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Homeland Defense: The National Guard

December 31, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BEARDEN: Major Alex Calicchio is an F-16 fighter pilot. He’s made over 100 combat sorties, from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf, on active duty with the Illinois National Guard. Last year, he was flying combat air patrols, or CAPS, to enforce the no-fly zone over Iraq. Now he finds himself flying CAPS over the United States.

MAYOR ALEX CALICCHIO, Illinois Air Guard: It’s kind of a crazy world. I never would have believed that I’d be flying, you know, a defensive CAP over my own hometown.

TOM BEARDEN: Before September 11, only a few fighters were on alert to respond to airborne threats. Now there are more than 100, and 22,000 members of the Air National Guard have been activated as a result, and top Air Force generals now have an authority that would have been almost unimaginable a few months ago. They can order fighters to shoot down a commercial airliner if that plane posed an imminent danger to the nation. Pilots say that would be a very difficult order to carry out.

CAPT. SEAN “FOJA,” California Air Guard: We talked about it quite a bit. It’s certainly something that nobody would like to do, but given that order, and we were positive that’s what they wanted, then I think everyone here is prepared to do it. I think the big challenge would be after it was over, you know emotionally, how are you going to react when you get back.

TOM BEARDEN: Captain Sean “Foja” and Major Mike “Coyote” fly f-16s for the California air guard. We were asked to use the pilots’ radio call signs rather than their real last names. Major “Coyote,” like many air guard pilots, flies commercial planes in civilian life.

MAJOR MIKE “COYOTE,: California Air Guard: When I’m flying with United, I feel a lot more comfortable knowing that I have fighter support. Fighters can provide all sorts of assistance to situations up in the air, where you are limited in the cockpit of an airliner on what you can see, you know, and what you can do, you may really be assisted in a lot of ways by fighters.

TOM BEARDEN: Even if he had to shoot you down?

MAJOR MIKE “COYOTE:” Even if he had to shoot me down. To prevent a horrible disaster like we had on the 11th.

TOM BEARDEN: “Foja” and “Coyote” are part of a nationwide air patrol operation called “Noble Eagle.” On this day, they were demonstrating for our camera how they orbit the skies over northern California. One of the F-16s took the role of a hostile aircraft.

SPOKESMAN: In real life, if this was an unknown aircraft, we’d keep our safe distance from them. They’ve done numerous intercepts with aircraft that strayed into the wrong are and, basically, escorted them out of the area and took them to an airfield.

TOM BEARDEN: One of the reasons for the mission is that both the Air Force and the Guard were unable to get fighters into the air quickly enough to intercede in the September 11 attacks. The jets assigned to “Operation Noble Eagle” aren’t just flying around at random. They’re directed from a control center buried deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, near Colorado Springs.


SPOKESMAN: Copy, open line.

TOM BEARDEN: This is NORAD — North American Aerospace Defense Command. The joint American-Canadian Center was built during the early days of the Cold War to defend North America against Soviet long-range nuclear bombers. Later, the threat changed to intercontinental ballistic missiles. For more than 50 years, NORAD’s radars looked outward, but now they’re looking inward as well. Canadian General James Hunter is vice commander of NORAD.

BRIG. GEN. JAMES HUNTER, North American Aerospace Command: Looking inward means, as opposed to our previous experience where our mission entailed mainly looking outward and looking for people coming into the air space of North America, we now also cover the air space of North America. The fact now that we have increased the number of aircraft that are on alert — there’s over 200 out there over which 100 are fighters on alert, patrolling the skies over North America.

TOM BEARDEN: NORAD has developed even closer communication with the Federal Aviation Administration since September 11. They’re tied into the air traffic control system and can display any aircraft currently in flight over North America. They also have set up additional mobile radars to watch the skies for anything unusual.

BRIG. GEN. JAMES HUNTER: We are in the business of aerospace warning and control of the airspace over North America, and what we need to do now to make sure that commercial airliners or anybody that’s flying within the airspace of North America is doing so in line with the regulations and the flight plans and so on that they follow.

TOM BEARDEN: “Operation Noble Eagle” has stretched not only Guard members, but the whole system like never before. There have been more than 10,000 sorties since September 11. Cost is enormous. F-16s cost $2,500 an hour to operate. Randall Larsen is a retired air force colonel who runs a homeland security think-tank. He wonders whether the missions are worth the expense.

COL. RANDALL LARSEN (Ret.), ANSER Institute for Homeland Security: They’re of deterrent value, but the question is, when you look at all the missions that we have to do, at all the things we have to do to defend our homeland in the 21st century, what’s the priority of combat air patrols? And it gets back to that issue, we only have so many resources to spend, we got to make sure we spend them wisely. So my answer to you I guess would be in the form of a question: “I understand why we’ve done it till now, how much longer are we going to do it?”

TOM BEARDEN: Some Guard pilots are worried that the high tempo of operations is literally wearing out the $32 million fighters far sooner than expected.

CAPT. SEAN “FOJA:” I think the people making the decisions understand that at this present level, we could probably only last for so long before we start running out of airplanes really. I mean, you keep flying as often we are, they’re going to need a break. So to supply us some more airplanes, some more people, I think we could continue this, you know, I wouldn’t say indefinitely, but for quite some time.

TOM BEARDEN: General Paul Monroe commands the California National Guard.

MAJ. GEN. PAUL D. MONROE, JR., Adjutant General, California National Guard: That’s a legitimate concern. They’re being used at a rate higher than they were designed to be used. One of the problems with our air wings is the training that they need.

TOM BEARDEN: Although pilots engage in mock combat training during CAP missions, it isn’t the same as the regular exercises designed to hone their skills.

SPOKESMAN: We’ve just returned from patrolling over Iraq and we spent about six months geared up to get ready for that. So we were training very hard with our fighter pilot skills, and since the 11th, we haven’t been able to do nearly as much training as we have in the past. So for us to be called back overseas, it would take probably a 90-day or so spin up to get ready to do that again.

TOM BEARDEN: People can wear out, too. Most of the Guard’s personnel are part-timers who rely on their civilian jobs to make a living. Some take staggering pay cuts when called to active duty for any length of time. And those activations were on the rise even before September 11, as the Pentagon was forced to turn to its reserves to maintain peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and patrolling the airspace over Iraq. How long can you keep it up?

SPOKESMAN: I don’t know. But I am surprised that it’s lasted at this level for this long. They… I mean, I believe this is serious and so do all our soldiers and airmen, and so they’re still willing to make these sacrifices.

TOM BEARDEN: At the moment, no one can say when these missions might end. Military planners at the Pentagon are in the process of deciding how to reorganize the National Guard and the other services to best address increased threats against the homeland. That report is due in February.