View Full Version : Memories Fade, But Air Defense Mission Goes On

10-12-03, 08:45 AM

Memories Fade, But Air Defense Mission Goes On

By Paul Connors

In the two years since the terrorist attacks on the United States, the politicos on both sides of the spectrum have demanded investigations into how such an event could have ever happened here.

To be sure, there are probably as many reasons (and lame excuses) as Carter has pills. There are pundits and writers who were quick to blame the current administration as well as those who continue to slam its predecessor. But at this moment in time, casting blame does not undo the incredible damage to the nation, the economy, our collective psyche and does little to assuage the grief of those Americans who lost loved ones.

On the other hand, failing to conduct a thorough investigation and releasing its findings denies Americans their right to know the truth.

One important fact that everyone should know is that prior to the 9/11 attacks, the Air Force, under direction of the Department of Defense, was giving serious thought to the final dismantling of the already pathetic air defense coverage of the continental United States.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, in another misguided attempt to run the military like a business and save additional funding, had decided that the continental land mass of the United States no longer needed manned fighter aircraft to patrol the nation’s aerial borders. He had issued orders to the Air Force to begin the process of undoing the air defense network located at the four corners of the country and to return those dedicated air defense fighter wings (all belonging to the Air National Guard) back to the general purpose fighter force.

Some background: Continental air defense for decades has been the responsibility the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, a joint U.S./Canadian command headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo. Two subordinate regional commands are known as Continental NORAD Region (CONR) and Canadian NORAD Region (CANR). The domestic U.S. command responsible for overseeing the dedicated fighter alert mission is First Air Force, with headquarters at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.

First Air Force and its subordinate fighter wings today are all part of the Air National Guard as are the air defense sectors located at the corners of the nation. When First Air Force completed its transition from an active duty Air Force organization with a 24/7-defense posture to an ANG-staffed and commanded organization, the mission did not change. American and Canadian military personnel still provided “dedicated” air defense capabilities for the North American continent.

They did so with a combination of Air National Guard, active Air Force, Army, Navy and Canadian personnel. The actual fighter units, all ANG units, were equipped with F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons. When command of First Air Force shifted from an active-duty Air Force general to an ANG general (on active duty), there was absolutely no difference in the quality of coverage or in the professionalism of the people dedicated to protecting the U.S. and Canada from aerial attack.

However, defense budget cuts during the 1990s had the adverse effect of reducing the number of dedicated air defense units from 10 in 1997 to just four in 2001. The Air Force returned the ANG fighter wings removed from air defense alert missions to the general-purpose fighter force, where they re-acquired the air-to-mud mission, while retaining the ability to fly missions as pure fighter aircraft.

On Jan. 21, 2001, as the Bush administration replaced the Clinton administration, many members of the armed forces believed that the new president’s campaign promise of “help” had arrived. They were mistaken.

Rumsfeld, believing the air defense mission to be nothing more than an obsolete carry-over from the Cold War, ordered it dismantled.

The new SecDef ordered the inactivation of First Air Force, the CONUS NORAD Region and the four regional air defense sectors. He directed the transfer to other roles of the ANG fighter units responsible for guarding America’s skies.

The directive to close these dedicated air defense organizations was actually in progress on the morning of 9/11.

With the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon underway, alert fighter aircraft from the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 119th Fighter Wing (located in Fargo, ND), but with an alert detachment at Langley AFB, Va. and the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard (based at Atlantic City, NJ) scrambled to carry out combat air patrols over New York City and Washington, D.C. On the west coast, ANG fighters from the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno, CA and the 142nd Fighter Wing in Portland, Ore. (WA State has no fighters in the ANG) also launched aircraft for patrols over the San Francisco Bay area and Seattle.

The air defense units of the Air National Guard had functioned as designed, but no one had anticipated an aerial attack from within, where terrorists hijacked civilian airliners already flying inside American airspace.

Immediately after the horrific events of 9/11, Rumsfeld shelved his plan to scrap the ANG air defense units. In fact, active Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps fighter units joined their ANG counterparts in the CONUS air defense mission. There has been scant discussion since 9/11 of dismantling the CONUS air defense system.

Indeed, just last week Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, who as commander of the U.S. Northern Command is responsible for NORAD and its air defense mission, revealed that air defense fighter units today regularly conduct detailed exercises simulating terrorist hijackings. In several drills, the command has rented commercial jets, loaded them with military volunteers and carried out mock hijackings up to the point where fighter pilots would fire air-to-air missiles to bring down the airliners.

But as the events of that horrific day fade into memory and U.S. combat and stabilization operations overseas consume defense dollars, air defense units around the periphery of the nation are again struggling against new budget and mission cutbacks.

One thing Americans cannot afford is for the U.S. military to cut back on the air defense mission. Osama bin Laden and his suicidal zealots still have their own frequent flier program.

Paul Connors is a Senior Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at paulconnors@hotmail.com. © 2003 Paul Connors.