Post Cold War Air Defense

June 17th, 2010

I was watching the BBC documentary Clear the Skies the other night and it got me thinking about the current state of US air defense. This straight ahead documentary offers a linear narrative of the morning of 9/11, focusing on air defense and Continuation of Government (COG) efforts. To a certain extent, I was surprised at how well things actually worked. The USAF and the FAA jointly coordinated efforts to track the hijacked aircraft. Fighter jets were scrambled for intercept in a (somewhat) timely fashion. Communication lines functioned and information was delivered to the appropriate people. Since I’ve been researching the old Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), the Cold War air defense system, I’ve been interested in knowing what US air defense looks like today. Obviously, we don’t have the massive network of regional SAGE air defense facilities we use to have, but the cooperation between the USAF and the FAA seems adequate for tracking aircraft and identify those with hostile intent. But based on what was presented in the documentary, we seem to be lacking alert interceptors, or in layman’s terms, armed jet fighters ready to fly at a moment’s noticed. On 9/11, armed aircraft were scrambled pretty quickly from Langley in Virgina, but they were some 200 miles away from DC and unable to intercept the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. However, if the other Capitol bound jetliner wouldn’t have went down in Pennsylvania, it would have likely been brought down by one the interceptors from Langley. I don’t remember where the NYC bound fighter jets originated from, but it might have been Cape Cod. Again, they were not able to make it to New York by the time the second plane hit the twin towers, but they would have been able to take down any additional hostile aircraft.

Of course there are many on the inter-webs criticizing the Pentagon’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. They suggest too many minutes passed between when the planes were identified as hijacked and when the order went out to scrambled interceptors. They also complain the USAF unnecessarily restricting interceptors to subsonic flight. For those who aren’t familiar with supersonic flight, when the sound barrier is broken, it creates a “sonic boom” that can shatter windows and generally make people angry — particularly the elderly, who hate having Mattlock interrupted by anything, including acts of war. Because of this, military aircraft are only allowed to “kick out the jams” over the ocean. So this is a fair criticism of the USAF I think, but the fault may really be with the FAA. There should be some kind of supersonic waiver granted for interceptors when faced with hostile aircraft over the continental US. We can deal with a few broken windows and the agitated old folks (P.S., old people need to be isolated and studied so it can be determined what nutrients they have that might be extracted for our personal use…hey, it’s not just a Lyndon LaRouche campaign slogan anymore!)

Anyway, my take away from the BBC documentary was we need to increase the number of interceptor aircraft on alert in or near large urban areas. And we don’t need fancy F-22s or F-35s for the job. More F-15s and F-16s would do just fine, thank-you-very-much. I foresee two problems with this recommendation though. 1. Cost. The Pentagon would want to spend vast sums of money on additional F-22s/F-35s for air defense instead of cheaper F-15s/F-16s. That’s just the way they roll. Everybody knows USAF brass don’t secure lucrative post military “consulting” jobs by pushing inexpensive weapons systems. 2. NIMBY. Basing interceptors close to urban areas means you’re going to piss a lot of people off. Already, there are many in PDX complaining about the ANG’s F-15s. Frankly, I don’t mind them that much even though I live fairly close to the airport. They only fly after 9:00 AM, so the noise it’s a big deal compared to the ass-hats who run their leaf blowers nonstop. But people like to bitch about every little thing, so increasing deployment of fighters would surely create a lot of angry letters to politicians.

To me, it would make sense for the US to reevaluate air defense in, say, five to ten years. There is a lot of technology hitting maturity, like phased array radar, that’s coming down in cost and could be deployed to increase radar coverage. The phased array sites we currently have in Alaska, California, and Cape Cod look out. Why not look in as well?Increasing and modernizing radar sites would benefit both the FAA and USAF. Also, it’s a safe bet the F-16 will still be in production for another decade based on the strength of foreign orders, so I think it would be a good idea to purchase additional aircraft for air defense purposes or overhaul older F-16s slatted for retirement. Like a wise man once said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Entry Filed under: The Cold War

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