Oct. 10, 2004
During this name-calling, mud-slinging excuse for a presidential campaign, neither John Kerry nor George W. Bush has addressed an issue critical to our national security--continental air defense.
When the Cold War was still a hot button with many Americans, it wasn’t unusual for jet interceptors to vigilantly patrol our skies, waiting to turn away enemy aircraft. It also wasn’t out of the ordinary for our major cities to be protected by batteries of anti-aircraft missiles, ready to fire at the enemy at a moment’s notice.
But the end of the Cold War left us particularly vulnerable to the unimaginable, being attacked by our own aircraft from within our own airspace. This following passage, lifted directly from the website for NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, says volumes:
“Until the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, NORAD's focus was almost exclusively fixed on threats coming toward the Canadian and American borders, not terrorism in our domestic airspace. Because of that day, NORAD's focus has increased to include domestic airspace.”
Even if the jet fighters scrambled to intercept the doomed jetliners caught up with them that fateful morning, what would they have done? Trying to get the terrorists to land would have been futile. And at that time, only the President, who was reading to a classroom full of children in Florida, could have authorized the fighters to shoot down a civilian aircraft.
There is another reason for a strong continental air defense. On October 25, 1999, when champion golfer Payne Stewart’s plane, en route from Florida to Texas, went off course after a major malfunction on board incapacitated the crew and passengers. NORAD scrambled interceptors that day, too, to see what was going on. Their efforts supplemented the FAA’s vast air-route control network and likely prepared emergency management personnel in South Dakota and the NTSB for the unfortunate crash.
The United States needs to rebuild its air defense system, and quickly. Such a defense would cost billions of dollars, but considering what we’ve lost, it would be billions well spent. Ideally, it would consist of the following components:
•State-of-the-art interceptor aircraft that have both quick striking power and enhanced flight endurance. Though both the F-15 Eagle and the F- 16 Fighting Falcon, currently used by Air National Guard units to perform the air defense role, are both remarkable aircraft, they are both approaching thirty years of service. A rouge power with access to Russian-made fighters like the MiG-25 Foxbat, itself long in the tooth, would still give us fits.
•Long-range ground-based anti-aircraft missiles similar to the old Nike family of missiles the US Army deployed around major cities in the 1950s. These would surround major metropolitan areas like Dallas-Fort Worth, New York and Washington, as well as strategically valuable assets, including our primary food-growing and oil-refining centers.
•Mobile Patriot missile batteries to provide defense of smaller population areas or areas with high-visibility amenities that might be attractive to terrorists. Cities like Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Orlando could be prime candidates for these batteries.
•Guided missile cruisers equipped with anti- aircraft missiles and radar to patrol both oceans, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, for hostile air threats. Cities like New Orleans and San Francisco, which are both close to open water, would require protection over their seaborne approaches.
•Increased air surveillance by AWACS aircraft over both coastal and interior areas. The US Air Force currently uses the E-3 Sentry, based on the Boeing 707 airframe, for this role, while the US Navy uses the prop-driven E-2 Hawkeye. The Department of Defense should consider replacing some of these aircraft with a model based on the Boeing 767 airframe. That variant is currently only in use in Japan now, according to Boeing’s website.
•Anti-aircraft gun emplacements near the most critical assets, as a last-ditch, point-blank defense.
Not having a top-notch air defense has cost the United States dearly. It has altered our way of life today and for the generations to come. It is a problem with its roots in the 1970s and its aftermath in 2001. And it’s a problem that the next resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue must address in the next four years, if we want to avoid a repeat of September 11.
About the author: Claxton Graham has written a number of articles on Useless Knowledge. He makes his living as a business systems analyst.
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