Northcom Chief Eyes Light-Attack Planes For Homeland Role

Northcom Chief Eyes Light-Attack Planes For Homeland Role

By Marina Malenic

The military officer who oversees defense of U.S. air space sees the need for the addition of a slower-moving aircraft to his organization’s fleet of fighter aircraft.

"The F-16 is a fast aircraft, and it’s not always ideally suited to every situation," said Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, the head of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the joint US-Canadian air defense command.

Winnefeld was speaking to reporters yesterday during a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington.

He cited a February incident in which a disgruntled software engineer launched a suicide attack on an International Revenue Service building in Dallas as an example of a situation that might require use of a slower-moving fighter aircraft to defend U.S. air space.

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The admiral added that he is currently "investigating options"–which include everything from turbo-prop airplanes to helicopters–and could formulate a formal military requirement for such an aircraft as early as next year.

Top Air Force officials have said they plan to request funding for a fleet of 15 light-attack aircraft–probably propeller-driven–in the service’s Fiscal 2012 budget for the purpose of training nascent air forces of partner nations (Defense Daily, May 7). Sources have said the Air Force is looking at platforms such as a modernized version of the Boeing [BA] OV-10 Bronco, the Air Tractor AT-802U, the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano and the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6B (Defense Daily, Sept. 14, 2009).

Meanwhile, Winnefeld also said that his command considered shooting down a Navy drone helicopter that lost its datalink and mistakenly flew toward Washington, D.C., on Aug. 2.

"We were watching this very closely," said Winnefeld. "You certainly don’t want to shoot it down over a populated area if you can avoid it."

The MQ-8B Fire Scout had taken off from Webster Field at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., and infiltrated Washington’s restricted air space. Winnefeld said the Pentagon was "not close" to shooting down the aircraft.

"We were going through all the decision calculus and then, fortunately, got the word that they’d gotten control of it," he said.

Winnefeld acknowledged that the incident "doesn’t help our case" as the military pushes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ease restrictions on use of drones in U.S. air space. FAA officials have been insisting that drones need better sensor systems that can reliably detect and avoid other aircraft before they are allowed to operate over the United States.

Winnefeld said his command currently has no unmanned aircraft in its fleet due to the FAA restrictions. He said he hopes the safety issues can be resolved quickly so that drones will be available for use during natural disasters and other catastrophe.


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