It was early recognized that any radar line, either close in or far to the north, would require extensions out to sea and down the coasts of the United States in order to prevent the possibilities .of an end-run attack on the United States. Three elements came to be involved—airborne radars, naval picket ships, and fixed offshore installations anchored to the sea floor.

1. AEW Systems

The idea of an airborne early warning and control aircraft was first raised in the mid-1940s, before the war ended. The Army Air Forces had no experience in the field, but the Navy had at least an introduction to it through its efforts to intercept Japanese kamikaze attacks on the fleet off Okinawa. Yet, overall experience with the technique was lacking.

The advantages were obvious. Such an extension of the radar system would give at least 30 additional minutes of warning; low-altitude coverage that was overlooked by coastal-based radars, would also be possible—AEW aircraft at altitude could look down and thus reduce the prospect of low-altitude sneak attacks.

Shortly before the end of the war, the AAF had directed the Air Materiel Command to examine the concept of an airborne control center for offensive operations. In 1946, the Air. Staff suggested that the effort be switched to serve air defense purposes. However, because of budgetary constraints, duplication of Navy efforts, and the Navy’s head start in the field, the AAF project was dropped. The final closing out in 1948 of any USAF effort on an airborne facility left the Air Force dependent on the Navy for an offshore radar screen.

In the meantime, in April 1947, a newly formed US-Canadian planning group, which was under the respective Chiefs of Staff, issued a plan for early warning. They proposed an early warning line across Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Newfoundland, and off both coasts. Offshore coverage would be by radar planes and ships. The plan never went anywhere, but it did reflect an early expression of what was to become the ultimate air defense system a decade later. Strangely, the 1947 Air Force plan, SUPREMACY, had not included provision for offshore coverage and had been criticized by both the JCS and the ADC for the inadequacy.

The Navy pursued its AEW development program, adopting radars to Navy Grumman bombers and then to B-17s (PB-1Ws). Lockheed Constellations (C-121s) were also configured for radar. In late 1949, the Air Force directed the ADC to observe Navy experiments.

The basis for interservice cooperation in air defense was established by the Key West Agreements in the spring of 1948. The Navy agreed to provide “sea-based air defense and sea-based means of coordinating control for defense against air attack,” and also to coordinate with other services in the establishment of such systems. However, not until the creation of the Continental Air Defense Command in late 1954 were any jointly approved doctrines or procedures issued by the JCS. In view of this lack of JCS-approved doctrine, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in 1949 drew up general principles for Navy cooperation, which were to serve for years. He decreed that the basic principle for naval participation in air defense was that naval forces possessing important air defense capabilities would be trained and prepared for emergency deployment to reinforce those forces that were regularly assigned the air defense mission. He did not intend that there be a routine and permanent commitment of naval forces to the mission. Specific arrangements were to be made between individual commanders of sea frontier and air defense forces.

While it was not until 1951 that an ADC-owned AEW&C force was authorized, the ground work for such a mission had been laid earlier. Late in 1949, the Navy had suggested the possibility of using AEW aircraft for both ASW and air defense in Joint tests, to which the Air Force agreed. The Navy tested its AEW aircraft in both an ASW and a surveillance role with ADC cooperation in July 1950 off the West Coast. Tests of intercepts vectored by Navy PB-1Ws were successful in picking up targets 500 miles out, and of intercepting them 300 miles out.

Finally convinced of the utility of and necessity for AEW, the Air Force established the requirement for 48 RC-121s in July 1951 and then raised the total to 56 by year’s end. The first 10 were slated for 1953 delivery, all by 1955. In actual fact, final deliveries were not made until 1956; and, while the first squadron was activated in October 1953, it was not equipped until a year later. The first plane was delivered in May 1954. An effort was made to offset the time lag by converting some B-29s to an AEW role, but this proved abortive.

The first comprehensive plan for employment of the AEW aircraft was prepared by February 1952. It proposed establishment of barriers off each coast, 800 miles long and 200 miles offshore. Each barrier would be manned by four AEW&C aircraft orbiting on station, with about 200 miles between planes. The ADC estimated that with this spacing the probability of detection at low altitudes would be 80-90 percent. The eastern barrier started about 125 miles southeast of Nova Scotia and ran to about 250 miles northeast of Norfolk. The western barrier ran from 250 miles west of Seattle to 200 miles off San Francisco. The final total of some 60 aircraft would operate 30 from one base on each coast.

2. Picket Ships

The Air Force early recognized the need for shipborne radars to fill the offshore gap until the AEW system was functioning. It also recognized that ships could complement the AEW aircraft by adding a high-level coverage to the aircraft low-level coverage.

The matter had been discussed by the Air Force and the Navy since 1949, bur the Navy was slow to move, despite agreement on the utility of picket ships. In December 1950, the Navy finally volunteered two picket ships to work with the ADC in the event of emergency, but the next month the Air Force told the CNO that vessels for 10 stations were needed as soon as possible. The Navy replied that 10 ships of the type probably would not be available until 1954.

A test of the two proffered picket ships was jointly held by the Eastern Air Defense Force and the Eastern Sea Frontier Force in February and March 1951. The main problem uncovered was that of poor communication from ship to shore. Neither radio-telegraph nor voice contact could be maintained for more than 28 hours without a complete breakdown. Intervals of over three hours occurred during which no contact could be made.

The Air Force tried in vain to have the Navy increase the number of picket ships. Not even the two tested were actually formally approved for that emergency role until September 1952. As a result, no more than one or two stations were manned until 1955.

3. Offshore Stationary Radars

While the concepts of AEW aircraft and picket ships were raised quite early, the offshore stationary radar was a latecomer. The Lincoln Laboratory Summer Study Group in 1952 concluded that an additional means of reinforcing radar coverage was offered by the shoals lying off the northeast coast of the United States. It suggested use of radar platforms, like oil drilling rigs, to be emplanted on five shoals in water 50-100 feet deep, 75-100 miles offshore. The name of Texas tower was soon applied to what seemed a way of bypassing the problem of getting picket ships from the Navy. The ADC endorsed the concept, but as noted earlier, no action was taken until late 1953, when the Air Force included 5 Texas towers in its FY55 funding.


Progress in the development of the substance of a warning system during these years was not matched by improved organization. Throughout the entire period, organization was fragmented.

It will be recalled that the Army Air Forces established the ADC in March 1946, as a first organizational step. The National Security Act of 1947 did not clarify air defense responsibilities, but in the Key West Agreement of 1948 the Air Force was assigned the responsibility for air defense, and the Army and Navy agreed to provide forces as required. Each service was to perform its assigned mission “in accordance with the policies and procedures approved by the JCS.”

In the meantime, the ADC had been dissolved and merged, along with the Tactical Air Command, into the Continental Air Command in December 1948. However, because of the added impetus given air defense at the beginning of the 1950s, the ADC was reestablished in January 1951, with headquarters at Colorado Springs. In April 1951, the Army established an Antiaircraft Command, to be collocated with the ADC. The structure of the organizations was parallel and closely integrated for field operations.

From time to time, the Chief of Naval Operations issued policy statements regarding Navy participation in continental air defense, but no separate command organization was established. The two Sea Frontier commanders were still, in 1953, the principal operating link between the Navy and the Air Force on air defense matters.

The ADC was responsible to the Air Force, the Antiaircraft Command to the Army, and the Sea Frontier commanders to the Navy. Any plan prepared by the ADC, whether it involved solely an Air Force function or required participation by the Army and Navy, had first to be approved by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. As far as the Air Force portion of the plan was concerned, it had first to compete with the plans of other Air Force commands for its share of the Air Force budget. If the ADC plan did include the other services, the Air Force then had to bargain with them, and quite likely the JCS as well, to get the plan requirement fulfilled. This bargaining ran smoothly so long as no service interests were contradicted.

The Air Force had responsibility for the basic ground radar system for surveillance and control of all weapons, the fighter forces, and the initiation of warning to alert both military and civilian agencies. Within limits, the Air Force established requirements for all the services. In theory, the ADC, through the CSAF, could levy requirements on the other services for participation in a program. In practice, while tactical control of air defense forces of all three services was broadly executed by the ADC, there was no assurance that the ADC could obtain Army and Navy forces as required.

The same situation prevailed in the US-Canadian air defense relationship. There were two coordinated systems, rather than one integrated one.


By the end of 1953, 87 radar stations were operational in the US warning net. Of these, 75 represented the US permanent system, 8 were Canadian sites of the Radar Extension Program, and 4 were old LASHUP sites still in operation. Seventy-nine mobile and semimobile stations had been authorized, but would not be in operation until late 1954-early 1955.

The Secretary of the Air Force was able to report in July 1954:

The development of an air defense in depth has been greatly aided by increased radar operations by the Canadians and the resultant extension of our basic radar net. Improvements in the radar net have permitted greater emphasis to be placed on increasing the radar coverage and improving the overall system capability. A major step will be the ultimate transition from a manual system to a high capacity radar net capable of providing the essential elements of detection and control. Additional aircraft control and warning squadrons have been deployed to advanced overseas bases.

The activation of the first airborne early warning and control division of the Air Force on 1 May 1954 marked a major advance in air defense early warning and control systems. This division is being equipped with specially modified versions of the Super Constellation (RC-121). Eventually the Division will operate squadrons off both Atlantic and Pacific coasts on a round-the-clock basis.

At the end of 1953, therefore, the type of air defense system outlined by the commanding general of the ADC in 1946-47 was in place and operating. Plans for Improving range, responsiveness, and kill potential had been approved, but the necessary hardware delivery had not yet begun.

After seven years of consideration, the JCS authorized the creation of a Joint command to control air defense, directing in August 1954 the establishment at Colorado Springs of the Jointly manned Continental Air Defense Command, under the USAF as executive agent. The step was apparently not taken enthusiastically. In response to a request by the CJCS, Admiral Radford, on 16 October 1953, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force had submitted on 16 December a report on command arrangements for defense of the United States (included in JCS 1899/89) in which he concluded that no change was needed or advisable. The CJCS replied that a joint command was both necessary and advisable and recommended that the JCS approve in principle the establishment of a joint air defense command.

The years from 1947 to 1953 had seen the establishment of a system comparable to-that used in World War II. The extended public debate and the final NSC decision in October 1953 directed the creation of a wholly new system. This was the crucial decision. The steps taken in the previous eight years had been both discrete and incomplete. They did not represent a major coordinated effort to develop a continental defense system. The years 1954 and 1955 were to see the construction and integration of new elements of the system. However, the public debate continued over the efficacy of the air defense system, with Congress repeatedly expressing concern over the disproportionate resources being allocated to the strategic striking forces. The irony was that the delays in reaching the decision to create a wholly new system meant that the system was to be rendered obsolescent before it became operational.