to ask about the reports of hijackings on the East Coast when they sent the alarming message to controllers.

The events of that day required flexibility and professionalism on the part of Airmen throughout the United States and around the world, Schwartz said.  They also spurred a decade of both innovation and change within the Air Force and the nation.

“We learned the homeland was vulnerable,” Schwartz said. “We also learned that we had to take a stand and defend ourselves by engaging the enemy as far from our soil as possible.”

Looking Back

Looking back at the 10 years since 9/11, Schwartz said the Air Force has changed dramatically.

“Ten years ago we had a few MQ-1 Predator test platforms,” Schwartz said. “We now have more than 55, 24/7 orbits around the world, and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance continues to be in high demand.”

Another change since 9/11 can be found in the Air Force’s culture, as the expeditionary nature of the Air Force has been reinforced by operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, Schwartz said.

“More than 70 percent of Airmen serving today have been tested in deployments in the last 10 years,” he said, pointing out that the high operations tempo has led the service to rely even more on the total force.

“The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve are equal partners in this,” Schwartz said. “In some areas, they are more proficient than the active duty force, and they have more than half of the Air Force’s total capability in some mission sets.”

At a time when many Airmen have served their entire careers during a period of continuous conflict, airpower has proven to be a high-demand asset, not just for combat operations but also for humanitarian ones, Schwartz said.  In recent years, relief efforts to help those affected by the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, the flooding in Pakistan that began in July 2010, and the tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011 have shown the versatility of the Air Force’s capabilities.

Looking Near Term

This demand for airpower is not going away, according to the general, and the force will continue to deploy.  Schwartz said despite current economic conditions, the nation will still look to the Air Force to provide its unique capabilities.

“There is no doubt we will continue to be busy,” Schwartz said. “I see the Air Force continuing to provide four unique contributions to national security:  domain control, or the ability to exercise control in the air and space; ISR; airlift and aerial refueling; and global strike capability–the ability to deliver effects anywhere in the world.”

Enabling these four capabilities is command and control, allowing a network of Airmen and systems to work together throughout the world to achieve common mission objectives, Schwartz said.

The Next 10 Years

Looking ahead to where the Air Force will be a decade from now, the general said technology in development today will increase the service’s capabilities for operations in 2021.

“Ten years from now, we will have a very mature F-35 program and a new tanker, and we will be developing a new long-range strike capability, to include a new bomber,” Schwartz said. “We will also be a smaller, but still high-quality, force.”

The general said the new systems will help the Air Force to better address the challenges of the future.  However, one of the biggest challenges facing the Air Force over the next decade is fiscal in nature.

“Looking ahead, we will continue to have fewer resources, and we’ll have to pull our belts a little tighter,” Schwartz said. “We’ll need to be more cost-conscious and more efficient to preserve resources. It’s important to understand that we all need to apply ourselves in finding savings and operating smartly so we can continue to provide our important contributions to the joint team.”

Advice for Airmen

Over his career, Schwartz said he has seen the Air Force both increase and decrease its manpower and force structure, and change its posture from one focused primarily on threats from other nations to one cognizant of threats from many different actors across the entire spectrum of conflict.  Despite all the changes over the years, he said he takes comfort in the fact that the Air Force attracts the very best people to serve the country and offered some advice for those serving today. 

“Airmen should strive to be resilient,” he said. “This will enable them to take the ups and downs, and deal with life’s hiccups by turning adversity into opportunity.”

The general added that the Air Force has always been in a state of change, and that such changes are likely to continue. Through it all, Schwartz said he expects Airmen to continue to maintain the highest possible standards, just as they always have.

Such professionalism and flexibility enabled the Air Force to respond to the threats of 9/11, and 10 years later, men and women are still joining and remaining in the Air Force.  “Airmen should be proud and recognize there is nobility in public service,” Schwartz said. “There’s a lot to be said about each and every Airman for being a member of this team.”