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Archive for Saturday, February 23, 2002

Air Force secretary wants to stop patrols over cities

February 23, 2002

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— The Air Force's civilian leader wants to end the post-Sept. 11 practice of continuous fighter jet patrols over U.S. cities and instead leave fighters on "strip alert" at airfields, ready to launch in case of emergency.

In an Associated Press interview Friday, Air Force Secretary James Roche said the Air Force is consulting with the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and with the White House's Office of Homeland Security to determine what level of air defense is required in the long run.

The air patrols are tying up about 265 airplanes mostly fighters, refuelers and radar planes and about 12,000 airmen, Roche said.

That compares with 14,000 Air Force personnel committed to the war in Afghanistan, he said, making the Air Force the only service with a large-scale commitment to both fronts in the war on terrorism.

Pentagon officials made it known last month that the domestic air patrols and support missions were stealing from necessary air crew training for other missions. But Roche's comments were the first to spell out publicly a potential solution.

Roche said he would prefer an adjustment that would place Air Force fighter jets on "strip alert" at certain bases around the country ready to respond to indications of threatening aircraft. That would replace the current practice of flying continuous patrols over Washington and New York and patrolling daily over a rotating group of cities elsewhere.

In addition to the combat air patrols, fighters now are on alert at more than two dozen bases.

Roche stressed that scaling back the mission is not a decision for the Air Force, and that if the White House decides that 24-hour, 7-day-a-week air patrols remain necessary, then the Air Force will find a way to do them, whatever the cost.

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