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Architect of Air PowerGeneral Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force$

Brian D. Laslie

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780813169989

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813169989.001.0001

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Commander in Chief, North American Air Defense Command

Commander in Chief, North American Air Defense Command

(p.161) 10 Commander in Chief, North American Air Defense Command
Architect of Air Power

Brian D. Laslie

University Press of Kentucky

Abstract and Keywords

As Commander in Chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Not only in charge of air defense of the United States and Canada, Kuter also oversaw the development and building of the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center. Cheyenne Mountain would become synonymous with NORAD, and the United States Air Force. In his capacity as CINC NORAD, Kuter briefed President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson on the importance of continental defense during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He advocated extending the missile warning system to cover approaches by missiles from any direction. In this final position Kuter had not attained the zenith of his air force career, but oversaw a global operation that was unimaginable when he graduated from West Point. As Kuter had matured, so had the United States Air Force.

Keywords:   COLD WAR, Air Defense, NORAD, Cuban Missile Crisis

General Kuter’s final assignment was as the second commander in chief of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) from 1 August 1959 until his retirement on 30 July 1962. He was named to the position on 6 May. He followed General Earl E. Partridge. He had previously followed Partridge into command of the Far East Air Forces. For an officer who had spent so much of his career helping develop and organize the US Air Force, it was a fitting final assignment. For an officer whose first flight was in a biplane made of wood and canvas, it was the culmination of a career and marked the ascendency of modern air power. Kuter’s flying career began in the plains of Texas and ended in an operations center capable of receiving advance radar warning of threats and responding to them using advanced interceptor aircraft, should the Cold War unexpectedly turn hot. The air force he served was now capable of global response, and he was responsible for a theaterwide monitoring and response effort. The NORAD of Kuter’s tenure proved to be not so different from that organization’s modern incarnations. It was the front line of homeland defense, providing early warning in case of attack.1

General Laurence S. Kuter became the second commander in chief of NORAD on 1 August 1959. He also became commander in chief of the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). While CONAD was a joint organization comprising military members of all services, NORAD was a binational Canadian and American command backed by the weight of the NORAD Agreement. As PACAF commander in chief, Kuter had reported to the PACOM commander in chief. As the NORAD and CONAD commander in chief, he reported directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense. However, since NORAD was a binational command, he also had to report to the senior leaders of Canada’s military, the Canadian Chief of Staff Committee. He also had a Canadian (p.162) deputy commander, Air Marshal C. Roy Slemon. As the NORAD commander in chief, Kuter was now responsible for the air defense of both the United States and Canada. Under him was a headquarters staff of roughly six hundred people from each of the American and Canadian military services. Outside the headquarters was a command that touched as many as 200,000 military personnel located in as many as seven hundred locations and included supersonic fighter interceptors, defensive surface-to-air missiles, and a system of radars that ran in depth from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. This included the semiautomatic ground environment (SAGE) system, the distant early warning (DEW) line, the Mid-Canada line, and the Texas towers. The complexities of these systems require some descriptive details.2

In theory, NORAD operations detected any incoming aircraft first via the DEW line, a line of radars in northern Canada that stretched for twenty-four hundred miles. This included ship radars, which in conjunction with the land portion of the DEW line looked up and outward for threats. The US Navy also flew VW-2 Warning Stars, a variant of the EC-121 whose radars pointed down to detect any low-flying aircraft. In addition, there was also the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System in Alaska and Greenland, which provided coverage of both the Northwest and the Northeast. If an aircraft managed to avoid detection, the next line of defense was the mid-Canada line. If the radars of the DEW line or the mid-Canada line detected Soviet aircraft, defensive fighters would be launched to intercept them. Should all these procedures fail, there was a series of surface-to-air missile sites composed of US Army Nike missiles. Interestingly, Kuter recognized that this enormously complicated and far-flung system could fail, and he ended up spending time attempting to develop further missile defense systems, something he was not successful at despite appealing directly to the president.3

Oddly enough, Ent Air Force Base, the home to CONAD as well as NORAD, did not have any senior officer housing for Larry and Ethel. They had to procure off-base lodging. Kuter remembered that real estate agents lined up several “‘beer baron palaces,’ huge turn-of-the-century houses around Colorado Springs that nobody could possibly maintain” and required housing staff, which the general certainly did not have. Instead, Kuter again followed Partridge’s lead. For the duration of his command at NORAD, he and Ethel resided in an apartment suite at the Broadmoor Hotel. The five-star hotel, built in 1918, sits on the lower side of Cheyenne Mountain, not far from where construction on the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center was to begin during Kuter’s tenure as commander.4

(p.163) Although the pressures of being commander were great, the job certainly had its perks. Kuter felt that it was his responsibility to be “familiar with the advanced supersonic aircraft in the command and the problems of the pilots in handling these hot aircraft and firing their big weapons.” Besides, he argued: “It’s fun to fly in hot aircraft.” Therefore, he scheduled himself orientation flights in the F-101B Voodoo, the F-102 Delta Dagger, and the F-106 Delta Dart. Of course, as the four-star commander of NORAD, his flights became elaborate events.5

In October 1959, Kuter traveled to Tyndall Air Force Base, outside of Panama City, Florida, for a fighter weapons meet. He was to ride in the backseat of an F-101 to observe the launch of an unarmed Genie missile. There was a significant amount of preparation and, he noticed, an unusual amount of worry occurring as the squadron prepared to take its commander past the sound barrier. Safety procedures covered which levers to pull should ejection become necessary, where to place arms and legs in case of an ejection, and procedures for landing either on land or in the Gulf of Mexico. Kuter noted that all this probably mattered little because, depending on altitude and speed, there was a good chance that either the ejection or the atmospherics would kill him anyway.6

The Genie missile that was to be shot was an air-to-air missile containing a nuclear warhead designed to decimate incoming Soviet bomber formations; the test missile would of course have had its nuclear material removed. Representatives from both the McDonnell Douglas Company (builder of the F-101) and the Hughes Aircraft Company (builder of the Genie missile) were on hand as Kuter strapped into the backseat. He noticed, somewhat ruefully, that, by the time his aircraft taxied, more than one hundred spectators were near the aircraft.7

The first phase of the flight went without a hitch, and Kuter broke the sound barrier for the first time, rocketing up to Mach 1.5. However, the second phase did not go according to plan. The Genie missile to be fired from the F-101 was designed to be attached to—and normally fired from—an F-106. The McDonnell Douglas representatives rigged an attachment to ensure that the Genie would function properly when fired from the F-101. Sadly for all involved, it did not work. When the moment came for it to drop from the F-101, fire its rocket, and streak toward the target, the rigged system failed. Kuter recalled: “Did the Genie fire its own rocket engine and go hurtling on its deadly way to obliterate its high speed target? Not our Genie! She just tumbled on down into the Gulf of Mexico with about the same effect as the practice bombs that were dropped into the Chesapeake Bay from a Keystone bomber thirty years (p.164) earlier.” He continued: “[The] Douglas people were unhappy about the failure. [The NORAD commander in chief] was unhappy. This made the Douglas people exceedingly unhappy.”8

Kuter followed his F-101 flight with a ride in the Convair F-102 the next day. He again noticed ruefully that this day the massive number of McDonnell Douglas personnel had been replaced by an equal number of Convair employees. This time they shot an AIM-4 Falcon missile, and this time the firing went off without a hitch. The F-102’s radar illuminated the target, and the Falcon flew straight and true to its intercept point. Had he known what was to come, Kuter probably would have stopped his experience in modern jet interceptors there. A few days later, he traveled to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey for a ride in the “newest and hottest of them all,” the F-106.9

The F-106 was a Mach 2+ aircraft designed to intercept Soviet bombers as they came across the polar icecaps and into Canada. At the time of Kuter’s sortie, it held a world’s speed record at Mach 2.3, or 1,525 miles per hour. It was big, fast, and shaped like a sleek, flat, triangle. The F-106 flight was truly one to remember, but not in the way that Kuter had anticipated. For an officer whose first flight occurred in an Airco DH-4 with a four-hundred-horsepower engine, this was truly a special event. The F-106 was the newest and most modern jet of its day. It represented the pinnacle of all that could be achieved in interceptor development at the time. After a routine aerial interception of a B-57 Canberra, a light bomber aircraft that simulated a Soviet bomber on this mission, Kuter’s pilot received permission from the SAGE system controller to take the general out for a high-speed flight.10

After maneuvering away from any possible traffic in the air, the pilot lit the afterburner, and the F-106 climbed through the speed dial up to Mach 2. Kuter noted that this was no Keystone bomber. They were at Mach 2.1 and seven miles above the Earth, and the pilot passed the controls to Kuter in the backseat. At that precise moment, as Kuter took control of the aircraft, all hell broke loose. The F-106 entered into a violent phenomenon known as yaw buzz. This entailed a series of “successive shattering booms at very rapid succession.” The aircraft’s tail was being battered forcefully back and forth, causing a yawing motion from one direction to the other. In other words, it moved left while the nose moved to the right, only to almost instantaneously move in the other direction. This occurred so rapidly that the instrument panel in front of Kuter blurred together. He thought for sure the movement was violent enough for the aircraft to disintegrate in flight, and he knew that, at this (p.165) altitude and this speed, the results would not be conducive to his health. The pilot got the aircraft under control and the airspeed down to Mach 1.7, causing the yawing to stop. He called back to Kuter: “This is all right, General.” Kuter replied: “You may think so.”11

Kuter gave the following details of the cause of the incident:

In brief, the Yaw Buzz phenomenon can occur at very high speeds when the variable ramps in the jet engine’s air intake generate shock waves which impinge on other shock waves and set up a resonance among shock waves in and out of the long air ducts that run alongside the fuselage from forward air intakes to the reward jet engine. The booming is the successive impact of sonic booms only a foot or two outboard of the pilot and on either side. The pounding and yawing is the result of the great force of those rapidly alternating sonic booms. And with each boom swallowed by the engine, it is suddenly stalled.

The Convair company was well aware of yaw buzz but believed that the problem had been corrected. Luckily, the test pilot who initially encountered the yaw buzz was also Kuter’s pilot that day and knew how to regain positive control of the aircraft. This flight gave Kuter the distinction of being the sixty-eighth American to go twice the speed of sound and the oldest person to experience the yaw buzz phenomenon.12

Developments in Aerospace Defense

Long gone were the days of propeller-driven bombers and piston-engine fighters operating from austere locations in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Pacific islands. Kuter’s NORAD monitored threats and prepared to respond to them with modern, technologically advanced aircraft. Those threats now came in the form not only of bombers but also of ballistic-missile attack. Developments in Soviet bombers and air-to-surface missiles necessitated a newer, faster, longer-range interceptor. As the speed of Soviets’ bombers increased and the distance their air-to-surface missiles could travel also increased, the interception of the enemy became that much more complex. As speed and range increase, time of response inevitably decreases.13

The long-range interceptor program was the next step in the century series of US Air Force fighter-interceptor aircraft. This developed into the (p.166) XF-108 Rapier. Kuter considered this to be the “first real breakthrough in solving the problem of long range interceptions of enemy aircraft.” The XF-108, as opposed to the other century series interceptors, was designed from the beginning to have two of everything: two engines, two men, and two or more air-to-air missiles (either conventional or nuclear). It never flew. Shrinking budgets caused the program’s cancellation in September 1959. This deterred neither Kuter at NORAD nor the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Air Force general Nathan Twining, who continued to place the now-canceled program into requirements documents. In November, Kuter also put the XF-108 into objective plans detailing the force NORAD wanted to have in the future.14

In 1960, Kuter testified before a Senate subcommittee on military construction. He had previously mentioned not wanting to take either the chief or the vice chief job to avoid testifying, but as a commander in chief he had no choice in the matter. Kuter explained to the subcommittee that NORAD had agreed to decrease the numbers of interceptors already in the inventory, including F-101s, F-102s, and F-106s, to clear space and funds for the required F-108. He also recommended to the air force chief of staff, General Thomas White, that he do everything in his power to get the program back on track. White agreed, mainly because he was now caught between Kuter pushing up from NORAD and Twining pushing down from the Joint Chiefs office. However, aircraft advancements were moving faster than the air force’s acquisitions system. Kuter noted: “Since the last [objective plan] was published we have positive evidence of Soviet development and test of a supersonic bomber.” The XF-108 was now not high enough or fast enough to intercept the Soviet threat. As Kuter continued on at NORAD, he and the air force moved forward with two separate interceptors: the improved manned interceptor and the advanced manned interceptor. By 1960, the XF-108 program ceased to be mentioned. The development of Soviet bombing doctrine and Soviet “Dash” bombers, equivalent to the air force’s B-58 Hustler and the technological advancement of these bombers also stalled the advancement of further interceptors. The air force could not keep up with faster interceptors and moved to focusing on survivability of sites for those Soviet aircraft and bombs that slipped through the net in the opening act of World War I.15

Kuter, long the proponent of Air University developing doctrine for the US Air Force, sang a different tune when it came to development of joint doctrine. He now wanted the requirement for written doctrine to be moved from a service function to the Joint Chiefs: “It seemed apparent, General Kuter said, that, at least in his command, development of (p.167) combat doctrine for the accomplishment of a military function should rest with the organization charged with that function. CINCONAD was charged with the responsibility for unified air defense of the U.S., but the development of doctrine for unified air defense was not his responsibility.” The responsibility for doctrine development remained at the service level, meaning for the air force Air University. Since the air force could not get another advanced interceptor and Kuter could not affect doctrine, both organizations tunneled into the ground, in one case, quite literally.16

The Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center

As threats and technologies advanced, NORAD slowly transitioned from response to survivability. Kuter said: “We have developed the philosophy that … communications must be equally as hard as the environment that it serves.” To that end, the Joint Chiefs and the air force looked for ways to strengthen NORAD against attack. The decision to place a new combat operations center inside Cheyenne Mountain was made in March 1959, before Kuter became commander, but he was instrumental in the development of the project.17

Kuter oversaw the development and initial building of what was probably the most visible symbol of America’s Cold War preparations: the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center. Even in the twenty-first century, whenever NORAD is mentioned, Cheyenne Mountain is usually the first thing to come to mind. So synonymous did the two become that, in the 1983 film Wargames, NORAD was used interchangeably with operations center. The operations center, the mountain surrounding it, and the organization NORAD blurred into a single entity. When Kuter took over command of NORAD, he also took over oversight of the Cheyenne Mountain project. He was asked to keep the program on time and under budget, two things that had not yet been accomplished.18

An official groundbreaking ceremony was held at the construction site on Friday, 16 June 1961. General Lee, Air Defense Command commander, and General Kuter, both wearing their respective commands’ decorated hard hats, simultaneously set off the symbolic dynamite charges as General Lemnitzer of the Joint Chiefs looked on. The cost of the combat operations center, including all construction and equipment, was then estimated to be $66 million. Excavation began on 19 June 1961, and it took just over a year to hollow out the 9,565-foot mountain, but Kuter was not pleased with the initial design and asked for a “larger hole.”19

(p.168) By the middle of 1962, excavation was nearing completion. All that remained was debris cleanup, the installation of more wire mesh, and some minor tunneling. Following this, construction would begin on the internal buildings and supporting functions, including the reservoirs and power generators and, of course, the two massive twenty-five-ton blast doors that could seal the facility off from the outside world. All this would be done after Kuter’s retirement, however.20

Final Act of Service

General Laurence Kuter believed strongly in his right to present his opinions to his superiors, all the way up to the president of the United States. While not getting any traction on his missile defense ideas, he requested permission to share his views with President Kennedy. He believed that he had failed to convince the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of his position and wanted to provide his perspective to the president. It represented a perfect example of the civilian-military relationship.

To ensure that he was not stepping out of line Kuter requested that either Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara or Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs General Lyman Lemnitzer be present as well. On 8 February 1962, he briefed President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson on the adequacy of continental defense. Kennedy sat in his favorite rocking chair, while Johnson and Kuter sat across from each other on the couches in the center of the room. Kuter advocated extending the existing warning systems to cover approaches by missiles from any direction. Of the utmost importance, however, he urged, was the installation of the Nike-Zeus ABM system, at least around Washington and major ballistic missile and bomber bases. He closed his discussion by telling Kennedy: “As your field commander charged with the responsibility for the aerospace defense of North America, I most strongly recommend that the growing gap between our defenses and the Soviet offensive capability be closed. To close it our missile warning system must be extended to cover approaches by missiles from any direction.”21

The meeting lasted an hour, and Kuter concluded that the president “had heard [him] out.” The president thanked him and showed him out of the office with the chairman. Kuter expressed regret that he did not seem to have made much of an impact. The meeting did not sway anyone’s position and did not result in any major developments in policy, (p.169) but that was not Kuter’s goal, and he did not pursue the matter further. In an article years later, he said: “Even with sincere respect for the judgement of his immediate superiors and with loyalty to them, a commander’s sense of duty and obligation to his organization and its mission may cause him to request a hearing from the highest authority. However, if rejected by the country’s final governmental authority, he has fully met his duty obligation and officially his case is closed.” It was enough for him to have briefed the president and presented his position.22

On 30 July 1962, Larry Kuter retired. The day after, the entire DEW line from Greenland to the Aleutians was completed as the final four sites of the Greenland extension (DEW East) became operational. During Kuter’s time at NORAD, the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center was begun and excavation completed and the North American defense apparatus in the form of the DEW and Mid-Canada lines brought into full operational capability.23

On his retirement, Kuter had spent thirty-five years in uniform: first in the US Army, then the US Army Air Corps, then the US Army Air Forces, and finally the US Air Force. He started out as a field artillery officer only to leave that branch behind, but not for the promise that the air corps held for his career. His first fifteen years of service saw him rise slowly from second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel. He was a general officer for the remainder of his twenty more years of service. This placed him in that small cadre of air force pioneers of the Second World War generation who wore general’s stars the majority of their careers. This included his contemporaries Curtis LeMay, Lauris Norstad, and Hoyt Vandenberg. Each of these men played a unique and noteworthy role in the development of air power and the air force.

Kuter said of retiring from the air force: “I would have loved to stay in. Without any question, every day that I ever had in the Air Force was a day that, if I had been a rich man, I would have paid a lot to be able to do those things. I didn’t want to leave at all.” There was nothing left for him to do, however, no position save chief or vice chief.24


After leaving the air force, Larry and Ethel moved into an apartment in New York City, and Larry went to work at Pan Am World Airways as a vice president. He stayed in this position from 1962 to 1970, during which time his biggest contribution was aiding in the development of (p.170) the 747. Several airlines had unsuccessfully attempted to recruit him in the aftermath of World War I, but in mandatory retirement he felt that he was too young to hang up working entirely. He also continued his proclivity for writing and in 1973 published a second book, The Great Gamble, about the development of the 747. Larry and Ethel’s annual Christmas letters, preserved in some of the thirty-five scrapbooks that Ethel kept of their adventures, showed that they traveled extensively as a result of Larry’s work at Pan Am. In 1963, they visited the Far East and Europe. The next year found them in Hawaii, Afghanistan, and Alaska but also spending time with their grandchildren, Larry, Robin, and Don, and exploring New York City. Also, Larry’s mother passed away in 1964 at age eighty-two. The world traveling continued throughout the mid-to late 1960s and Larry’s time at Pan Am. There is a picture from Christmas 1968 with Larry sitting on the couch and two of his grandchildren on the floor watching television. The photograph is labeled “Astronauts send greetings from the moon.” At that moment, Frank Borman, Bill Anders, and Jim Lovell were in Apollo 8 orbiting the moon.25

Retirement did not come without its commitments, however. Kuter’s analytic skills—always in demand throughout his career—were put to use again. In the late 1960s, he was called to serve, along with General Mark Clark, Admiral David McDonald, and George Ball, on the Pueblo Committee. In 1968, the USS Pueblo, an intelligence-gathering vessel for the US Navy, was captured and boarded by North Korean troops who claimed that the vessel was in North Korean waters. This committee was not established to place blame or to “fix responsibility for the incident,” only to “derive lessons from this incident that might result in more secure and effective intelligence gathering operations in the future.” The committee’s report was issued to President Lyndon Johnson on 7 February 7 1968 and Kuter returned to work at Pan Am. Although Kuter knew President Johnson from his time as NORAD commander, this committee work now meant that he had worked directly for or with every president since Franklin Roosevelt.26

Final retirement from Pan Am came in 1970. Larry and Ethel Kuter now filled their days with more traveling. They left New York City, and, after plans to move into a new apartment in Colorado Springs fell through, they moved to Naples, Florida. Although their love for traveling continued to take them to new locations, they were finally settled in the last home they would have together. There they resided for the next decade. They both earned basic seamanship certificates from the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Larry and Ethel Kuter also played golf—a lot of it. (p.171) Larry took to the golf course whenever he had the opportunity, and his travels during the course of his years with Pan Am did not change this. He played in the Far East, in Europe, and in Kabul, Afghanistan. He played with Arnold Palmer, and he wrote articles for golfing magazines.27

The scrapbooks that Ethel produced throughout her and Larry’s life together also show one other aspect of Larry Kuter previously not mentioned. He was rarely without a cigarette in his hand. He never mentions when he first started smoking, but certainly from World War I forward he was always smoking. This was completely normal for the time. In fact, it would have been more unusual had he not smoked, but even into his later years he always had a cigarette in his hand, even in casual photographs, at least when he was not holding a golf club. As a result, he developed emphysema.


(1.) “HQ, Air University Press Release.” The North American Air Defense Command did not the North American Aerospace Defense Command until the early 1980s.

(2.) “From PACAF to NORAD,” folder 2, box 2, MS-18, Addendum 2.

(3.) “From PACAF to NORAD”; “A Brief History of NORAD,” 13 December 2013, NORAD-USNORTHCOM History Office.

(4.) Phone Directory, 1962, NORAD-USNORTHCOM History Office; Laurence Kuter Oral History, vol. 1, p. 583.

(p.200) (8.) Ibid.

(13.) “NORAD’s Quest for Nike Zeus and a Long Range Interceptor,” 1 July 1962, NORAD-USNORTHCOM History Office.

(14.) Marcelle Size Knaack, Encyclopedia of US Air Force Aircraft and Missile Systems, vol. 1, Post–World War II Fighters, 1945–1973 (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1978), 331; “NORAD’s Quest for Nike Zeus and a Long Range Interceptor.”

(15.) “NORAD’s Quest for Nike Zeus and a Long Range Interceptor”; “NORAD/CONAD Historical Summary,” July–December 1961, 74, NORAD-USNORTHCOM History Office.

(16.) “NORAD/CONAD Historical Summary,” July–December 1960, 48.

(17.) “NORAD/CONAD Historical Summary,” January–June 1961, 64–65.

(18.) “NORAD’s Underground Combat Operations Center, 1956–1966,” January 1956, 15, NORAD-USNORTHCOM History Office.

(20.) “NORAD/CONAD Historical Summary,” January–June 1962, 46; “Historical Review of North American Aerospace Defense, 1946–1970,” 1 October 1970, 55.

(21.) Letter from Larry Kuter to Possum Hansell, 24 January 1973, folder 23, box 8, MS-18, Addendum 1; Laurence S. Kuter, “JFK and LBJ Consider Aerospace Defense,” Aerospace Historian, March 1979, 1–4. The Aerospace Historian article indicates that day of the meeting was 8 February, and Kuter’s letter to Hansell gives it as 11 February. I have chosen the former as the more likely.

(22.) Letter from Larry Kuter to Possum Hansell, 24 January 1973, folder 23, box 8, MS-18, Addendum 1; Kuter, “JFK and LBJ Consider Aerospace Defense.”

(23.) “A Brief History of NORAD.”

(24.) Laurence Kuter Oral History, vol. 1, p. 609.

(26.) “Pueblo Committee Report to the President,” 7 February 1968, NSA, GWU. This report is also available at the Library of President Lyndon Johnson.