Patrolling the skies with NORAD
By Kris Osborn
(CNN) -- "The skies are safer now," says Gen. Ed Eberhart, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), at the second anniversary of September 11, 2001. "We will win the global war on terrorism. Securing the skies to ensure the safety of the American and Canadian public is our top priority."
The need to protect the skies was put into even sharper focus recently as Justice Department and Homeland Security officials issued an advisory warning that terrorists might try to hijack intercontinental flights flying near the United States. Intelligence information indicated would-be hijackers might seek to board these flights from airports outside of the United States, where security is more relaxed.
NORAD officials emphasize their vigilance and readiness to protect the skies above the United States and Canada, telling CNN that NORAD's command center possesses "radar and intelligence capabilities . . . able to precisely locate aircraft which might pose a threat hours in advance of their landing or arrival."
Maj. Douglas Martin, NORAD spokesman, says NORAD has active duty squadrons, National Guard and Canadian assets at its disposal to provide additional resources to civilian authorities in the event of disaster. Martin said, "We work hand in glove with civilian authorities and have the capability to help DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] and Customs in drug-running instances."
The number and frequency of "irregular air patrols," as they are called, is not discussed by NORAD officials. Martin says, "They are called irregular air patrols because where and when they take place is classified. If various routes or the number of patrols are changed, no one will hear about it."
On September 11, 2001, NORAD had 20 aircraft on alert -- two in Alaska, four in Canada and 14 protecting the contiguous United States. After the attacks, NORAD officials say, fighter jets were sent aloft to protect a number of areas, including the area around Washington, D.C.
This is how NORAD's pre-emptive strategy works: A potential security threat, or "track of interest," is identified through extensive collaboration between NORAD and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), according to officials. An FAA representative works inside NORAD's command center, and non-commissioned officers listen in on FAA operations live.
If any anomaly begins to develop, NORAD decides if it is going to launch fighters or divert an air patrol.
"Our tolerance for a 'track on interest' is extremely low," says Martin. In other words, NORAD has no interest in taking chances. If something is detected, heard or intercepted which may indicate a threat, officials will not hesitate to take protective measures and "scramble" fighter jets, if necessary.
Martin said "taking control of an aircraft" is a graduated response, which can go from identifying an aircraft or diverting an air patrol up to and including the ultimate response, which is described as "engaging an aircraft with lethal force."
The attacks of 9/11, according to NORAD personnel, vastly changed the way hijackings are thought of in the world of security and counter-terrorism. A NORAD spokesman said, "Before 9/11, a hijacking used to mean that the plane would be flown to a specific location before demands were made. Now the threat is very different."
NORAD officials are now positive about their ability to respond to a potential threat from an airplane, saying, "Since 9/11, we have diverted air patrols or scrambled fighters nearly fifteen hundred times. Also since 9/11, we have intercepted two hijacked planes, both of them originating in Cuba."
Also, NORAD intercepted a flight last year. In February 2002, an Air India flight coming in from Gatwick airport in the United Kingdom was intercepted because of security concerns.
Martin said, "Once it was in the right range, we intercepted it. Two [Canadian] CF-18 fighter [planes] intercepted the flight near Newfoundland and then handed it off to two U.S. fighter jets. The U.S. planes then escorted the plane along the coast to JFK airport in New York. We had full control over that aircraft."
NORAD was created in the late 1950s as a Cold War defensive apparatus designed to detect long-range Soviet bombers and, later, possible incoming nuclear warheads. Martin said, "We could identify and detail the trajectory of an incoming ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile); however, that is all we would do. We could issue a warning and identify where it would land."