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McChord Unit Keeps Eye on Sky

Air defense mission expands amid personnel cuts
- Tacoma News Tribune (http://www.thenewstribune.com/)
Published: December 24th, 2008 06:53 AM | Updated: December 24th, 2008 07:00 AM

Col. Paul Gruver, commander of the Western Air Defense Sector at McChord Air Force Base, oversees a control room that monitors U.S. airspace.
Col. Paul Gruver, commander of the Western Air Defense Sector at McChord Air Force Base,
oversees a control room that monitors U.S. airspace.

(Note: Comment on Photo Has Been Added by UFOS Northwest.)

McChord Air Force Base is a Few Miles Southwest of Tacoma, Washington.
McChord Air Force Base is a Few Miles Southwest of Tacoma, Washington.

 

The map of the continental United States is jammed with a constellation of multicolored dots. With a few computer mouse clicks, the image zooms in on a stretch of coastal California.

The screen shows the movements of dozens of aircraft: an American Airlines flight on a cross-country route. A recreational pilot enjoying a day off in his Piper Cub. A military helicopter on a training mission.

If something flies west of the Mississippi River, the Western Air Defense Sector is watching. Tens of thousands of aircraft daily move through the airspace of WADS.

The unit operates 24 hours a day out of a three-story building at McChord Air Force Base. It is comprised mostly of Washington Air National Guardsmen and members of the American and Canadian militaries.

In a room filled with four rows of computers, technicians gaze at screens, watch for intruders and respond to possible threats, sometimes by deploying F-16 fighter jets.

The importance of intercepting threats was hammered home more than seven years ago, when four teams of hijackers turned passenger jets into missiles and altered the nation’s history.

WADS’ workload has changed radically since the Sept. 11 attacks. Its jurisdiction has expanded eastward to include more than 70 percent of the continental United States. It now watches the interior of the country as well as the coastline and the borders.

And it’s doing so with fewer personnel – a worrisome trend for such an important mission, its commander said in an interview earlier this month.

“We can do sustained day-to-day operations,” Air National Guard Col. Paul Gruver said, “but I’m more challenged now than I was on 9/11.”

New Technology helps expand reach

The Western Air Defense Sector works with similar units in three other regions: Alaska, Canada and upstate New York. Together, the four sectors report to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.

The air defense sectors began during the Cold War days, when the threat of a Soviet air attack was a distinct possibility. The attention the sectors received waned throughout the ’90s, but they were thrust to the forefront of national security again on Sept. 11, 2001.

At the time, WADS watched the U.S. coastline and borders but didn’t monitor the interior of the country. It relied on the Federal Aviation Administration for information.

The sector’s capabilities have grown steadily since then, including a $1.8 million renovation of its operations center two years ago. The cold, darkened control room and the green-and-black monitors were replaced with fluorescent lighting and flat-panel color monitors. Large video screens near the front of the room show air traffic over the United States.

Today, radar and radio coverage blanket most of the continental United States. Radar-equipped tethered balloons add additional monitoring. And the sector communicates with Airborne Warning and Control System planes if technicians on the ground need more information.

About 25 to 30 people are at the WADS controls during a typical day; a smaller number at night.

Airmen at WADS also have the ability to monitor the continental United States with a few keystrokes. With the previous system, any expansion beyond the area of responsibility required a technician literally pulling out and plugging in cords, Lt. Col. Paige Abbott said.

“It was a huge monster of a thing to do,” said Abbott, a part-time Guardsman and stay-at-home mom of two. “Now it’s instantaneous.”

In October, WADS found itself in the role of watching the continental United States when the Northeast Air Defense Sector went offline to upgrade its equipment.

During several days pulling double-duty, WADS crews watched jets take off in Las Vegas or cross the border from Quebec. They also tracked dozens of helicopters flying between offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We had to look at everything, just not the western three-quarters,” said mission crew commander Capt. Brian Nagel of the Royal Canadian Air Force. “We had to look at both coastlines, everything internal. We monitored presidential movements – is he home, at the White House?

“We learned the subtleties of their area. And subtleties are huge when you’re monitoring this stuff.”

A threat or a fisherman?

WADS’ sphere of responsibility is growing. Its territory in mid-decade stretched from the Pacific Coast to the middle United States, a vertical line that ran from North Dakota’s eastern edge to Brownsville, Texas. It was an area of about 1.8 million square miles.

The Air Force rearranged several aspects of the air defense sector mission in November 2007, and WADS’ territory was stretched eastward to about the Mississippi River.

The result for the airmen at McChord: About 400,000 additional square miles to monitor.

The Air Force has also become more measured in its response to unidentified airplanes, Air National Guard Capt. Dennis Amico said. The 38-year-old Gig Harbor resident and pilot for Alaska Airlines said WADS used to be much more likely to scramble fighter jets. Now, there’s a bit more autonomy.

“If you see certain people doing certain things that you’ve watched happen a million times, you can say, ‘Oh, that’s people searching for fish off the coast of San Diego. Or maybe it’s something else we should keep an eye on,’” Amico said. “It’s a different perspective.”

The unit’s budget has held steady at $5 million a year.

Gruver, a 51-year-old Gig Harbor resident, said it’s an “ongoing balancing act” to determine the proper response to a potential threat.

“We have to work in an environment of intense time pressure, compounded by an extraordinary lack of information,” he said. “We have to make decisions based on partial information all the time, and that’s why this job is so hard.

“There are a whole lot of wrong answers, and there’s only one right answer.”

More work, half the work force

As the workload has increased, the number of personnel has steadily dipped.

Since 1994, just after the Cold War ended, the number of radars WADS monitors has jumped from 31 to 145. And the number of flights it tracks daily is up from 2,000 to 12,000.

Fourteen years ago, 553 full-time employees monitored the western United States. Today that number is 261.

Budget cuts last year also trimmed 45 of the unit’s 96 positions for drill-status Guardsmen – the typical part-timers who work one weekend a month and one week a year.

The reductions in personnel are felt on the floor of the operations center, several airmen said. “Fewer people are doing more things,” Amico said. “The job hasn’t gotten easier.”

The commander of WADS isn’t optimistic for a drastic improvement; he points to personnel shortages throughout the Air Force. But his bosses at the Pentagon realize the importance of monitoring American airspace, he said.

“The (secretary of Defense) and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff both told me personally this is America’s No. 1 mission,” Gruver said. “Defending America is the No. 1 mission.”

 

 

 

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