TCS Daily


A Layered Earth, Air and Space-Based Defense for Democracy Against Terrorists

By Sallie Baliunas - September 21, 2001 12:00 AM

On Sept. 11 a commercial jetliner, brimming with jet fuel, became a low-tech, slow-speed guided missile that augered into the Pentagon, killing 189 people on the ground and aboard the aircraft.

The nation is lucky the tragedy was not worse. The hijackers appear to have veered away from an attack on either the Capitol or the White House in central Washington, where a jet crash could have slaughtered out tens of thousands and disrupted vital federal government services for days. But not even the hit upon the Pentagon should have happened. And with the proper kind of air defense system, it need never happen again - at least at the nation's capital and, potentially, other major urban areas.

A lot of talk is going on now about the need for greater human intelligence capability to forewarn us in case of attack. And new security measures are going into effect at the nations' commercial airports to combat bomb threats and hijackings.

The fact, though, is that even the best intelligence won't detect all threats. And while commercial aircraft certainly ought to be made adequately secure, the host of private planes and helicopters swirling through the air demand a more thorough, higher technology protective net. Small private planes bought by terrorists might carry chemical or biological weapons, and it's worth remembering that it was a small private plane that nearly crashed into the White House during the Clinton administration.

Other than ending all such civil flights - which would provide terrorists a coup by dealing a damaging blow to the nation's economy - the nation needs to develop a layered system of air defenses to diminish the possibility of a kamikaze style attack from any quarter.

At the most basic level, you can't do anything unless you know it. So, the first layer of defense is to provide ready detection of the threat.

The flight of the commercial jet that became a killing missile aimed at urban Washington provides some lessons of what is needed on that front.

That jet took off from Dulles airport, some 30 miles west of Washington, and traveled along a westerly route toward its scheduled destination. Soon after takeoff, though, the aircraft's transponder went quiet, its signal garroted in flight, apparently, by the terrorists who killed the pilots and seized control of the cockpit.

At the very least, the loss of the transponder message, giving the flight's altitude, ought to have signaled that there was something wrong with the airplane, if only an equipment malfunction. The fact it doubled back toward Washington, opposite its flight path, ought to have told controllers something was terribly wrong. Certainly, it should tell them that the plane might have posed a threat.

Indeed, the fact is that they did know that there was danger as they'd received information from passengers aboard the plane, including a call from Barbara Olson to her husband, Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who then informed federal officials what had happened. But the information came too late for air safety and security officials to scramble military jets in time to intercept the jetliner - just as they were too slow to get off the ground to prevent the crashing of the second jet into New York's second World Trade Center tower.

Imagine, though, that the military had been called in immediately when the transponder ceased to operate or the plane had radically changed its course. The typical cruise speed for a commercial jetliner is less than one-tenth the speed of a ballistic missile. So it is easy to spot, and certainly would have lit up military ground radar. So the first step when the transponder went off ought to have become a swift handoff between civil to military air control operations.

Failure to establish communication through an emergency channel to the jet would have justified a more rapid scrambling of airborne electronic intelligence and fighter jets. Military crews aboard them could then have provided visual and electronic sweeps close to the troubled plane to add to defensive ground radar information. That information could have further established the level of threat the jetliner posed. The fighter jets might even have forced the jetliner to change course, land at an airfield away from urban areas or face being shot down.

This detection web could further be strengthened through use of other technology, technology that in part was under consideration for use as part of a missile defense shield, such as the proposed low earth-orbit satellite defense system. The Space-Based Infrared Radar System (SBIRS) has been redrafted with so much over specificity that it probably no longer a cost-effective detection system for missile threats. But pared down to for a simpler mission to detect regional threats, it could provide ready information on all flights - commercial, civil and military -- in a region.

Coupled with surface-to-air missile systems, such as the portable Stinger missile or more permanent Phalanx radar-controlled anti-aircraft and cruise missile system now on naval vessels, the use of such advanced radar could provide a protective bubble with nearly instant interception capability against any kind of air assault in protected air space, be it in Washington or elsewhere.

The idea of regional air defense around urban cities is not new, either in concept or in technology. What is new is that the threat is now evident to all. What's needed now is the political will to deploy it and share information concerning a threat among all personnel responsible for protecting buildings.

Would such a defensive system protect against all terrorist threats? Of course not. No one system can. And would attacking a passenger aircraft co-opted to act as a deadly guided missile not itself be a horrific act? Of course it would. But the nation has harvested the bitter fruit for having lacked the capacity to make that dreadful choice.

We do, though, have the capability to deter future such terrorist attacks, without counting upon a utopian prescience of our intelligence network about when, how and where an attack will occur or upon a single layer of security at commercial airports against such an incursion.

Choices in real life are rarely as stark as total bliss or destruction. It is time to protect better the lives of Americans from terror in the skies, beginning by strengthening the defensive bubble around the airspace of the place that is the center of our democracy and our governance, Washington, D.C.
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