By Brian D. Laslie

I was recently perusing an article by Robert Farley, author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force when I came across something that made me stop and pause. Now, before we go any further, I want to note that I consider Farley a colleague and friend of mine. We may disagree on certain roles and missions of air power, but we get along swimmingly, right Rob? Anyway, on to my pause. In his recent article ‘The Worst Fighter Aircraft of all time’ published on War is Boring, Farley stated that:

Tactical Air Command tried to resolve this problem by making itself as “strategic” as possible, focusing on interceptors that could catch and kill Soviet bombers, and also on fighters heavy enough to deliver nuclear weapons.

Farley is not entirely wrong, but he does miss one key – some might say pedantic – piece. Tactical Air Command (TAC) did build itself as a mini-Strategic Air Command (SAC), something I mentioned in my book, but it was the responsibility of Air Defense Command (ADC) to intercept Soviet bombers as they came across the North Pole.

It seems that this was more omission than a mistake, because ADC has, in a way, become the forgotten command. When Cold War air power in the United States is discussed, it focuses almost exclusively on TAC and SAC (what we might call Air Combat Command and Global Strike Command today, but that is a different argument).[1] When the Cold War kicked off, or gradually escalated as the case may be, the American military, and the newly minted United States Air Force (USAF), in particular, started planning for and developing a ‘defensive air shield,’ to be used to locate, track, target, and destroy the incoming Soviet bombers.[2] When USAF celebrated its Independence Day in September 1947, as a separate service, it was understood that the new service would take the lead in defending the homeland from aerial bombardment.

Thus enters ADC; its history predates USAF. The command was established in 1946, and it became a wholly separate and equal Major Command in 1951 at Ent Air Force Base, Colorado. Subordinate USAF units were divided into different regions, each with a section of the United States to protect.[3] In 1954, the other military services were brought into the fold, and a new a multi-service unified command was created: the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), but ADC continued to act as the Air Force arm of this new joint command, or what is known in 2016 as a Geographic Combatant Command (GCC). Included in the CONAD mix were Army Anti-Aircraft Command, and Naval Forces CONAD. The late 1950s also saw the United States and Canada working closely together in the realm of air defence of North America leading to the creation of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in 1958. The two countries, united by the NORAD agreement, integrated their headquarters and operated together but both CONAD in the United States and the Royal Canadian Air Force Air Defense Command remained independent commands. The Commander-in-Chief of NORAD (CINCNORAD) was also the commander of CONAD.

Scramble by the 71st Fighter Interceptor Squadron c. 1960s (Source: United States Air Force)

USAF leaders, most notably Generals Benjamin Chidlaw and Earle Partridge, guided the planning and programs during the mid-1950s and were largely responsible for how the ADC operated. USAF provided the interceptor aircraft and planned the upgrades needed over the years. USAF also developed and operated the extensive early warning radar sites and systems which acted as ‘tripwire’ against air attack. In addition to the radar sites in Canada, the US Navy element, now Naval Forces NORAD, operated radars and picket ships on both the East and West coast. The complexity of the NORAD mission would eventually be controlled from inside the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. In a theoretical scenario, Soviet bombers would be detected by one of the early warning lines or picket ships and the interceptors launched.

Map illustrating the coverage provided by NORAD in the 1960s (Source: United States Air Force)

These aircraft came in many forms, most notably the famed (infamous) Century Series: North American F-100 Super Sabre (more commonly called the Hun), Mcdonnell F-101 Voodoo, Convair F-102 Delta Dagger, Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, Republic F-105 Thunderchief (the Thud), and the Convair F-106 Delta Dart. This entire series of aircraft were a mix of Fighter-Bomber and interceptors. TAC used these aircraft (mainly in Europe) as nuclear delivery vehicles: the F-100, F-101, F-105, but it was ADC that used the F-101, F-102, F-104, and F-106 as interceptors to stop the Soviet bombers. They were designed to take-off and be guided by ground control to Soviet bombers, which they would engage and destroy by air-to-air missile or the air-to-air Genie nuclear missile to take out entire bomber streams.

Of course, no series of fighter intercepts was going to be perfect and the interceptor force was back dropped by a heavy integrated air defense system (IADS) from both USAF Bomarc missiles (fired in advance of the interceptors) and the re-designated Army Air Defense Command of Nike and Zeus surface-to-air missiles surrounding government and military sites throughout the United States. While we normally attribute IADS as a Soviet way of defence, it was used extensively throughout the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

Clockwise from bottom: F-104 Starfighter, F-100 Super Sabre, F-102 Delta Dagger, F-101 Voodoo, and F-105 Thunderchief. These ‘Century Series’ aircraft were all designed primarily as interceptors (Source: Wikimedia)

It is not surprising that on Farley’s list of best and worst aircraft, none of these interceptors (F-101, 102, 104, 106) is to be found; they are not really fighters and were never meant to dogfight. It is almost as if an entire generation of aircraft and a whole command have been relegated to the trivial pursuit section of history. If this interests you and you have got thirty minutes to waste, enjoy this Army Air Defense Command (ARADCOM) instructional video from 1961 and if you have not had your fill of Air Defense and Freedom, there is also 1963’s The Shield of Freedom. ADC, by then the Aerospace Defense Command, finally inactivated on March 31, 1980.[4]

Header Image: Convair F-106A Delta Dart firing a Douglas AIR-2 Genie missile (Source: United States Air Force)

[1] According to the Air Force Historical Research Agency, the USAF currently has 14 inactivated major commands,

[2] NORAD and US Northern Command Office of History, ‘A Brief History of NORAD,’ p. 4

[3] Lineage and honours of ADC can be found at the AFHRA:

[4] The USAF does not ‘deactivate’ commands, rather they are ‘inactivated’ should the need ever arise for them to be reactivated.

2 thoughts on “Research Note – The Forgotten Command: Air Defense Command and the Defense of North America

  1. From approximately 1952 until 1960 the primary ADC interceptor was the F-89 Scorpion which you omitted from your list of interceptors. The f-89 was initially armed with rockets in each wing pod. In 1957 they were armed with the nuclear air to air “Genie” missile. The f-89 was the “first all weather interceptor”deployed by the USAF. It had a crew of 2; pilot and radar intercept officer. There were ADC F-89 squadrons all along the northern boundaries of the U S plus Greenland, Iceland, etc. Also there was an F-89 squadron at each SAC base.
    I enjoyed your article, but you needed to do better research on the ADC. Obliviously you have forgotten the interceptor that kept the nation safe during the 50’s.
    Bob Frazier
    15th FIS, Davis Monthan AFB


    1. Bob, Thanks for the note. I admit to somewhat intentionally leaving the F-89 off of the list (along with a few others), as I wanted to focus on the century series in the article. I’m working on a book now that includes a chapter on the development of jets and air defense and I promise the F-89 makes an appearance there! No slight intended! Cheers… Brian


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