U.S. Air Force Roles Reach Beyond Securing the Skies

By Eric V. Larson

Eric Larson is a RAND senior policy analyst who is leading a study for the U.S. Air Force on its role in homeland security.

The U.S. Air Force (USAF) responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with a surge of activity to plug the aviation security gaps that had been exploited by the 19 Al Qaeda hijackers. Within three months—as Al Qaeda was routed from its sanctuary in Afghanistan, as airport security was tightened, and as public fears of terrorism diminished—USAF leaders were able to turn their attention to the longer-term challenges of homeland security. Important lessons have been learned with respect to both the immediate challenges and the emerging ones.

The Immediate Challenges

The terrorist attacks precipitated a dramatic change in the level of effort accorded by the USAF to "air sovereignty operations"—the protection of U.S. airspace by fighter aircraft and other military assets. Immediately following the attacks, nearly 30 USAF bases around the country put a total of more than 100 fighter aircraft on "strip alert," meaning they were ready to be airborne in 15 minutes to respond to any new incident.

Fighter aircraft also flew combat air patrols over some 30 U.S. cities, with continuous orbits over Washington, D.C., and New York City, and random patrols over other metropolitan areas and key infrastructure. Command-and-control, airborne warning, and tanker aircraft supported the 24-hour-a-day operations. NATO invoked Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty—for the first time in the alliance's 52-year history—and sent five airborne early warning aircraft to assist in the operation, which was named Noble Eagle.

By any measure, the air sovereignty operations involved a substantial level of effort. The USAF alone committed more than 250 aircraft to secure the skies over major U.S. cities, involving more than 120 fighters, about 11,000 airmen flying missions, and an equal number of maintenance personnel on the ground. More than 13,400 fighter, tanker, and airborne early warning sorties were flown over the United States by USAF and NATO aircrews—more sorties than were flown in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan up to mid-April, when the continuous air patrols ended.


An F-15 Eagle from the Massachusetts Air National Guard flies a combat air patrol mission over New York City in support of Operation Noble Eagle.

In April, as new civilian aviation and other security measures reduced the need for continuous fighter combat air patrols, the USAF adopted a more sustainable posture. This new approach involves a mix of combat air patrols and strip alerts at the discretion of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), based on threat assessment and available resources.

The Emerging Challenges

Homeland security is much more than continental air defense. Thus, even as the USAF absorbs the lessons of Operation Noble Eagle for its air defense planning, it is beginning to wrestle with the wider portfolio of missions that constitute homeland security, their potential demands, and the likely roles for the USAF.

Homeland security is a diverse portfolio of missions, currently broken into two broad categories: homeland defense and civil support. Homeland defense includes continental air and missile defense, maritime and land defense, and protection of military headquarters and operations. Civil support aids civilian efforts to combat terrorism, ensure the continuity of government, secure special events such as the Olympics, and respond to large-scale civil disturbances.

An examination of the emerging threats and missions in homeland security suggests a number of important roles for the USAF:

  • Homeland security missions are likely to place a premium on the full range of USAF intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. The USAF has a great deal to contribute to the new national effort to develop and field improved capabilities to detect and counter nuclear weapons and materials before they can enter the country—a technologically tough but increasingly urgent problem. Consequence management efforts in the wake of an attack involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) may also benefit from ISR capabilities that can assist local emergency officials to evacuate survivors more safely. The ISR capabilities may also enhance border surveillance, terrorism-related intelligence collection and analysis, and threat assessments for USAF bases and other facilities.

  • USAF command, control, and communications capabilities are also likely to play an expanded role in homeland security. These capabilities could be increasingly in demand to assist federal, state, and local responders in the wake of a terrorist attack or natural disaster; to improve NORAD's warning and response time for domestic airborne threats; and to strengthen the integration of the Federal Aviation Administration with other civilian airspace management systems.

  • Air mobility forces probably would play their most important role in consequence management activities in the wake of a terrorist incident or natural disaster. Deployable USAF medical capabilities also would be expected to provide triage and stabilize patients for evacuation to other locations.

  • Selected USAF special operations capabilities may be needed for a range of missions, such as disabling terrorists, seizing weapons of mass destruction, rendering the weapons safe, or assisting in search-and-rescue operations.

Of all the emerging threats the nation may face in the future, the most worrisome is nuclear weapons. In many easily conceived scenarios involving relatively small-yield nuclear weapons, the magnitude of the potential casualties and damage is so horrific that it is difficult to imagine any consequence management activities that could substantially mitigate the large-scale suffering. By comparison, in most other types of WMD attack—chemical, biological, and radiological—the effects are likely to be more localized, smaller in scale, or more manageable.

Accordingly, the USAF should put a high priority on helping the nation develop capabilities to detect nuclear weapons and materials at distances that permit an effective military response before they can be used. The military goal should be either (1) to detect, seize, and render the weapons safe or (2) to destroy them while they are still far from U.S. borders and coasts, or at least before they can reach U.S. cities where they can cause the greatest harm. Addressing this threat clearly transcends homeland defense inasmuch as the mission will involve a range of military and nonmilitary activities abroad. The mission is also likely to call upon the full range of USAF capabilities—from its research laboratories to its frontline combat and supporting forces—if it is to be successful.

Related Reading

Preparing the U.S. Army for Homeland Security: Issues, Concepts, and Options, Eric V. Larson, John E. Peters, RAND/MR-1251-A, 2001, 344 pp., ISBN 0-8330-2919-3, $35.00.