Newsclippings & Transcripts

Form:  Book

Date: Mon, 25 May 2009 07:19:34 -0500
From: Francis Ridge <>
Subject: Chapter 7, An Integrated, Efficient, Highly Potent Air Defense System (Original scan in pdf)

In 1954 the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower supported the development of a large and sophisticated continental air defense buildup. Air defense would undergo a technological transfor­mation to match in importance the development of radar in the late 1930s. However, the automated systems that would eventually revolu­tionize air defense operations were still being perfected in research lab­oratories in the early 1950s. For the forces on alert in the field, comput­erized systems remained years away. Field forces had to make the best use of equipment at hand, regardless how inadequate, and hope to meet the test if called upon. An incident during the spring of 1952 highlighted the problems of the defenses.

Next to the Real Thing

On April 16, 1952, Col. Woodbury M. Burgess, General Chidlaw's intelligence chief, received a "troublesome piece" of information from Headquarters USAF. The information, categorized as an "indication," implied that it came from a clandestine source and concerned Soviet military movements. Burgess and his intelligence staff remained in the ADC Combat Operations Center. By late in the evening they had re­ceived no further information to confirm the warning, so Burgess decid­ed they could go home. Meanwhile, he informed Maj. Gen. Kenneth P. Bergquist, ADC operations deputy, of the special intelligence, and Bur­gess and Bergquist decided there was no reason at that time to inform either General Frederic H. Smith, ADC Vice Commander, or Chidlaw of the incident.

Shortly after midnight, the Western Air Defense Force operations center on Hamilton Air Force Base, California, notified Colorado Springs of four vapor trails sighted one hour and twenty-seven minutes earlier over Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea, heading east by southeast. The information originated at the Elmendorf, Alaska, center and was transmitted through McChord Air Force Base, Washington, which pro­vided the only communications links between the two systems. A captain on duty in the intelligence section on Ent received the news and prompt­ly phoned Colonel Burgess, who hurriedly returned to the Combat Oper­ations Center. Once there, he directed that the Royal Canadian Air Force be informed of the sighting; he also notified General Bergquist who rushed back to the center.

By 0220 Bergquist had alerted his counterparts in the Eastern, Cen­tral, and Western air defense forces, and the various direction centers had been instructed to direct northern and coastal radar stations to be especially vigilant. Bergquist also attempted to confirm the sighting with the Alaskan center, but before the call could be completed, the line be­tween McChord and Elmendorf went dead, leaving all involved "simply exasperated." Bergquist now phoned General Smith, saying "We have something hot­I think you better come over."

When Smith arrived in the Operations Center, he and Bergquist considered calling an Air Defense Readiness alert. This procedure, for­mulated and instituted by Whitehead, allowed ADC to bring individual sectors or the whole command onto full combat readiness. Smith and Bergquist had a difficult decision, because calling an alert would mean awakening hundreds of ADC and other Air Force personnel and order­ing them to duty stations with no time for explanations. The result of such an order was uncertain since the procedure had never been tested.

No sooner had Bergquist and Smith begun considering what to do than the decision was, in effect, made for them. At 0310 the intelligence duty officer came running to Smith with word that "Eastern [Air De­fense Force] has just called in and reported five 'unknowns' coming in over Presque Island [Maine]." One minute later Smith ordered ADC on full Air Defense Readiness alert. At the same time, notification went out to the air defense region commanders, to General LeMay of SAC, and to the USAF Command Post in the Pentagon over hot lines, specially installed for such emergency situations. At this time Smith also notified Chidlaw who, like air defense personnel all over the country, quickly re­ported for duty. Meanwhile, commanders of TAC, Air Research and Development Command, Air Proving Ground, and Air Training Com­mand, all pledged to commit radar and fighter units in an emergency, were contacted by commercial toll calls. The Army Antiaircraft Artil­lery Command did not receive the alert until 0341. Then, General Ir­vine's staff ordered "all units on site to man their guns, and other units to prepare to move."

Within fifteen minutes from the time the alert was called, Ent, region, and division air defense centers began operating with full teams. Also within fifteen minutes, telephone and teletype lines throughout the aircraft control and warning network were operating, an accomplishment Chidlaw called "A miracle of dead-of-night efficiency." On fighter bases, the number of aircraft in immediate readiness increased from 88 to 240 within the first hour.

Chidlaw canceled the operation at 0550. Communications had not been reestablished with Elmendorf, nor had the mysterious contrails over Nunivak been identified. In the east, sightings were narrowed to three "unknowns," which interceptors identified as friendly. These were French, British, and Pan American airliners that had drifted from their scheduled courses on flight plans other than those reported to the Presque Isle site. No one blamed the pilots; they had reported their changes in flight to Canadian flight-monitor stations. Communications between the stations and ADC's Presque Isle radar site had failed, and the course changes were not identified in the Eastern Air Defense Force's identification logs.

No sooner had Chidlaw canceled the alert than the Pentagon called the Operations Center. Air Staff officers believed that ADC had pan­icked and taken more drastic measures than the situation required. Chid­law, however, refused the call and told Bergquist, "Tell 'em if the situa­tion occurs again, I'll do the same thing," and he went off to bed.

Later, when the incident could be seen in greater perspective, the Air Staff acknowledged the "general misinterpretation of its meaning" regarding the original intelligence of Soviet military movements. Even more important, the Air Staff admitted that the alert pointed up many weaknesses in operating procedures. Improvements needed to address a broadened role for the USAF Command Post in future alerts, and the installation of hot lines among all commands committed to furnishing augmented forces for air defense in an emergency became urgent. The thirteen to thirty-nine minutes it had taken ADC to alert cooperating commands over commercial toll lines was unacceptable; SAC had been alerted by hot line in eight seconds.

Chidlaw told Vandenberg that the alert had made "more of our top Air Force people . . . aware of the very thin margin of evidence on which we too frequently must base our decisions." If that thin margin was to be overcome, the nation would have to make a substantial invest­ment in sophisticated technology applicable to air defense systems. The debate over how much to invest in air defense, meanwhile, went on during the Korean War period not only in Air Force councils but also in specially formed, civilian-led committees and among influential scientists and journalists. Their assessments would be crucial in deciding the future of continental air defense.