World and Nation

U.S. Takes A New Look At Terrorism Air Defenses

The commander of military forces protecting North America has ordered a review of the costly air defenses intended to prevent another Sept. 11-style terrorism attack, an assessment aimed at determining whether the commitment of jet fighters, other aircraft and crews remains justified.

Senior officers involved in the effort say the assessment is to gauge the likelihood that terrorists may succeed in hijacking an airliner or flying their own smaller craft into the United States or Canada. The study is focused on circumstances in which the attack would be aimed not at a public building or landmark but instead at a power plant or a critical link in the nation’s financial network, like a major electrical grid or a computer network hub.

The review, to be completed next spring, is expected to be the military’s most thorough reassessment of the threat of a terrorism attack by air since al-Qaida’s strikes on Sept. 11, 2001, transformed a Defense Department focused on fighting other militaries and led to the Bush administration’s “global war on terror.”

The assessment is partly a reflection of how a military straining to fight two wars is questioning whether it makes sense to keep in place the costly system of protections established after those attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Though combat patrols above American cities were discontinued in 2007, the military keeps dozens of warplanes and hundreds of air crew members on alert to respond to potential threats.

“The fighter force is extremely expensive, so you always have to ask yourself the question ‘How much is enough?’” said Maj. Gen. Pierre J. Forgues of Canada, director of operations for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, which carries out the air defense mission within the United States military’s Northern Command.

Northern Command, based here in Colorado Springs, will try to determine in its review whether the United States is safer today. Military strategists and operations officers have been asked to address whether the security measures put in place since 2001 have diminished the threat of terrorist attack by aircraft to such an extent that a smaller commitment of combat jets and personnel is now warranted.

Officers conducting the review said that a number of security steps adopted in the last eight years should be factored into whether to sustain the air defense mission at current levels.

Among those steps are screening measures at airports; the addition of armored, locked cockpit doors on commercial planes; much tighter restrictions on airspace around Washington; and a host of law enforcement and intelligence operations to identify and track potential terrorists and prevent them from boarding airliners.

“The ability of terrorists to do what they did on 9/11 has been greatly curtailed,” Forgues said in an interview at his headquarters here. “But, as has been said, we would be concerned by the lack of imagination. And so we do not want to view the defense posture strictly in terms of threat. We want to view the defense posture in terms of vulnerability as well.”