NORAD-Sponsored Exercise Prepares For Worst-Case Scenarios

by Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
June 4, 2002

WASHINGTON - The first part of today's multiagency, bilateral air security exercise sponsored by the North American Aerospace Defense Command is already a "go."

"So many agencies have met numerous times and have worked out issues, the first part of the exercise is a big success," NORAD spokesman Marine Corps Maj. Mike Snyder said today of the day-long "Amalgam Virgo 02" exercise.

This is the second year the U.S.-Canada exercise has been held, Snyder noted. NORAD headquarters, at Colorado Springs, Colo., is responsible for air and space warning and aerospace control for the continental United States, Canada and Alaska.

The exercises, Snyder said, focus on possible threats in U.S.-Canadian skies in today's post-Cold War world. The purpose of the exercises is to improve preparedness and interagency coordination for a variety of airborne threats and contingencies, he added.

This year's exercise is a commercial airliner-hijacking scenario -- planned before the Sept. 11 attacks, Snyder said. Last year's exercise, he said, was a scenario involving a cruise missile launched by "a rogue (government) or somebody" from a barge off the East Coast.

Future scenarios include air piracy and drug interdiction - - "anything else that might pop up," Snyder remarked. "We're planning for the worst-case scenario that was previously unimaginable" before the terrorist-hijacked airliner attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

This year's hijacking scenario is not a prediction of possible events, Snyder emphasized. About 1,500 people are taking part, including the FBI, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Transport Canada, the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Vancouver Airport Authority, and Delta Airlines.

Snyder said a Delta plane from Utah and a Navy C-9 from Washington State are among aircraft being used in the exercise. "Hijackers" and "law enforcement role players" are part of the scenario, he added. The Delta plane will fly to Alaska's Elmendorf Air Force Base, he noted, and the Navy C-9 will travel to Vancouver, Canada.

The exercise "does not critique security efforts on the ground," Snyder emphasized. "We are just trying to do our job in case something unforetold happens."

NORAD's expert pilots -- including active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve fliers -- have conducted "hundreds of real-world scenarios since 9-11," Snyder said.

NORAD must be notified by the FAA or other federal agencies to investigate airborne security situations, he said.

"We're the force of last resort. We don't play a first- responder role," he explained. "If we have to be used, that means something went wrong somewhere else."

Since Sept. 11, NORAD has had more than 300 domestic aviation 'events' involving a mix of small and larger commercial aircraft, Snyder said. NORAD typically scrambles aircraft at the request of the FAA, which has people at NORAD and at the organization's Cheyenne Mountain operations center, also in Colorado Springs. Scrambles -- launches -- take just minutes, he noted.

Snyder said NORAD hopes potential air threats can be "intercepted on the ground before becoming a bigger issue."

"If something is questionable in the air," Snyder said, "NORAD critiques and evaluates the threat using a graduated response." That process starts with identifying the aircraft, he added. The worst case is a shootdown.

FEMA and the FBI are also involved in any real-life situation involving hijacked airliners. They also have a role in consequence management on the ground "as we saw during 9-11, unfortunately," Snyder noted.

Regarding future NORAD involvement in hijackings of commercial airliners and other types of aircraft, Snyder noted: "Well-established rules of engagement were in place before 9-11." Those rules, he added, have been modified since to clarify new potential threats and situations.

"Truly, it's a difficult situation; time is of the essence," he said of aircraft hijackings. "The more time we have … the better."

Snyder said the time clock starts at the airlines' crisis operation centers. "Somebody has to decide if a plane has been hijacked and what the hijackers' intentions are," he concluded.

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