- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 7 (UPI) — Anti-terror experts who staged a war game scenario of a major attack against the United States identified what they said was a "gaping hole" in the nation's aviation security infrastructure — the small and medium plane charter sector.

U.S. officials and industry leaders say procedures are being tightened in the sector, but admit they have focused hardest on larger aircraft, which they say present the greater threat.

The war game, called Silent Vector, was staged late last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a respected Washington think tank. It involved former senior U.S. officials taking the role of various cabinet members and senior military figures, in an effort to work out how the nation could respond to another major terrorist event on the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed almost 3,000 people.

The Silent Vector scenario involved terrorists chartering three small jet planes from a minor airport in an effort to crash them simultaneously into chemical plants up and down the East Coast.

"We developed the scenario and vetted it with experts from the government and the (charter aircraft) industry. Everybody agreed it was well within the realm of the possible," Phil Anderson of CSIS, who ran the war game, told United Press International.

Officials concur that the scenario is valid. "If you're asking me 'can that happen?'" said Heather Rosenker of the Transportation Security Administration, "The answer is 'I suppose it can,' but our information on the security threats is telling us that is not a concern at the level of the larger planes."

Silent Vector was "a very impressive exercise, and I was honored to be a part of it," James Gilmore, the former GOP governor of Virginia told UPI. Gilmore — who played the role of Virginia's governor — said the session was useful as a way to help policy makers think through options for handling a crisis.

"Information came in, and we had to decide what actions we would take," he said, explaining that he had ordered the precautionary evacuation of 100,000 people from the area around one of the threatened chemical plants near Norfolk, Va.

Anderson says the exercise identified frightening gaps in the nation's aviation security infrastructure. "There are two gaping holes: The air charter and air freight sectors," he said.

The TSA, set up in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, says the priority has been the larger, heavier planes. "We have prioritized our work based on our information about the threats," says Rosenker. "Our information is that the greatest threat is posed by the larger planes."

The TSA has promulgated two sets of rules for the charter aircraft industry, which will come into effect on April 1.

One set of regulations governs large aircraft charters, such as DC-9s. Passengers on these planes now have to go through the same rigorous checks as those on scheduled flights.

But the TSA says that, for smaller planes — which include powerful, long-range jets like the Gulf Stream G20 — there are no mandatory security checks on passengers. "We're not requiring that," says the TSA's Tom Blank.

The regulations for these craft only mandate that companies run a criminal record background check on the flight crew, and file a flight plan and passenger manifest with the Federal Aviation Authority prior to take off. In addition, other security measures — including control of access to aircraft on the ground and emergency in-flight communications procedures — are being phased in.

The FAA estimates that there are more than 12,000 jet and turboprop aircraft in private hands, and there are hundreds of companies that lease and rent them from thousands of airports all across the country.

For a customer in good standing, Anderson explains, chartering three airplanes simultaneously is easy. He and his fellow planners theorized a scenario whereby a small group of terrorists were able to develop a sophisticated front operation with such good standing in just a few months — much less time than it took for the Sept. 11 hijackers to plan and execute their daring attack.

Citing security concerns, Anderson asked UPI to withhold exact details of how terrorists could build such a front operation. "You don't want to give the bad guys the keys to the car," he said.

The TSA says it is working closely with the charter industry, which "is very security conscious," according to Blank. "We have to strike a balance," he says, "between security and the ability of the industry to operate. We don't want to introduce regulations that will have an adverse economic impact if there's no evidence of a threat."

The National Business Aviation Association, an industry group, says that despite the absence of any federally mandated procedures, charter companies do run checks on people who want to rent their aircraft.

"For the type of customers in this sector, these checks are reasonable," says Pete West, senior vice-president for government and public affairs at the NBAA.

West says that the TSA has asked the industry not to disclose details of the passenger checks they run, for fear of providing a roadmap to anyone seeking to get around them.

The TSA's Blank says there are no plans to expand the system that searches airline passenger lists for terror suspects — the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System or CAPPS — to the charter sector. "It's a possibility," he says, "We haven't thought it through." But he adds that the pilots themselves can always refuse to fly anyone they deem suspicious. "If someone is suspicious — trying to pay in cash, say, or for whatever reason — the charter operator has the option not to fly them."

But one of the Silent Vector planners suggests that discreet — if not actually lax — security is inherent in the premium service that charter companies provide.

"You're dealing with very high-end customers," points out Randy Larsen, Director of the Anser Institute for Homeland Security. "Someone who's paying $30,000 doesn't expect harassment about who packed his luggage."

As result, says Anderson, having successfully chartered their aircraft, at one of the nearly 4,000 small airfields in the country, the terrorists are basically home free.

"There are no metal detectors," says Anderson, "no screening of luggage or passengers, no reinforced cockpit doors, no armed pilots or air marshals — no security measures whatever. Flying out of many small uncontrolled airfields (like the one envisioned in Silent Vector), passengers can carry anything they want on board, including multiple concealed weapons."

And, adds Larsen, a large bomb.

"We're talking about jet aircraft," he points out, designed to carry up to 20 people and their luggage. "You can put an explosive device in one as powerful as the bomb Timothy McViegh used on the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, and turn it into a 500 mile an hour cruise missile."

Anderson acknowledges that the scenario "depends on a complex, intricate plan," requiring "a sophisticated operative capable of presenting a plausible face… It might even be in the realm of the too complex."

But as Larsen points out, "Sept. 11 was a pretty sophisticated operation, too."

"This is a real problem that has to be dealt with," he says, but adds, "I would say that it won't be dealt with until we have an incident."

But TSA officials say they can respond faster. "Everything we do is based on threat evaluation. If we were to pick up intelligence suggesting that the bad guys wanted (to do this)… We have the capacity to move very quickly," says Blank.

Business leaders are also adamant that they are not being complacent. "It's really tough for anyone we don't know to get near one of our aircraft," says West, pointing out that procedures for preventing unauthorized access to charter planes of all kinds have been tightened since Sept. 11.

"Anyone who doubts our inherent security should just try it and see — they will be sorely surprised," he adds.

Larsen says that even if the issue is addressed, other vulnerabilities will remain. "We could subject every charter flight in the country to the most rigorous security procedures imaginable, and that wouldn't stop a 'plane that took off from Canada or Mexico."

"Were not talking about piper cubs here," he points out. "These are jet aircraft with an intercontinental range. One could take off from Europe, Africa or South America and easily reach the continental United States. The navigation equipment and autopilot are so precise you could decide not just which side of a building you were going to hit, but which floor. It has a guidance system accurate to within five or six feet, even in darkness and bad weather."

Authorities wouldn't even be able to see such an attack coming, he goes on, because of huge gaps in the nation's radar coverage. "The FAA says they don't need complete radar coverage for air traffic control. They rely on transponders," devices which actively signal an aircraft's position to controllers. "The DOD (Department of Defense) says they're not paying for total radar coverage because it's an air traffic issue."

Larsen says he has no answers, because there are none, at least no easy ones.

"Even radar coverage only tells you the bad guys are coming," he says. "Combat air patrols, fighters on alert to be scrambled to shoot such an attacker down, that's really expensive."

"One of the greatest dangers we're facing at the moment is that we're going spend our country into the ground trying to meet every imaginable threat. It can't be done."

It's a sentiment shared by James Loy, the head of the TSA. "We simply… will never have the resources to devote to making everything we do in our culture 100 percent secure," he told the Conference of Mayors earlier this year. "Security is a filter. It's not a guarantee."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide