Securing Control of the Skies

The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project was completed in August 1998 and resulted in the book Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 edited by Stephen I. Schwartz. These project pages should be considered historical.

In the event of a confirmed warning of nuclear attack, NORAD, in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), would order the immediate grounding of all commercial aircraft in U.S. airspace and off the U.S. coast. Developed in the 1960s, this little known plan — Security Control of Air Traffic and Navigation Aids (SCATANA) — authorizes NORAD, the FAA, and the FCC to impose these restrictions in order to clear the skies for bomber and missile operations.

1

Once SCATANA has been implemented, a wartime air traffic priority list (WATPL) is established to allow essential personnel and aircraft to use the airspace. Designated "priority one" on the WATPL are the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Canada, their respective essential national security staffs, aircraft engaged in continental defense missions, retaliatory aircraft and their support aircraft (for example, refueling tankers), and airborne command posts.

While the military rationale for SCATANA is understandable, the feasibility of its implementation (particularly given the significant increase in air travel since the 1960s) is dubious. The program was (and presumably still is) tested regularly only via simulations.

2

According to the FAA, "Emergency security control of air traffic and/or the actual securing of navigational aids has never been accomplished." Therefore, "there are no recorded costs associated with the conduct of this program."

3

SCATANA has apparently been activated only once, by accident. During a false alert on November 9, 1979 — triggered when a technician at NORAD inserted a computer tape used to simulate a nuclear attack into the on-line warning system — FAA controllers at some locations were directed to order commercial airliners to prepare to land immediately. When the indications of a full-scale Soviet attack were determined, after six agonizing minutes, to be false (on the basis of contrary data from early warning sensors), the order was rescinded.

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Notes:

1

Under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (as amended), the Communication Act of 1934 (as amended), the National Security Act of 1947 (as amended), and Executive Order 11490. This need was recognized as early as 1956, when General Earle E. Partridge, commander in chief of the air defense and continental air defense commands, testified before Congress that with regard to identifying and destroying enemy aircraft in U.S. airspace, "in the event of an emergency...one of our first steps would be to eliminate all nonessential air traffic. The capability of our air defense system to identify aircraft tracks thereafter would be tremendously enhanced." See Study of Airpower, Hearings, p. 311. Under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (as amended), the Communication Act of 1934 (as amended), the National Security Act of 1947 (as amended), and Executive Order 11490. This need was recognized as early as 1956, when General Earle E. Partridge, commander in chief of the air defense and continental air defense commands, testified before Congress that with regard to identifying and destroying enemy aircraft in U.S. airspace, "in the event of an emergency...one of our first steps would be to eliminate all nonessential air traffic. The capability of our air defense system to identify aircraft tracks thereafter would be tremendously enhanced." See

Study of Airpower,

Hearings, p. 311.

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2

In April 1956, General Partridge also testified, "It is almost impossible for the Strategic Air Command to carry out a realistic test of [its ability to attack the Soviet Union].... For example...the CAA [Civil Aviation Administration] must give [SAC] permission to operate without lights. This takes weeks, just in the making sure that everybody who is in the area on a particular night knows that there are going to be many aircraft in there at certain altitudes without lights." See

Study of Airpower,

Hearings, p. 294.

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3

Letter, David J. Hurley, Director, Air Traffic System Management, Federal Aviation Administration, to Stephen I. Schwartz, August 9, 1994; DOT/FAA/Federal Communications Commission (FCC) SCATANA Plan, 7610.4H, October 2, 1990, appx. 17.

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4

Sagan,

The Limits of Safety,

pp. 228-229

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Copyright © 1998 The Brookings Institution