Thursday, November 1, 2012

Operation Falling Leaves


As the potentially catastrophic superstorm Sandy bore down, and there was a sense of impending doom and anxiety in the air, I reflected on an event that took place fifty years ago – in late October 1962, when there was a similar sense of impending doom during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  

While the crisis engulfed the entire nation, threatened the world, and has been extensively analyzed, the critical role played by the Morristown NJ radar station is ignored in most histories of the event.

When the crisis began, with the identity of the Soviet ICBMs in Cuba confirmed by U2 photos, the US military had no way of determining if those missiles were ever launched because all of the radars were focused north on the USSR.

If the Soviets launched their nuclear missiles against the United States from Russia, the radar system could detect the launch of the missiles, and give the military commanders and the president up to fifteen minutes to arrange a response, scramble bombers, prepare defensives and launch a counter-attack. Since the major missile threat against the continental United States was only expected from the Soviet Union, all of the radars were aimed north, as there were no expectations of such an attack from the South. 

When nuclear missiles were discovered in Cuba it was quickly determined that the only radar that could detect a missile launched in Cuba was the Morristown station, which most people knew as the giant golf-ball like, white geodesic domed radar just off the NJ Turnpike.

Two other stations, in Alabama and Texas, were also reconfigured to provide back up, redundant confirmation, but they were not dependable and were not fully operational during the entire crisis.

Code named FALLING LEAVES, the Cuban Missile Early Warning System (CMEWS) consisted of the radar station at Moorestown, NJ, and the two makeshift stations at Laredo, TX, and Thomasville, AL. that maintained hotline links to the Pentagon, NORAD, and Strategic Air Command.

As detailed in the book “The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons,” Scott D. Sagan (1993) devotes more than a dozen pages to the topic, and describes Operation Falling Leaves as a "quick fix" plug of the radar missile defense system when it was realized that all North American missile radars were aimed north, and that there was no system in place to warn of a ballistic missile launched from Cuba, except the Morristown, New Jersey facility.

While the system functioned well enough to fulfill its mission, it was not without incident as Sagan’s research shows how a US ballistic missile test launched during the crisis in Florida was almost misidentified by the RCA Moorestown radar crews, and could have sparked a nuclear exchange. It resulted in a change in policy and a postponement of all such missile test launches during the remainder of the crisis.

It is also hard to believe that the military would intentionally try to fool our own missile defense guys in a Northwoods type false flag incident and spark a full fledged nuclear war in which nobody wins, but with the release of the Northwoods documents, that is certainly a possibility. 

In The Limits of Safety, Scott Douglas Sagan writes, “The safety record seems quite extraordinary however, with the most hazardous technology of all: nuclear weapons. There has never been an accidental, unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon, much less escalation to accidental nuclear war. Why? How have imperfect humans, working in imperfect organizations and operating imperfect machines, been so successful? Have the military organizations that maintain custody and control over U.S. nuclear weapons done something extremely intelligent to avoid accidents? Have they been designed in such a way to produce reliable safety? Or have they merely been extremely lucky?”

“The point is especially obvious for anyone who tries to do historic research with records kept at massive collections like the National Archives: theories are absolutely necessary to tell you where to look for evidence.  (The final scene of the movies Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the ark of the covenant is slowly wheeled into a mammoth government warehouse, conveys a sense of how effective historical objects are hidden in the recesses of the archives.) Using the theories discussed in chapter 1 as guides, I was able to explore the historical records of the U.S. military, searching for clues.” 

“The literature on the Cuban missile crisis is immense, but no scholar has previously studied the emergency radar warning system, which the United States deployed on a crash basis in October 1962 after the Soviet missiles were discovered. A study of the activities at the three radars used in this Operation Falling Leaves appeared to me, however, to be a very useful way of comparing the strengths of the two theoretical perspectives, since these theories provide contrasting expectations about the warning system’s reliability.”

“These historical records confirmed the more optimistic view of the high reliability theorists. They reported on no serious false warning incidents occurring during the crisis. Indeed, the Falling Leaves after-action report recommended that the emergency radar system be set up again if there were ever another superpower crisis.” 

 “The first case is a study of a series of false warnings emanating from the emergency ballistic missile warning system that were activated in October 1962 to detect missile launches from Cuba…When the Soviet missiles in Cuba were discovered by the United States, a serious deficiency became immediately obvious: despite the enormous sums spent on the BMEWS radars facing north, the United States had absolutely no capability in place to detect a missile launched from the south, from Cuba.”

 “Washington policymakers had simply never anticipated that the Soviets would outflank the BMEWS radars in this manner. The seriousness of this gap in missile warning coverage was immediately recognized by the Strategic Air Command, which required warning in order to launch vulnerable bombers into the air to avoid destruction, and by the Executive Committee (ExComm) of the National Security Council, which was also informed of the problem. In response, the air force quickly initiated an emergency Cuban Missile Early Warning System (CMEWS) program, code-named Falling Leaves, to provide tactical warning in the event that the Soviet missiles in Cuba were launched.”

”Three radars in the United States were utilized in the Falling Leaves emergency warning program…To provide independent and redundant sensors, the Air Defense Command also immediately proceeded to alter two other radars and turned them to face Cuba. At Laredo, Texas, an Air Force MPS-14 space-tracking radar was shifted to the ballistic missile warning mission after real time radar display equipment was sent from the Sheyma, Alaska, sensor site. The Laredo radar became operational on the night of October 28-9, and was considered to be a backup system for the more capable Moorestown radar. It too had to overcome significant operational problems. Several outages were caused by lack of spare parts and a failure to send the maintenance instructions for the display equipment sent from Sheyma. Inadequately trained contractor crews manned the radar control center throughout the crisis. Most importantly, there was no capability for a rapid and accurate test of the Laredo system.”

 “The third Falling Leaves site was in Thomasville, Alabama, where an Air Defense Command Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system FPS-35 radar (a radar normally used for aircraft detection and identification) was modified to provide a backup ballistic missile warning capability. Numerous outages occurred at Thomasville, however, due to lack of spare parts and maintenance instructions for the modified equipment, and the radar was therefore not operating for over 16 percent of the emergency period. Inadequate secure communications capability between Thomasville and higher headquarters also existed for the first days of operation. Although the telephone “hotline” between the site and NORAD Command Control and Display Facility (CC&DF) enabled instantaneous verbal reports, all classified messages had to be sent over a jerry-rigged network, which took over two hours to deliver messages between Air Defense Command Headquarters and Thomasville.”

 “…These log books entries, supplemented by air force unit histories and interviews with the key participants in the Falling Leaves operations, paint a much more alarming picture of the CMEWS project than that which exists in the official after-action reports. Indeed, these documents demonstrate that at least three false warning incidents occurred during the Cuban crisis.”

Spoofing Ourselves

 “The first incident was a relatively minor ‘scare’ at the Moorestown radar site, the cause of which was quickly discovered and soon fixed. In 1962, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy regularly flight-tested ICBMs, IRBMs (intermediate range ballistic missiles) into the Atlantic Ocean out of Patrick Air Force Base on Cape Canaveral and adjacent ocean areas off Florida. NASA also regularly launched space vehicles and satellites from Cape Canaveral.”

 “A small number of these launches went directly over the island of Cuba and officials at the Department of Defense quickly recognized the potential for such missile launches to be misinterpreted by the Cubans or Russians in Cuba. It was possible, for example, that Soviet or Cuban warning systems might misidentify a test missile as an attack. An errant or malfunctioning rocket could be particularly provocative if it hit Cub during the crisis. In fact, as recently as November 1960, portions of a Thor missile that malfunctioned in flight during a satellite launch, had impacted in Cuba, reportedly killing a cow and causing strong diplomatic protests from the Castro government. The Pentagon therefore ordered that any missile launches whose trajectory went over Cuba would be postponed, a decision that fortunately stopped a scheduled Thor missile launch that would have passed over the island on October 24.

”The postponement of this potentially provocative missile launch demonstrates that the Pentagon officials were cognizant of the danger that these missile launch operations in Florida might create a false warning for Soviet and Cuban forces in Cuba. They treated the danger seriously and took immediate action to solve the problem. In the haste to deploy an emergency U.S. missile warning system against the Soviet missiles in Cuba, however, no one apparently thought about the possibility that a U.S. missile launch might be misidentified by the U.S. Falling Leaves radars.”

“No one had arranged for the CMEWS radars to receive timely advance notification of all U.S. missile launches from Florida, most of which (like the ICBM tested at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California discussed in chapter 2) continued according to a schedule during the crisis.”

 “The danger of a false warning was greater than anticipated during the first days of the Cuban missile crisis because the redundant sensors, which had been designed into the system to provide overlap and confirmation capabilities, did not become operational simultaneously. It was considered critical to get at least some warning system in place as soon as possible. The Moorestown radar was the first of the Falling Leaves sites to become operational, achieving initial capability against Cuba on October 24.”

 “The second sensor site, at Laredo, did not become operational until October 28. 30 On the afternoon of October 26, however, before the second sensor site was available to provide redundant warning information, a Titan II ICBM was fired on a test launch toward the south Atlantic.”

 “The Moorestown radar operators had not been anticipating this missile launch when, suddenly, it appeared on their display screens. Because of the extremely close range of Soviet missiles in Cuba to the United States, the Falling Leaves operators expected to receive only five minutes of warning and perhaps less, between detection of a medium-range ballistic in flight and its impact in the southern United States. The radar operators recall in interviews that they were, quite naturally, shocked when a missile suddenly appeared on their radar screens. It took a few tense minutes, in the crisis control room at Moorestown, for air force duty officers and contract civilian personnel to recognize, as their radar began to show the missile heading southeast, that this was ‘a friendly’ missile with no impact point predicted inside the United States.”

”The Air Defense Command immediately acknowledged the potential for serious false warnings here. Colonel William Watts, of the 9th Aerospace Division, flew down to Patrick Air Force Base to explain the problem to officials there and to ensure that advance notification of U.S. missile launches would be sent to the CMEWS radar sites.”

 “On October 27, the commander of the Air Force Missile Test Center further informed the higher headquarters that “the test schedule would continue, with the prelaunch announcement policy changed so as to avoid international misunderstanding or ‘inadvertent action.’”

 “After that procedural change, there were apparently no further alarms caused by U.S. ICBM launches. The Moorestown operators were sufficiently concerned to recommend that in the future “a procedure be established to allow an immediate ‘on call’ reaction for launch and final count-down information, (to) be provided (to) all sensors.”

 “There is both good news and bad news in the history of this brief incident. The good news is that the system worked even without redundancy: the Moorestown radar by itself was able to discriminate between a hostile missile launch toward the U.S. and a friendly launch toward the Eastern Test Range impact area. Moreover, rapid organizational learning took place: a potential for false warning problems was recognized and the operational procedures for integrating U.S. missile launches with the Falling Leaves sites were adjusted immediately. Imagination also helped; all missile test launches over Cuba were canceled.”


  1. I enjoyed your article, but May I ask why you think the Thomasville location had more trouble than any of the other locations. From what I have heard all of the stations suffered from limited up time. It was my understanding that the Thomasville location had a better view of airspace over Cuba? I believe my father solved one of the main technical difficulties after the modification. Increased power in the magnetron was shorting out. He moved something or better insulated some components and the reliability was much higher then. During the crisis from my knowledge. I would love to speak with you more about this. Chad.bowers@gmail dot com.


    I was also stationed at Tville (Sept 61 to Sept 64) I was also an A2C and worked at the GATR (Ground to Air Transmitters and Receivers) site down at the intersection of hi-way 5 and 43.

    We had several spooky incidents during this same period. One of our security people took a shot at a mule in the cornfield outside our compound. It wouldn't halt .

    I have one of the shot thyrotron tubes you used. i made a lamp out of it years ago.

    Several of our maintenance people were sent to Key West during this operation.

    It always griped me that the radar station in New Jersey always got credit for being the "only one" capable of watching traffic over Cuba during this crisis. As we found out later we were the one that did most of the work;

    I also worked with the ECM B-52's flying missions against your FPS 35.

    Good to read your article to

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  3. I was one of the radar operators assigned to Thomasville from October to December of 1962 was assigned TDY from Aiken AFS SC. We did have one false launch while I was on duty but it was quickly recognized as false. The unit I was assigned to was "Task Force Able" 9th Aerospace Defense Division commanded by Lt. Colonel Kenneth Gordon. To the best of my memory the computers at Lincoln Labs at Hanscomb AFB Massachusetts were used to compute launch and impact locations.