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Re: NORAD Looks Inward

4:01 PM, Nov 20, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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John Noonan is correct in stating that NORAD will be sorely stretched by the requirement to stand alerts against incursions by Russian bombers and reconnaissance aircraft (even if these pose only a minimal objective threat, air sovereignty must be maintained). He overlooked, I think, the implications of long range Su-30 fighter/attack aircraft being acquired by Venezuela, which could pose a threat to Florida and the Gulf Coast, further increasing stress on NORAD. At the present moment, it does not appear that the administration will reverse its decision to terminate the FA-22 Raptor at just 183 aircraft, or that a larger number of F-15C Eagles will be modernized to provide front-line fighter-interceptor capabilities. The backbone of NORAD at present consists of aging F-15Cs (whose structural problems were recounted a couple of years ago), and F-16 Air Defense Variants, whose range and sensor capabilities are not really optimized for the continental air defense mission.

It is ironic, therefore, that the U.S. was sitting on a stockpile of perhaps the best bomber interceptor aircraft ever produced, the Northrop Grumman F-14 Tomcat (of "Top Gun" fame). Retired from service in the U.S. Navy in 2006, the F-14, particularly in its upgraded B and D variants, combined long range and excellent performance with a powerful AWG-9 or APG-17 multi-mode radar capable of tracking 24 incoming targets while targeting six simultaneously, and a Television Camera Set (TCS) that allows long-range visual identification of potential targets (to avoid embarrassing and tragic accidents). Originally, the primary armament of the Tomcat was six AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles, backed up by a pair of AIM-9 Sidewinders and an M61 Vulcan 20mm Gatling gun. A true beast of a missile, the 1000-lb. Phoenix has a maximum speed of Mach 5 and a range in excess of 100 nautical miles. It can attack targets flying anywhere between sea level and 100,000 feet -- and has demonstrated this capability. The ability to engage and detect very low flying targets will become more important as potential adversaries acquire or develop land attack cruise missiles.

It would have been a simple thing for DoD to transfer surviving F-14s and their Phoenix missiles to NORAD, but apparently long-range planning is not a Pentagon strong point. Instead, both missiles and aircraft were placed in the infamous "Boneyard" at Davis-Montham Air Force Base. There, they were placed in a state of preservation which could have allowed them to be reconditioned and reactivated under Air Force colors to meet the present crisis. However, in 2007, DoD decided to shred almost all of the 165 surviving F-14s to prevent spare parts from being sold to Iran (which says something about the USAF's security system, if nothing else). By the end of 2007, 23 of these magnificent aircraft had been shredded and sold for scrap; probably only a handful remain intact, mostly intended to become "gate guards" at various naval air stations.

With a little foresight, these aircraft could have been preserved and modernized to provide NORAD with a highly capable gap-filling interceptor at relatively low cost. Instead, we are likely to find ourselves short-handed just at the time when we would need them most.