In Pentagon talk, it used to be called air defense. Today it’s commonly known as the Air Sovereignty Alert (ASA) mission.
It’s the modern-day term for protecting the skies of North America. During the Cold War, fighter-interceptors stayed on alert to intercept attacking Soviet bombers and cruise missiles. In the post-9/11 era, as part of Operation Noble Eagle, fighters flew continuous air patrols guarding American cities until it was decided in 2006 that a 24-hour presence aloft wasn’t needed. Now, several hundred fighters stand alert, ready to scramble, at 18 locations and fly periodic air patrols to protect U.S. and Canadian airspace.
Operation Noble Eagle pre-dates U.S. intervention in Afghanistan by several weeks. That makes it the longest military operation in U.S. history. Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons have flown 55,000 sorties since the effort began.
Today, the adversary could be a nuclear-tipped rogue rocket fired from a container ship offshore, or a hijacked commercial aircraft. Today’s fighter pilots face the grim prospect that they might be ordered to shoot down a hijacked airliner, killing innocents on board to save a larger numbers of innocent lives on the ground.
“It’s a horrifying prospect,” one F-16 pilot said, “but you know you can do it if you must. You have to trust in your chain of command and your leadership.”
The fighters pulling ASA are always armed but sometimes their duties are more innocuous – like gently steering an errant recreational pilot away from the vast no-fly zone surrounding Washington, D. C. The ASA job is costly – an F-15 sortie runs about $ 44,000 per flying hour – but experts say the alternative is to leave U.S. skies unguarded.
That’s exactly what may happen, some critics warn, if the nation’s fighter force doesn’t have the resources to continue the ASA mission at current levels. Production of the next-generation F-22 Raptor is being halted at 187 airframes and only one unit – the Hawaii Air National Guard’s 199th Fighter Squadron – will employ the Raptor on ASA duties. The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is behind schedule and over budget and initial operating capability has been pushed back at least two years to 2015.
The Pentagon wants to retire about 250 F-15s and F-16s and not replace them. The drawdown is called combat air forces reduction, or “CAF Redux” and will redistribute $3.5 billion now used for fighters into modernization accounts, new munitions, and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance platforms.
Lt. Gen. Harry M. “Bud” Wyatt, director of the Air National Guard – a former F-106 Delta Dart interceptor pilot – told the House Armed Services’ readiness committee last year that Guardsmen operate 16 of the 18 ASA sites located across the United States, that funding for the mission has been inconsistent, and that aircraft are quickly nearing the end of their service lives. About 80 percent of the Air Guard F-16s that handle the largest portion of the ASA commitment will reach the end of their lifespan by 2017, according to the 2011 National Guard Posture Statement released March 22, 2010.
Despite termination of the F-22 and delays with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the administration has consistently said it will not seek to re-open production of so-called legacy fighters like the F-15 and F-16. Wyatt says he is “platform agnostic” but acknowledges that Defense Secretary Gates opposes re-opening F-15 or F-16 production lines for U.S. forces. “New build” versions of these planes would incorporate advanced avionics, sensors and weaponry not found on current models.
Many in industry and Congress say the Air Force must confront a looming “fighter gap.” They argue that resuming production of familiar aircraft may be the only way to preserve the air sovereignty mission. Said Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) in March: “If we can put money into legacy aircraft that [are] going to give us what we need as far as mission capability, then why aren’t they willing to look at that and have a substantive discussion instead of just saying it’s off the table?”
Gen. Craig McKinley, National Guard Bureau Chief – and the only other F-106 veteran in uniform – told Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) during testimony in March that most of the Air Guard’s F-16s are Block 30 models, which “are very capable today, but without a significant amount of modernization money, will become less relevant and potentially less safe to fly over a period of time.” Bond, in whose state the F-15 is still being manufactured for export, retorted that, “If you call it the Air Guard, you ought to have aircraft.”
During the same testimony, Wyatt urged “leveling the squadron size across the combat air forces – active, Guard, and Reserve – from 24 to 18 [primary aircraft authorized].” This, Wyatt said, would enable the flow of some legacy fighters to the Guard squadrons tasked with the ASA mission – primarily F-16C/D block 40 and 50 models.