Since the invention of the airplane, a mission of air forces worldwide has been the protection of the homeland against air attack. During the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force invested heavily in defense of the North American Continent. The Air Force developed more than a dozen types of sophisticated interceptor aircraft. The total number of aircraft committed to air defense rose from a single P-61 to a peak strength of almost 1,500 interceptors at more than forty bases by the late 1950s. In addition to the airplanes, there were surface-to-air missiles batteries; radar systems built through the trackless Arctic; an Observer Corps; picket ships; Texas Towers; and airborne command-and-control aircraft. All were integrated into a series of computer-based control systems.
Yet, when Air Force fighters scrambled on September 11 in a vain attempt to intercept the last of the four hijacked airliners, there were only 14 aircraft, all National Guard, on alert at 7 bases. The air defense radar net had been allowed to atrophy to the point that it was largely run by the FAA in support of commercial airline operations. There were no missile batteries, picket ships, or observers.
From managing a nominal defense of U.S. airspace, the Air Force now is maintaining some 100 aircraft on alert at more than 26 bases. U.S. and NATO E-3 AWACS airborne warning aircraft planes are flying over the homeland. During the early days after 9/11 the U.S. Navy even deployed aircraft carriers and radar-equipped Aegis cruisers in the waters off New York and Washington.
9/11 marked the rebirth of the homeland defense mission for the USAF. That Service is scrambling to meet the challenge while simultaneously conducting a war in Afghanistan and covering a myriad of other national security commitments around the globe. Fortunately, the Air Force today is extremely well positioned technologically to take on this newly important mission. It is investing in a new generation of tactical aircraft, the F-22 and JSF. It has an improvement program underway for the E-3 AWACSs. It will acquire a large number of both the improved Predator B and Global Hawk UAVS. Finally, progress is being made towards deployment of both the Space-Based Radar and the SBIRS Low satellite systems that will allow for continuous surveillance of the globe from space. The Air Force has created a horizontal intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance network that draws together data from multiple platforms and fuses it in a way that permits the Air Component Commander in the theater an unparalleled view of the battle space.
Two questions confront the Air Force: how much force structure to devote to the homeland defense mission and at what cost. Clearly, the present structure is inadequate to meet the needs to two major wars, including the one that may come at home. But to expand the present force structure and acquire the new technologies will take additional resources. For the first time in several decades, the United States will have to invest in additional capabilities to surveil and protect its air and sea borders. The Pentagon is about to release its budget for Fiscal year 2003. It should reflect the needed additional investments in air and space capabilities needed to protect the homeland.
Daniel Goure is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute.
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