Low and Slow
Who'd ever think that Cessna or Beechcraft might be in the interceptor business?
But, if Admiral James Winnefeld gets his way, they might get a shot.
Admiral Winnefeld, the Commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, is concerned about an existing "gap" in our air defenses. Specifically, he's worried about the potential threat from slow, low-flying aircraft that are difficult for fast-moving fighters to escort and interdict.
According to Aviation Week, the problem was underscored during a recent incident involving a Navy Fire Scout drone. Launched from Patuxent River NAS in Maryland on 2 August, the UAV suffered a software glitch that caused it to go off course. Making matters worse, the drone failed to return to Patuxent (as it was programmed to do). Instead, it headed toward restricted airspace about 40 NM from Washington, D.C.
As NORAD Commander, Winnefeld was in the battle cab [at Peterson AFB, Colorado] as the incident unfolded. He was on the verge of scrambling fighters against the UAV when the Navy regained control of the aircraft.
In this case, the aircraft type--and its mission--were known, so the event was hardly a crisis. Still, there were legitimate concerns about the aircraft passing through restricted airspace, or the heavily-congested corridors leading to Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport near Washington.
Winnefeld is also worried about our ability to intercept (or interdict) slow-moving aircraft at low altitude when their intention is not known. To handle that mission, he's developing a formal requirement for a "fast" attack helicopter or a low-speed, fixed-wing design. And he hopes to have it in the DoD budget in the near future.
So far, Admiral Winnefeld hasn't specified the number of helicopters or aircraft needed for the "low-and-slow" intercept mission. But given their limited speed and range, the NORAD would (presumably) need dozens of of airframes, enough to protect key metropolitan centers (including Washington) and sensitive facilities across the country. By the time you factor in such costs as crew training, aircraft modification and sensor installation, the price tag for Winnefeld's plan will run into the billions of dollars. So far, he hasn't said where the money will come from, given current Pentagon efforts to slash costs.
Besides, the U.S. already has an interceptor force, consisting of Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft, stationed at various locations around the country. The Air Force would argue that the current force is adequate, although its sometimes difficult for fast-moving fighters to fly alongside slow-moving aircraft and attempt to communicate with their pilots. Blue-suiters would argue that aging interceptors need better air intercept radars and integration with other sensors, including FAA radars. But judging from the Admiral's proposal, he seems to have little confidence that high-performance jets can handle the low-and-slow intercept mission.
Oddly enough, there might be a potential compromise for this problem. Newer generations of UAVs have the speed to match many slow-moving aircraft, and they're controlled through command-and-control nodes with access to a wide array of sensors--so it might be easier for an interceptor drone (and its operators) to determine the intent of an aircraft more quickly and respond, based on NORAD guidance. UAVs have excellent endurance, so they could escort unknown aircraft for hours, over a wide geographic area. And, with available armament options, they could also be used to shoot down a plane or helicopter (in a worst-case scenario). With cooperation from the FAA, the military could install a signal system on the drone, to attempt communications with the wayward aircraft.
Unfortunately, there's only one problem with this "solution." The FAA has been extremely reluctant to allow UAV operations in congested airspace, for the reasons illustrated in the Pax River incident. Federal officials don't want an unpiloted aircraft drifting through restricted (or heavily-used) airspace, regardless of its mission.
Creating a force of interceptor drones (which would be scrambled periodically for training) would raise more prospects for wayward drones, operating in places there are not supposed to be. Admiral Winnefeld, a career fighter pilot, has admitted that the off-course Fire Scout "did not help" the military's case to bring drone operations into civilian airspace. That's one reason the NORAD commander is talking about attack helicopters and slow-moving fixed wing platforms to fill the interceptor "gap." He'll face an uphill battle from the Air Force, which doesn't want to share the mission with other aircraft that (might) be operated by the other services.
Still, the USAF interceptor force is aging rapidly, and airpower analysts openly wonder if NORAD will have enough airframes for the air defense mission by the end of this decade. That reality is not exactly a confidence-builder, giving an opening to someone like Admiral Winnefeld and his "alternative" solution.