Thursday, May 28, 2009

Outside View: DoD 'forgets' air defense

by Rebecca Grant
Arlington, Va. (UPI) May 26, 2009

When the U.S. Department of Defense "rebalanced" its military aircraft programs on April 6, they forgot about buying new fighters to protect the United States.

Remember the scare in April when the backup Air Force One made low circles over New York City for White House photographers? It looked for a moment like an F-16 was chasing the jumbo jetliner, bringing back chilling memories of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Let's crop the 747 out of the mental image and focus on the fighters defending U.S. airspace.

Alert fighters under the North American Air Defense Command are responsible for intercepting any suspicious airliner or stray plane before it can do harm. On Sept. 11, 2001, 179 fighters flew air patrols over major U.S. cities. Three hundred aircraft in total joined the alert that day. Since then, U.S. Air Force fighters from the Air National Guard, Reserve and active components have racked up more than 39,300 sorties for what's called the air sovereignty mission, also known as Operation Noble Eagle. Due to rotational patterns U.S. Navy and Marine Corps fighters aren't available for the homeland defense mission. Full crisis alert draws on 18 sites supported by up to 324 fighter aircraft.

There's just one problem. F-16s and F-15s in the Air National Guard are so old that many will begin to retire in less than five years. In January the Government Accountability Office warned that air defense bases will soon start shutting down as their aircraft retire.

By 2020, 11 of the 18 alert sites in the United States will be gone because they have no aircraft, according to the GAO. Sixteen of those sites are run by the Air National Guard. Don't think these airmen are just weekend warriors. Many air guard pilots fly full time, and Air National Guard units also rotate regularly to Afghanistan and Iraq where they support ground forces. Despite this, the Pentagon has treated air sovereignty like a pick-up game for the last eight years.

Congress is ready to act, and there are several options, some wiser than others. Top priority is new fifth-generation aircraft for the air sovereignty mission. Hawaii's Air Guard is slated to get F-22s next year, and the plane is ideal for air sovereignty because of its speed and sensors.

The U.S. Air Force could shift more F-22s to the Guard if the plane stays in production. Next up is the F-35. Air Force initial operating capability is a few years away, which may be enough time to boost production to provide more F-35s for homeland defense.

Buying new F-16s or F-15s is a stopgap, but a poor one. The air sovereignty mission for the future requires fifth-generation radars, sensors and communications links to plug gaps in coverage of North American airspace and cope with new threats. With F-22s and F-35s, the Guard keeps its overseas mission, too. It would be silly to have the Air National Guard flying F-16s when major allies are flying F-35s.

Protecting the United States is supposed to be the No. 1 priority. "I think the decision needs to be made where does air defense and defense of the country range on the scale of priorities of the missions that the Air Force will be required to perform," Air National Guard Chief Lt. Gen. Harry Wyatt said at a recent congressional hearing. He couldn't be more right. Congress and the Pentagon Quadrennial Defense Review team need to tackle the issue before cuts in fighter buys leave America's skies vulnerable.

(Rebecca Grant, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Lexington Institute, a non-profit public-policy research organization based in Arlington, Va.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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