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NORAD Monitors U.S. Skies to Protect the Homeland

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2003 – On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the staff at the North American Aerospace Defense Command was poised to identify a missile test or space launch anywhere in the world, or to tell exactly how many items of "space junk" were circling the globe.

What they didn't know was that four commercial airplanes hijacked within U.S. borders were launching an orchestrated terrorist attack on the United States.

That's because, at the time, the eyes and ears of NORAD were focused on aerospace threats launched far from the shores of the United States and Canada. The concept of an attack from within U.S. borders seemed almost inconceivable to a command created in the 1950s to address Cold War threats.

Today, NORAD's operations division chief says the command is dramatically changed, with a larger scope and a major role in the war on terror.

Air Force Colonel Lennie Coleman said NORAD's ground-based radar, airborne radar, aircraft, satellites and intelligence capabilities now focus within the United States and Canada as well as offshore to identify suspicious aircraft or other aerospace threats.

"We've expanded from our Cold War structure to be able to meet the terrorist threat that's out there," he said.

From its air warning center, deep within Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colo., NORAD now conducts around-the-clock monitoring in support of Operation Noble Eagle the mission to protect the homeland.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Coleman said, NORAD has flown more than 32,000 sorties in support of Operation Noble Eagle. More than 1,500 of these sorties, flown by U.S. F-15 and F-16 fighters and Canadian CF-18s from sites throughout the United States and Canada, involved what Coleman calls "targets of interest."

"In every single one of these cases, the pilots taking off on the ground or being diverted have no idea if they are going up to another Sept. 11," Coleman said. "Every mission is taken very seriously."

Fortunately, most "targets of interest" have turned out to be pilots who had mistakenly strayed into restricted air space or whose communication or navigation equipment had failed, he said.

But in several instances, they proved to be real-life threats. One was the airliner that carried Richard C. Reid, the "shoe bomber" who tried to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight just four months after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. U.S. fighters shadowed the flight until the pilots made an emergency landing in Boston.

Two other "targets of interest" involved hijacked Cuban airliners. Again, U.S. fighter jets intervened in both hijackings, shadowing the aircraft until they landed in the Florida keys.

Coleman emphasized that NORAD does not conduct its expanded mission in a void. The command works hand-in-hand with a wide range of government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Agency.

"We work closely with them to complement the security measures that they have put in place since 9-11," Coleman said. "And we've helped make sure that our defensive measures will be there if those security measures fail."

Nowhere is NORAD's increased intergovernmental coordination more evident than with the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Before Sept. 11, the FAA had to physically pick up the phone and call us if there was a hijacking," said Coleman. "Today, they don't have to do that. We have constant, real-time communications with the FAA. So when they have concern about an airplane even before they determine that it is a problem we already know about it. That's a vast improvement."

But Coleman said NORAD is constantly "exercising the system and looking for ways to do it smarter, do it better" and to improve interagency coordination.

Information sharing is key, he said, to ensuring that each agency understands its role in a crisis and is prepared to carry it out.

Coleman said regular exercises help reinforce that the system is working, and serve as a deterrent to would-be terrorists.

"Time and space are our friends," he said. "If we can gain one extra day, one extra hour, one extra phone call, one extra planning effort that the bad guys have to take, that gives those intelligence, law enforcement and security elements in the field that one chance to catch them before we, the last line of defense, (have) to act."

Coleman said these initiatives are making the United States and Canada far safer than before Sept. 11.

"We've looked at the terrorist threat very seriously, and we've expanded our communication, our command-and-control infrastructure and our interagency coordination to be able to hopefully avoid ever having another 9-11," he said.

"We're much better postured to meet the threat, no matter where it comes from not only externally, but internally as well. And that's a guarantee."

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