After the multiple hijackings and subsequent attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center that took place on September 11, 2001, the national defense strategy abruptly switched gears, remarkably quickly given the gradual drawdowns in force levels and readiness after the 1991 Gulf War and the end of the Cold War. The United States had historically focused resources and attention on the former Soviet Union and more recently, a belligerent and expansionist Iraq.
Only in the mid-1990s had the nation begun to concentrate its strategic focus on non-state actors, such as narcotics networks and the loosely organized and often state funded terrorist organizations that were coalescing in places like Eastern Afghanistan. This worked to the advantage of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. His network had its roots in the mujahideen that the United States funded during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and was comfortable operating over long distances from its bases there.
The United States reacted to the airliner attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. by turning its outward-focused air defense network inward. Less than 12 hours after the attacks, NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, established combat air patrols over many major American cities, utilizing available resources from the active duty Air Force, the Air National Guard, and the Air Force Reserve. The effort to prevent further attacks, respond to suspicious air activity, and maintain an alert status over the continental United States was known as Operation NOBLE EAGLE (ONE) and it quickly involved Hill Air Force Base’s combat and support assets, even before Hill stood down from its first ever real world Force Protection Condition Delta status.
Although the alert facilities at Hill had been dormant for several years, the 388th Fighter Wing was well versed in moving its pilots, maintainers, and F-16s quickly because it had been deploying regularly to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq. Despite the demands of its own operational calendar, the 388th pressed each of its three squadrons into action, understanding that it would be tasked to support ONE for an indefinite period.
California was the initial deployment location for the wing. First the 4th Fighter Squadron, and then the 34th, flew six-ship flights to Travis AFB in September and October 2001, sitting alert, flying patrol sorties over the state, and preparing a little-used corner of Travis for continual use by future ONE missions. NORAD demanded that the major commands across the United States support alert sites like the one at Travis, and a similar facility at Hill. It directed that each site should be secured from threats to the other parts of the base and operate as independently as possible from daily base business. This meant that infrastructure, supplies, and facilities had to be built up from temporary, austere conditions; the 4th’s reports described the situation at Travis AFB as ‘controlled chaos.’
ONE missions operated from trailers and tents, with communication cables, generator cables, and phone lines stretched across the tarmac and the floors. Food, supplies, and equipment were delivered hourly by whatever equipment was moving in in the direction of the alert base. Questions of money, air space, and scheduling raised by host units, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other organizations were bludgeoned aside or kicked down the road, but the squadrons moved smoothly and the planes flew without incident for the balance of 2001.
The single largest international gathering in early 2002 would be local to Hill, with the 2002 Winter Olympics opening in Salt Lake City on February 8. ONE security for the games was critical, and provided largely by the 388th. While the residents of Northern Utah were accustomed to hearing the F-16s from Hill overhead, it was remarkable to see them flying fully armed over Olympic venues, a wartime mission over their home base. Again flying from a remote part of Hill to protect the games, the wing was at the same time training, exercising, and gearing up to deploy to Iraq. And with Operation ENDURING FREEDOM already well underway in Afghanistan, the Olympic ONE mission was the first in a long series of operations that the wing, and Hill, would support as the global war on terror began.