Fighters scramble after camera found on board flight

3 Aug

This post is written primarily in rebuttal to this blog post here, in which the author raises questions about the appropriateness of fighters scrambling to intercept commercial jets.

First, a little background. Every time there is a threat against a plane, I’m sure a fighter intercept is considered. However, in the vast majority of incidents, disturbances, etc, the plane proceeds to the nearest airport and lands, and is met by law enforcement on the ground. A fighter intercept is the exception, not the rule.

The fighters perform a number of functions during the intercept. Primarily, they can monitor what the plane is actually doing, by following along behind it and reporting back to air traffic control and NORAD. During most scrambles, this is the extent of what happens. During the September 11th attacks, the terrorists disabled the plane’s transponders, causing them to effectively become invisible to Air Traffic Control. A plane can also have a transponder and communications failure that isn’t related to terrorism, and having a trailing interceptor that can monitor their maneuvers is obviously key.

Many potential security threats are caused by medical issues as well as mechanical ones. If a plane deviates from it’s assigned flight plan and ATC can’t reach the pilots, fighters will be scrambled. These fighters will get close enough to visually signal the pilot to follow them (by rocking the wings), and will assess the situation by looking for things like whether or not the pilot appears alert and at the wheel, or whether or not the windows are iced over (a sign of rapid decompression). This has been happening for a long time before September 11th 2001.

Lastly, there are the situations aboard the plane that cause security concerns. Back in May, there was a passenger who seemed to indicate they had a device implanted inside them, and more recently, we had the abandoned camera. Documents recovered from Al Qaeda demonstrate that they at the very least have an interest in hiding explosives inside a camera body to get them past security. Additionally, just because there is no one on board claiming the camera doesn’t mean that it wasn’t put there by someone who is in fact aboard. And if terrorists have figured out a way to gain access to the cockpit and replicate the September 11th attacks, knowing that they will be intercepted and shot down before they can accomplish their goal could serve as a deterrence against attempting an attack in that manner.

So, in this situation, fighters get scrambled, and their primary mission is to shadow the aircraft, either openly or in secret. They’ll monitor the actions of the plane and see if the instructions from Air Traffic Control are being followed promptly and correctly, which if not, could be an indication that the pilot is under duress. Remember, if the plane is under terrorist control, there may be no one on board who can communicate what is going on to the outside. The fighter serves as the closet thing we can get to a set of eyes. And of course, in the event that it appears that the plane itself is going to be used as a weapon, a decision could be made to shoot it down as a last resort. Obviously instructions from this would come from very high in the chain of command, probably as high as they could possibly get in the time frame necessary.

The author seems to imply that these commercial flights are one twitchy fighter pilot away from being shot down, which is just not true. Or, maybe he’s just complaining that we’re too comfortable with fighter scrambles. I would heartily disagree with this, and say that the only reason it makes the news is BECAUSE of the fighter intercept. Similar scenarios happen all the time without a scramble, and just aren’t considered newsworthy. Also, anytime anyone spots a military aircraft doing anything, I get a flood of “Oh my God what’s going on are we under attack” inquiries, suggesting that the general public has not, in fact, just grown accustomed or complacent with such things.

He poses that there is a moral question about shooting down a passenger jet, but I believe most people would have preferred that the flights that crashed on September 11th had been shot down over an unpopulated area, instead of being allowed to crash into their targets. I don’t think there is much of a moral debate there.

He then moves on to the legal question, apparently unaware that there is an entire arm of government that sits around and weighs the legal ramifications of every military action. Posse Comitatus is mentioned, which states that the federal Army and Air Force can not be used in a law enforcement action without authority granted by the Constitution or by an act of Congress. Apparently the author believes that terrorists attempting to blow up an airliner or crash it into a building are a matter for law enforcement? He then goes on to ask “is the use of military air power to kill American citizens in U.S. airspace even authorized by any Act of Congress?”. I guess he didn’t catch all of the news coverage of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, or bother to Google the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists act, passed in 2001.

Lastly, he has a problem with the fact that he doesn’t know who authorizes the fighter pilots to shoot down a plane, a problem that can also be fixed with the casual use of Google. On September 11th, 2001, only the president had the authority to give such an order (which he did). Since then, the policy has been changed. The president is still the ultimate authority, and he if can be reached, the decision rests with him. The lowest possible persons who can order the shoot-down appears to be two Generals, one at Tyndall AFB, and one at Elmendorf AFB. The order would only be given in the most rare and extreme circumstances, and could only be given by the generals if no one higher could be reached to make the decision.

I can understand the author’s desire to know exactly what circumstances would trigger a shoot down order, but if I was a terrorist attempting to complete a mission, I’d also want that list of circumstances. So I wouldn’t expect to see the government releasing such information any time soon.

In conclusion, I strongly believe that there are a ton of legitimate debates regarding airline security, and our general reaction to terrorist threats and attacks, that we should be having. I think there’s probably even a reasonable discussion to be had regarding whether or not the fighter scrambles are necessary. Two of the author’s conclusions, though, are patently wrong. He implies that the government has not considered the morality or legality of a shoot-down, or the consequences, which is just not true. He also states that the only function the interceptor can perform is to shoot down the plane, which demonstrates his lack of knowledge regarding these matters. To answer the question he poses in the title, though: Yes. The government is absolutely, 100% prepared to shoot down a commercial airliner and kill everyone on board, under the most extreme circumstances, and when doing so is the last, best option for saving many more lives on the ground.


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