By / September 13, 2001

In a fragile security environment that was virtually unimaginable to Americans before this week, Air Force F-16 and F-15C jet fighters are flying combat air patrols over more than 30 U.S. cities under the control of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, senior military officials tell Inside the Pentagon. Beyond New York and Washington -- the sites of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- fighter aircraft are flying on alert over cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, these officials said.

Employing dozens of fighter aircraft to enforce a ban on civil air traffic over domestic metropolitan areas is unprecedented in U.S. history. The Air Force has long experience in performing similar missions in operations abroad, including the 10-year enforcement of no-fly zones over Iraq. But never before has a potential air war zone existed in such a visible, audible fashion right over the heads of so many U.S. citizens in their homes and at their workplaces.

Following the terrorist attacks this week in which three hijacked domestic flights became weapons of mass destruction, the air defense command -- known as NORAD -- activated the approximately 20 F-16s it keeps on alert, according to Maj. Barry Venable, a NORAD spokesman. Those were augmented with additional U.S. and Canadian fighter aircraft, although Venable would not specify how many.

Yesterday (Sept. 12), Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta said he was not yet ready to lift the flight suspension on most civil air travel. He said the Federal Aviation Administration would permit a limited number of flights only under special circumstances.

The decision leaves U.S. skies almost solely to Air Force jets and civil law enforcement aircraft. Under what conditions might force be used?

"NORAD has well-practiced procedures associated with detecting, intercepting, identifying and classifying unknown aircraft," Venable said. "We are prepared to engage aircraft deemed to be a threat to the civil population."

The spokesman said fighter jets under NORAD's command "will employ a graduated response if any aircraft poses a threat to the civil population or our national assets. Shooting an aircraft down is not out of the question."

A senior military officer told ITP that standard rules of engagement in undertaking combat air patrol would "absolutely" require that a U.S. fighter pilot first interrogate a suspicious aircraft and allow the crew to explain its intentions. If the aircraft continued to pose a threat, typical rules of engagement would call for a warning before targeting an aircraft with weapons.

But the terrorist actions this week against these two U.S. landmarks -- one corporate, the other a military stronghold -- were anything but standard. The sheer magnitude in terms of loss of life and injury to civil society might have called for suspending the usual military caution, had the opportunity arisen to engage these aircraft as the crisis unfolded, the senior official said. A shootdown without warning remains a viable possibility in the event that further attacks are attempted.

"When airplanes are flying into huge buildings -- when you're in extremis -- that risk might have been warranted," the official told ITP in a Sept. 12 interview.

With the death toll still uncertain, Venable was asked whether NORAD had failed in its mission to protect the United States from air attack. He said "preventing the violation of our sovereign air space" is NORAD's primary role, but that the command "is normally focused outward from our coasts in the United States and Canada." The responsibility to track domestic flights lies with the FAA, with just a couple exceptions like command over Air Force One.

Relegated to the role of a somewhat obscure relic in recent years, NORAD was created by the United States and Canada during the Cold War to detect and intercept Soviet nuclear bombers coming over the North Pole to attack U.S. targets. NORAD chief Gen. Ed Eberhart -- an Air Force general recently passed over for the position of Joint Chiefs chairman -- now finds himself the top commander in protecting a nation in the grip of shock following the extraordinarily unsettling attacks on domestic soil.

Venable said the combat air patrols "have been on station" since "early" on Sept. 11, the day of the attacks. They will remain on a state of high alert "until directed otherwise," he said.

F-16 fighters were first visible over Washington soon after the attacks but appeared to be largely absent the following day. Venable said he could not comment on the apparent variations in patrols.

One military official, speaking on background, said a standard patrol would involve two to four aircraft on an "orbit." That involves flight not in a circle, as the term might suggest, but rather in a straight path for several miles at a time to establish a radar picture.

To support the fighter patrols, NORAD is using Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, ground-based radars, and aerial refueling planes, Venable said.

The command spokesman said it would be wrong to characterize NORAD as taking over the FAA's job of tracking civil flights since the Sept. 11 shutdown in air travel. Rather, the command is "maintaining situational awareness" over major metropolitan areas throughout the United States, he said. -- Elaine M. Grossman