- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

In the movie “Independence Day,” the aliens finally were defeated by a worldwide, coordinated air attack directed from an air-defense command center at “Area 51.” The events of September 11 provided a sobering look at the reality of the air-defense situation in the United States and the woeful extent to which an already weak system had been cut back in the wake of the Cold War.

I am a former senior director at the Northeast Air Defense Sector, which controlled the fighter aircraft on September 11. From the final hearings of the September 11 commission, I take real pride in the actions of the air-defense crew on duty that day. The mission commander, in particular, should have received praise for the actions he took, such as his decision to put fighters over New York City and to order jets to fly at supersonic speed and “not worry about how many windows we break,” violating long-standing peacetime rules about going supersonic over populated areas.

The public needs to understand that the U.S. air-defense system at that time was a shell of the massive continental system that existed in the late 1960s to combat the Soviet bomber air threat. Any bomber attack on the United States would have been beaten back with catastrophic losses because of the robust air-defense system in place at that time. It consisted of fighters such as the F-102 (flown by President George W. Bush), the F-101 and F-106, and Army air-defense missiles such as the Nike Hercules — all commanded by a massive computerized air-defense system called the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or SAGE. SAGE was truly the first Internet — able to pass commands to air bases and army missile sites and to fly the fighter aircraft from the ground via data-link.

In the late 1960s, the Johnson-McNamara defense establishment decided that the intercontinental missile threat was paramount and that air defense against bombers was largely irrelevant. While true to an extent, the Johnson administration also was looking for money to fight the war in Vietnam, and the huge and costly continental air-defense system was a tempting target. In 1968, the year I joined the Air Force and was assigned to a SAGE direction center in Oregon, the cutbacks began. My direction center and many others across the country were closed. The entire Backup Intercept Center system was shut down. All Army air-defense missile batteries surrounding American cities were closed. The only Army batteries remaining were in Alaska. Even at its height, the Navy was never a player in continental air defense except on paper.

The old SAGE system, based on vacuum-tube technology, soldiered on until the early 1980s. In the 1970s, a replacement system was designed that provided few of the war-fighting capabilities of the SAGE system. It was aptly called the Joint Surveillance System, indicating that the role of air defense would be largely to monitor air sovereignty and not be a primary air-combat system. Air-defense fighters were kept on alert, but most other capabilities of the system, such as radars that could combat severe jamming, were not made available. Data-link control reverted back to voice control of the interceptors.

When the Reagan administration came into office, an attempt was made to put some war-fighting capability back into the system. Plans called for linking tactical air-control radars to the continental air-defense system. New interceptors, such as the F-15 and F-16, were added to the system. Canada adopted the F-18 as an air-defense interceptor. For the most part, however, budget priorities elsewhere hindered bringing the air-defense system back up to where it had once been. And then came the end of the Cold War, and the public clamored for a “peace dividend.” Air defenses were once more cut back.

On September 11, this country received its “peace dividend” when it was attacked catastrophically for the second time from the air. The first was, of course, Pearl Harbor.

SinceSeptember11, many changes have been made. Most importantly, we have learned that the threat may come from inside the country. The public has seen the deployment of Army air-defense batteries around certain targets, such as Washington, and these batteries are closely integrated with NORAD. I hope the Navy finally will have been brought into the air-defense picture with its very capable aircraft and missiles. New technologies have been put into place, and the Federal Aviation Administration will now view itself as an integral part of a possible air battle and not just as an air-traffic-control system. The commissionhearings proved all too well that the FAA did not provide adequateinformationto NORAD on September 11 about the situation at hand.

Never again can this nation take continental air defense for granted. No matter how rarely it might have to be exercised, air-defense personnel must stand duty around the clock and be given the proper tools to counter any threat. Emerging threats will be cruise missiles that even small powers might be able to obtain and launch from surface ships. This country cannot afford a third disaster from the air.

Darl Stephenson is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve. Before his 1995 retirement, he was stationed at the Northeast Air Defense Sector, which controlled the fighters on September 11.

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