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Document created: 25 March 02
Aerospace Power Journal - Spring 2002

The Role of the US Air Force in Fighting Terrorism at Home

Lt Col Michael Champness, USAF*

 *Colonel Champness serves in the Air Force’s Directorate of Homeland Security, Pentagon, Washington, D.C.

We have to think differently. . . . The enemy who appeared on September 11 seeks to avoid our strengths and constantly searches for our weaknesses. So America is required once again to change the way our military thinks and fights.

- President Bush, 11 December 2001

IF ONE ACCEPTS the view of the president (and since he is our commander in chief, it would probably behoove us to do so), the question then becomes, How? Of the things we do now, what should we stop doing; and what are we not doing that we should? Air Force members were just as outraged by the events of 11 September 2001 as Americans everywhere. What should we do to help?

In the immediate response to the terrorist attack, the North American Aerospace Defense Command and our air defense forces played an important role in protecting our skies from further attacks, and they continue to do so today. Our consequence-management capabilities, particularly in mobile emergency medicine, although not called upon due to the lack of injured victims, remain robust and ready. Over the long term, we will have to develop a “single integrated picture” of the range of airspace threats to the United States and develop a new readiness posture for our air defense forces. 

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, however, the preeminent role for our airpower and space power has been in taking the fight to the Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. Coupled with special operations forces on the ground and Navy strike aircraft, our expeditionary forces have proven highly effective in destroying both the ability and the will of enemy forces to fight. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said he does not see the military success in Afghanistan being used as a “cookie mold,” but it certainly seems clear that our long-held views on the advantages of effectively applied airpower are being vindicated emphatically.

But is this enough? I would not argue that “thinking differently” requires us to stop doing what we are already doing or are prepared to do to protect the homeland and battle terrorism at its source. I would argue that it does require us to look at our full range of capabilities and ask ourselves whether there are other ways we can contribute. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems that our expeditionary mind-set- particularly in times when our combat power has shown such impressive results- often blinds us to other opportunities.

No matter how much effort we put into snuffing out terrorist threats in foreign lands or protecting our borders from penetration by enemy weapons or personnel, it is inconceivable that we will be able to prevent every terrorist from entering our country. This challenge is compounded by lessons from the modus operandi of the 11 September attackers: they were not immediate terrorist threats when they first crossed into our country, and it took them two years to execute their evil plan after they arrived.

Because of this vulnerability at home, the president established the Office of Homeland Security. Its battlefield is our homeland, and its challenge is to protect against terrorist threats that emerge within our nation. It was not formed because of any shortcomings in the ability of our forces to protect our border from military attack or because the president and secretary of defense lacked confidence in our ability to root out terrorists overseas. It was formed because the terrorists had identified and exploited a glaring asymmetry in our defense: our free and open society allows them to penetrate our border and operate virtually unimpeded. Our current government structure is not well organized to intercept these terrorists before they strike or to deal effectively with the consequences of an attack. Leaving this vulnerability unrectified would be akin to playing hockey without a goalie.

A common refrain since 11 September has been that federal agencies need to share information about potential terrorist threats among themselves and with state and local law-enforcement officials. A great deal of work is also being pursued within the intelligence community to identify predictive attributes that can be used to focus the search for terrorists. Of course, the heightened sense of concern among the American people also provides a fresh source of potential intelligence. The challenge for the federal government lies in meshing the efforts of many different agencies and departments and coordinating with a myriad of state, local, and private organizations.

A critical component of this effort involves creating a seamless information web. Governor Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, as well as the president and secretary of defense, will need secure, survivable, and dependable command, control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C2ISR) to provide decision-quality information and instantaneous response. Does this sound familiar? Of course it does: in the Air Force, we call the system that provides this capability an air and space operations center (AOC). Maj Gen Robert Behler, commander of the Aerospace Command and Control and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Center (AC2ISRC) at Air Combat Command, has written that “the crux of homeland security is identical to that of air and space command and control: putting the constant flow of time critical, decision quality information into the right hands. The U.S. Air Force has the command and control skills that can assist in the nation’s most pressing challenge- combating terrorism at home.”1

To achieve this end, we need to fuse data from many different sources, including law-enforcement databases, financial records, and human intelligence (which should prove easier here than overseas), perhaps along with existing Air Force and national ISR assets periodically turned inward. Although it is not clear that the American people are quite ready for unmanned aerial vehicles flying overhead, we have a host of data-gathering techniques that are much less obtrusive. Ultimately, we can translate each of these sources into electronic formats that we can share horizontally without human intervention or interpretation.

The goal of this horizontal integration is the same as that desired by our airborne combat forces: predictive battle-space awareness. To paraphrase Gen John P. Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, when you know your universe of potential targets, you are able to more quickly categorize the specific intelligence you receive. Imagine that a Combined Federal Campaign thermometer (his analogy) represents your confidence level; you keep adding information- indications and warnings- to what you already know until you reach the requisite confidence level to act. This is exactly the same procedure we would use to ascertain whether a subject represented a terrorist threat, and it would also apply conceptually in the response to a cyber attack.2

The difference between an AOC used in this manner and the way we use it to support our expeditionary forces is that overseas, we would send a strike package to destroy the target; domestically, we would very likely forward our information to the FBI, which would then send an agent (or a team) to arrest the suspect. Although we might have difficulty visualizing an AOC feeding its results into anything other than a typical expeditionary strike package, it is even more difficult to imagine the president and secretary of defense authorizing the Air Force to apply deadly force domestically in any but the direst circumstances, and only when all other techniques have failed- as on 11 September.

As reliance upon a domestic AOC grows, its design would begin to diverge from that of an expeditionary AOC because of its need to integrate with so many different entities. Over time, our AOC could evolve to provide the foundation for the system used by the entire federal government and the president and secretary of defense. In the end, once a national system is fully established, our involvement could end. Even though every federal agency has crisis-response capabilities, a system does not currently exist to provide national-level, predictive battle-space awareness and crisis-decision support.

There is general consensus that the United States must make it as difficult as possible for terrorists to move freely about our country, yet we still must preserve as many of our civil liberties as possible. To that end, the challenge becomes separating the minute number of terrorists from the millions of law-abiding citizens and residents of this country. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 generally limits federal military forces from acting in a domestic law-enforcement role, but, more than likely, the new security environment will cause our elected leaders to update the balance between freedom and security, just as America has always done during times of war. This does not mean that military surveillance assets will soon find wide use domestically; nor is it conceivable that the Defense Department would be granted expanded arresting authority. It does make it more likely that, with our expertise in battle-space decision procedures, civilian authorities would welcome our help- on perhaps a permanent, but at least a temporary, basis.

The Air Force is right to move cautiously. The president and secretary of defense will make any decisions about how the Air Force might participate in the domestic preemption of terrorist acts. At the same time, this mission is consistent with the Air Force mission and our aerospace expeditionary force construct and mind-set. It merely has a different mix of capabilities than a typical expeditionary strike package, with different sensor inputs and little-to-no role for airborne weapon-delivery systems. Our mission is to defend the United States and protect its interests through aerospace power- and our expeditionary aerospace forces are only a method. If we can achieve our mission through a different mix of our air, space, and information capabilities- whether alone or together, in the lead or in support, domestic or overseas- we have an obligation to the American people to do so.

The campaign against terrorism is a global war. The United States cannot afford to have different systems and procedures for fighting the war overseas and domestically. This would create gaps that terrorists would surely exploit. Intelligence gathered about terrorist activities overseas and domestically will provide critical information, both to our homeland defenders and our overseas forces. As crises brew in the homeland, the civilian sector will see it and respond first. Although in many cases, civilian defenders will be able to handle the crisis on their own, it is quite possible that some attacks will rise to a level that requires military crisis-response capabilities. At that point, and under life-and-death time pressures, the military will be expected to pick up the baton flawlessly. Because the military cannot do this from a standing start, we must not allow ourselves to be put in the position of the Japanese fishing vessel that was struck by the USS Greeneville.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense is already working on an advanced-capability technology demonstration for joint, interagency command and control for homeland security. The Office of Homeland Security has established a joint data-coordination center in Washington, D.C. This train is already leaving the station, and it will depart with or without the Air Force on board.

Apart from the institutional imperative of having a seat at the table when the inevitable architecture is established and when decisions about concepts of operations are made to ensure Air Force views are heard and incorporated, there is another, more basic, reason for the Air Force to offer up its expertise in the information area. On 11 September, a foreign power killed the largest number of Americans on our own soil in 200 years, and it stands ready to do so again. If we do not look for ways to provide the president and secretary of defense with the tools they need to fight this war domestically, then we are abdicating our responsibility to protect and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That’s the wrong answer. 

Washington, D.C.


1. Maj Gen Robert Behler, “Homeland Information: AOC Can Coordinate U.S. Terror Defense,” Defense News, 10–16 December 2001, 13.

2. Gen John P. Jumper, remarks to the Air Force Association National Symposium, Los Angeles, Calif., 16 November 2001, on-line, Internet, 9 January 2002, available from "http://www.af.mil/news/speech/current/sph2001_20.html" .

It is a well-known fact that we always recognize our homeland when we are about to lose it.

––Albert Camus


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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