A US Congressional Research Service report has identified options for bolstering US air defences against attack by enemy aircraft and cruise missiles. The report includes consideration of armed unmanned air vehicles (UAV), improving terrestrial and airborne radar coverage and improved integration of other military services and civilian agencies with the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD).

The report comes 17 months after NORAD failed to stop the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC by four hijacked airliners. At the time only 14 fighters were on alert at seven air bases to protect the continental USA from air attack. This has since increased to 100 aircraft, including 24h combat air patrols (CAPs) over New York and Washington DC, at an estimated cost of more than $100 million a month.

Cost reductions might be achieved in three ways, says the report, including keeping aircraft on 15 minalert on the ground rather than maintaining CAPs, although this may reduce responsiveness. The report notes that the USAF was unable to stop a 15-year- old boy flying a private aircraft into a building in Florida a year ago despite the fact that he passed over MacDill AFB en route.

Other alternatives are developing a cheaper aircraft specifically for air defence or arming UAVs. The USAF has started trials of the General Atomics Predator fitted with the Raytheon Stinger air-to-air missile, although this is geared towards self-defence. Using UAVs in these ways would require major changes in Federal Aviation Administration rules, which ban UAVs from US commercial airspace.

Improvements in NORAD's radar coverage - to detect low-observable aircraft and missiles beyond US borders and internal coverage against airborne attacks launched within the USA - might also be considered, says the report.

Cheaper alternatives to manned airborne early warning aircraft include unmanned tethered balloons, as used by the US Customs Service (USCS) on the Mexican border to detect drug smugglers. Longer-term and technically more risky solutions could include development of space-based radars.

While NORAD is spending to better integrate with civil airspace management, the report suggests more might be done to integrate USCS systems and US Navyship-based Aegis systems into the command and control structure. Other options include expanded use of the Civil Air Patrol and mandating identification-friend-or-foe interrogators for civil aircraft operating in sensitive airspace.

Source: Flight International