A lack of funds has left a pair of sleek Blackhawk helicopters that are assigned the much-ballyhooed task of guarding the skies over the nation’s capital unable to provide the round-the-clock coverage their commander says they should, MSNBC.com has learned.
And even if the budget allowed the high-tech warbirds to provide 24-hour coverage, a number of other issues raise additional questions about their assignment:
The helicopters, part of a nationwide unit of 16 that are the only Blackhawks in civilian use, are not armed, although they are staffed by armed agents.
The Blackhawks are not capable of flying even as fast as some of the lowly single-engine planes they are supposed to intercept.
Use of the helicopters creates staffing shortages that cannibalize missions elsewhere in the unit, traditionally tasked with stopping cross-border drug smuggling.
In defending the program, its civilian officials point out that the primary focus of the Blackhawks is to identify threats in the restricted airspace, and that the military has other weapons at its disposal to deal with aircraft bent on a terrorist attack like the one that struck the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. But they admit they’re troubled that they cannot even perform the threat-identification function on a full-time basis.
Official: Should be 'seven-by-24’
“I should be covering this mission seven-by-24, I’ll say that,” says Charles Stallworth, director of the Office of Air and Marine Operations, part of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is in turn under the Department of Homeland Security. “But I’m not because if I did I would take even more away from the mission” elsewhere.
The Blackhawks’ mission in the skies above Washington is regarded in some quarters as a success. President Bush has personally congratulated the group at least twice for its performance. In the six months before the deployment here, there were 186 intrusions into the 15-mile “flight restricted zone” that encompasses the White House, Stallworth said. Since late January, when the Blackhawks began their mission, that number has been cut to 15, Stallworth said.
Violations of the restricted zone set off a chain reaction around Washington: Ground-based mobile surface-to-air missile defenses kick into high alert, Air Force F-16s are scrambled and the Secret Service shuffles the president and vice president into protected spaces. As all that happens, the Blackhawks take to the air to assess the threat and de-escalate the situation. If that fails, the shooting starts and disaster of one type or another is ensured.
Stallworth’s Office of Air and Marine Operations comprises about 1,000 members and operates a mix of air and marine craft in its traditional business of intercepting cross-border drug smugglers and its post 9/11 mission of providing aerial surveillance for local, state and federal investigations.
These 1970s vintage UH-60A model Blackhawks are non-armed versions of the workhorse Army helicopter used in combat for air assault, air cavalry and medical evacuation. The helicopter was inserted into pop culture with the making of “Black Hawk Down,” Hollywood’s interpretation of the 1993 tragedy in Mogadishu.
The Washington assignment, which includes two Cessna Citation jets in addition to the Blackhawks, isn’t a permanent one. In practical terms, that means both equipment and crew members must be pulled from normal assignments; although the helicopters and jets remain parked at Reagan National airport, their crews rotate in and out. AMO’s $300 million budget, already stretched in part because of costs associated with keeping its aging Blackhawk fleet in the air, was asked to take on the Washington mission without receiving additional money. The budget situation creates an unenviable type of policy triage, says Stallworth, in which the national priority of defending Washington’s air space is balanced with the group’s more traditional mission nationwide.
50 to 90 days in D.C.
Blackhawk crews spend between 50 and 90 days on temporary duty in Washington, at about two weeks for each rotation. When that happens, it creates staffing shortages that result in missions not being flown elsewhere in the nation, according to interviews with crew members.
“Yes, the mission [in Washington] has an impact our other missions,” Stallworth acknowledged. “But all in all, we try and share the pain so that we don’t do permanent damage to any of our local operations.”
The mission in Washington is compromised as well. Although the Blackhawks and Citations fly seven days a week, they don’t provide 24-hour per day coverage (MSNBC.com isn’t divulging how many hours are flown or when as a matter of national security).
Stallworth said coverage gap is based on a complex risk assessment matrix. “And hoping that we’re lucky too,” Stallworth said.
But just because Blackhawks aren’t standing on constant alert doesn’t leave the skies above Washington unprotected. The Air Force still flies “irregular air patrols” (formerly known as “combat air patrols”) and there are ground-based air defenses keeping watch as well to help fill the gaps, according to Maj. Douglas Martin, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the military partnership between Canada and the United States that holds the primary responsibility for defending airspace above the continent.
AMO is seeking additional money that would fund a permanent Washington air wing capable of 24-by-7 coverage. The unit has already submitted a proposal that, if approved, would roughly double its current operating budget, according to a DHS official. Stallworth declined to comment on the amount, saying only, “I can tell you I think we have good support from both [Congress] and the administration to make this thing happen.”
Murky legal question
Besides the funding issue, for nearly 10 months Stallworth’s unit operated in a murky legal environment, unsure of whether the act of penetrating the restricted airspace around Washington was a crime. That changed Sept. 25 when he received word that federal lawyers would charge anyone found to have knowingly penetrated restricted air space without proper clearance with a misdemeanor. Penetration of that air space without clearance also is a violation of an FAA regulation, and the FAA can fine a pilot or suspend a license but nothing more, according to spokesman William Shumann.
The restricted zone is defined as a 23-mile radius around each of the area’s three major airports, Baltimore-Washington International, Dulles International and Reagan National, and is known as an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Its administration falls to the FAA. The area is vaguely the shape of a pair of “Mickey Mouse” ears; a narrower, more restrictive 15-mile radius, known as the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ), encompasses the White House and is a subset of the ADIZ.
FAA air traffic controllers constantly monitor the ADIZ as do personnel located at the National Capitol Region Coordination Center. Any plane that “punches the bubble” of the ADIZ is flagged as violator; there have been 610 such violations of the ADIZ since it was officially established in February, Stallworth said
The Blackhawks can launch to intercept any of those violators and escort them out of the area, Stallworth said. The exact criteria for when a Blackhawk or Citation launches to intercept a potential threat are based on a “threat matrix” that predicts a flight path and allows a timely interdiction, Stallworth said. That “threat matrix” allows Stallworth’s crews to launch even before a violation occurs, he said. “If we assume that everybody was a good guy, we wouldn’t be here.”
However, a Blackhawk crew member, when told of Stallworth’s remarks said flatly: “I’ve never launched unless someone has ‘punched the bubble.’” The FAA’s Shumann also said he didn’t know why a launch would be made if a plane hadn’t actually broken the ADIZ boundary.
Of his unit’s mission, Stallworth says, “We’re the guys that are here for public service. We’re here to keep Ma and Pa Kettle from doing something that’s going to get them in big trouble or put them in danger,” Stallworth said. Indeed, none of the 610 ADIZ violations have even been remotely tied to terrorism or a potential terrorist act.
But shooing Ma and Pa Kettle out of restricted air space had become a prohibitively expensive proposition for the Air Force, which had been the primary guardian before AMO’s arrival. In March of last year Pentagon officials announced they would begin scaling back combat air patrols then being flown over major U.S. cities. Those nationwide missions, which began the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, tied up 260 planes, including fighters, transports and radar control aircraft, 350 aircrews and 10,000 personnel on 30 bases at a cost of more than $500 million, the Pentagon said.
Those figures make the $500,000 monthly cost of Stallworth’s Washington operation look cheap at twice the price.
And although F-16s are indeed lethal, with cruising speeds of 577 mph they don’t really match up well to a single-engine plane cruising about 150 mph, Stallworth said.
“That’s a pretty important point,” said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement. “If there are innocent fliers that do wander into the airspace, do you want them approached with an F-16 with guns a-blazing? No. We’re the public safety between these two situations, to first identify if they are a threat and second, if they are not, remove them from the area,” Boyd said.
High anxiety over D.C.
But even when this layered air defense of Washington goes right, there is precious little room for error.
By the time a single engine Cessna 210, traveling at 180 mph, punches through the ADIZ and is intercepted by a Blackhawk screaming out to meet it at its top speed of 163 mph, that potential threat is about 12 miles from the White House or Capitol Hill. By the time the intercept is completed and assessed, the plane and Blackhawk are between nine and 10 miles from a target “and now you’re inside the missile envelope,” says a Blackhawk crew member who ran the numbers with MSNBC.com. “Now what do you do?” the crew member asks, “The helicopters aren’t armed.”
Each Blackhawk has on board two rifle-toting agents capable of taking out the pilot, Stallworth said, and “they will shoot.” However, a Blackhawk crew member told MSNBC.com that the last time they trained to fire on a pilot of a small plane was when they were assigned to provide security for the Olympics in Utah in 2002.
“As a practical matter, if you have a real terrorist you have a real problem,” said James Dunnigan, a military analyst and expert on military strategy who has lectured at the Army War College and consulted with the Pentagon. “Your average, twin-engine, general aviation aircraft can ‘punch the bubble’ and make it to the White House in eight minutes.”
Dunnigan said that a twin-engine Cessna is capable of carrying 500 pounds of explosives, “At which point it’s basically a Tomahawk cruise missile in terms of explosive power.” Demolition experts say that a car bomb carrying 500 pounds of explosives will destroy everything within 45 feet, cause serious damage nearly 200 feet away and will spray shrapnel more than 1,000 feet away.
When all else fails, military force will be used, said Martin, the NORAD spokesman. “Probably the best expression is, ‘We’re the force of last resort.’”