U.S. and Canadian military aircraft have scrambled nearly 1,700 times to intercept or divert suspicious aircraft since Sept. 11, but routine drills illustrate how terrorists could penetrate the airspace around the nation’s capital.
“We do these tests to push the system, find holes, and when we find holes we correct them,” said Canadian Army Maj. Douglas Martin of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
“Every time we do a test, or an evaluation or exercise, we’re getting better at defending the national capital region,” he said.
Officials said the exercises conducted in early- and mid-December are the latest to show that the best prevention against another terror tragedy in the skies is thorough pre-emptive intelligence and screening, not a last-minute intercept or shootdown of a hijacked commercial airliner.
Those officials talked to The Associated Press about the classified results of the drills only on condition of anonymity. They said U.S. military officials have concluded it would be very difficult to intercept a hijacked plane within a certain radius of major cities like Washington unless fighter jets were already airborne.
Possible airline hijackings were a major concern around the New Year’s holiday, when nervous U.S. officials caused a number of international flights to or from Washington and Los Angeles to be canceled or severely delayed. F-16 fighter jets reportedly escorted some flights as they approached U.S. airports.
Drills found security holes
In some of the tests in December, officials withheld fighter jets in order to check other last-resort defenses around the capital such as ground-to-air missiles and artillery, Secret Service protection and Federal Aviation Administration communications, the officials said.
The officials declined to provide more specific details about the drills except to say that under some circumstances Homeland Security planes posing as mock terrorists were able to penetrate protected air space.
The officials declined to define the zone in which scrambling military jets become ineffective although they noted the government typically creates a buffer of just over 30 miles when setting up temporary protected air space around special events or presidential locations.
Homeland Security officials said there have been numerous tests of the air defense system nationwide since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and areas for improvement have been identified and addressed.
“Since Sept. 11, Homeland Security and the Department of Defense have vastly improved the coordination response capacity of the nation’s air defenses, and we are continually exercising and training to ensure we have the right assets in place to address any threats,” Homeland spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.
“Our goal is to target the risk long before any passenger goes through security and board an aircraft,” he said, citing a litany of preventative measures from air marshals and armed pilots to improved passenger screening and reinforced cockpit doors.
Homeland Security officials are examining ways to refine the color-coded system that provides Americans with terror alerts, but officials already have begun targeting intelligence alerts and specific security measures to specific areas and industries in instances where the entire nation doesn’t need to go to a higher alert.
Officials said in some cases, specific companies and installations are now getting customized terror alerts based on intelligence about their vulnerabilities — all in recognition that prevention beforehand will be more successful than a last-minute effort to stop an attack.
Officials said there were two tests in the Washington area — one in early December known as a “tabletop exercise” because it was simulated, and another Dec. 13-16 when live aircraft were used in mock terrorist plots.
Officials said the conditions often were made extreme to test the outer limits of air defense capabilities, and that some penetrations or failures were intentional.
For instance, fighter jets failed to intercept enemy aircraft, and other times they did so to see how other air defenses would respond, officials said.
Overall, the nation’s air safety net is getting improved marks with each test. And officials point to the fact that nearly 1,700 times since Sept. 11, fighter jets have successfully been scrambled to intercept or escort suspicious planes.
One such intercept of a wayward plane occurred over the White House late last year. At least 12 aircraft were escorted or intercepted after unintentionally invading the protected air space over the Winter Olympics in Utah in 2002.
Officials agreed to discuss the results of air defense drills in broad terms to highlight that, with intelligence pointing toward al-Qaida’s continued determination to conduct more terror attacks through the air, the best prevention is through pre-emptive screening and detailed intelligence.
The officials stressed the December air tests played no role in the decision Dec. 21 to raise the nation’s terror alert to the second highest color, orange, for the holidays because of threats to airliners. The test had been planned long before the alert was raised.
That decision was based on detailed intelligence that suggested al-Qaida was interested in exploiting more lax security overseas and hijacking a foreign airliner that was passing through American skies.
That intelligence, which in some cases included possible air routes, came from a variety of sources, including electronic intercepts of conversations between suspected terrorists, interrogations of al-Qaida prisoners and intercepted communications over the Internet, officials said.
The FBI, CIA and Homeland Security Department used the intelligence to scour airplane manifests on the most likely air routes to look for any passengers whose names closely resembled those in terrorist watch lists.
In one case, an Air France flight to Washington was canceled because a half dozen passenger names were close enough to those of a suspected terrorists on watch lists — especially with transliterations between Arabic and English. At least one passenger turned out to be a youth and none were deemed terrorists.