war on the rocks

Guardians of the Homeland: Looming Threats to the Air Alert Mission

June 6, 2016

Last year in March, the 113th Wing of the D.C. Air National Guard marked a major milestone as it scrambled its 5000th alert sortie to protect the capital region since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. D.C. Air Guard F-16s were the first among the nation’s 16 Aerospace Control Alert (ACA) units to reach this milestone — not a surprising feat for America’s busiest alert unit. But it’s hard not to notice that the multirole F-16s screaming from Andrews Air Force Base on alert launches have production markings on their tails indicating more than 30 years of service. Since the air alert mission represents a critical component of the nation’s overall homeland defense architecture, strategic planners must consider its requirements and include this perspective in the greater debate about the future fighter force structure of the U.S. Air Force.

Protecting the Homeland

ACA fighter alert is the teeth of the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) layered defense system designed to detect, identify, and engage threats to the homeland. The ACA mission comprises many capabilities and platforms: Air Force fighter, air refueling, and early warning aircraft have scrambled over 64,000 total alert sorties since 9/11. More than 65 percent of these sorties were flown by the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve. Together, USAF Total Force fighter wings man 24/7 alert at 16 sites across the continental United States, Alaska, and Hawaii. Each of these wings trains primarily for combat roles and performs ACA as an additional mission from its home station. The ACA fighter fleet consists mainly of aging F-16 and F-15C fighters, along with some 5th-generation F-22 fighters.

Fighters are scrambled for a variety of reasons, and the majority of engagements are benign — turning back a dentist who forgets to turn on his transponder or another oblivious general aviation enthusiast who blunders into restricted airspace. In worst-case scenarios, ACA fighters provide NORAD’s last layer of defense — the nation’s only guardian against a diverse array of asymmetric threats. These threats include manned/unmanned adversary aircraft and non-traditional airborne threats that have become alarmingly more commonplace since 9/11. Alert fighter pilots must exercise tremendous acumen and judgment as they mitigate these threats over American airspace, highlighting the importance of training, discipline, and adherence to rules of engagement. To be sure, the alert mission demands quick-thinking fighter pilots on-scene — there simply is no substitute.

Implications for the Future Fighter Force Mix

Along with superb fighter pilots, a mission this important requires a capable and reliable fighter fleet. To date, the fleet of F-16s and F-15Cs have performed superbly. Though the aircraft are aging, new funding from Congress to purchase a limited number of advanced radars for these legacy fighters is a promising sign. Yet the legacy fleet will inevitably age out, and planning decisions for replacement fighters are influenced by competing forces. Service life extension programs may extend the legacy fleet’s lifespan by a decade at most, but increasing cost and difficulty of maintaining operations and supply chains will prove unsustainable. While the F-22 seems a natural enduring choice, high combatant commander demand for this low-density asset precludes its usage in larger numbers for ACA. Given budget realities, building more expensive Raptors is unlikely and, as explained in an article here at War on the Rocks, strategically short-sighted.

The Air Force’s fleet of multirole F-16s will eventually be replaced with F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. On paper, F-35 recapitalization will provide an enduring solution for alert requirements (assuming the Air Force buys as many as planned and they are delivered on time). But relying solely on the F-35 for the ACA mission carries risk. First, the F-35 procurement timeline may not match legacy fleet retirements, exacerbating a well-documented “fighter gap” that will challenge global requirements and , in turn, limit forces available for ACA. In addition, once it achieves operational capability in the Air Force, the F-35 will be a high-demand asset overseas (much like the F-22), a problem further complicated if the overall Air Force buy is truncated. To be sure, the F-35 will provide irreplaceable, essential capabilities in future wars — but the Air Force has yet to address whether the Lightning II’s cost and capacity will allow it to meet ACA requirements on top of competing worldwide demands for deterrence. The F-35 is overqualified for the alert mission, and the service needs to assess the wisdom of utilizing the world’s most advanced fighter platform for tasks a lesser fighter could ably do.

Balancing the Portfolio

My colleague Derek O’Malley makes a compelling case here for a balanced future fighter force mix that features high-end F-35s and the Next Generation Air Dominance Platform complemented by a fleet of affordable manned/unmanned multi-role platforms. The enduring requirement for homeland defense is perfectly answered by acquisition of new, affordable multirole fighters. Assuming the new jets have F-16-like multirole capabilities, this cost-conscious platform could be purchased in vast numbers to ably fulfill alert roles, while also meeting equally important needs such as close air support, adversary air support for training, and a host of other fighter requirements that do not necessarily require the exquisite capabilities and high operating costs of high-end platforms.

The efficacy of sustaining the alert mission with low-cost multirole fighters is undeniable, a fact that should add another dimension to support the vision of balancing the future fighter force. Today’s zero-sum budget conditions are finally forcing the Air Force to explore affordable fighter options, but the service’s entrenched cultural bias toward expensive, exquisite aircraft remains a formidable barrier. If the Air Force can surmount this obstacle, planning and procuring a balanced fighter force will ensure that 15 years hence, alert fighters will rocket off the runway from Andrews and other alert sites to continue on as guardians of the homeland — the nation’s last line of defense.


Col. Don Kang currently works on the Air Staff in Washington, D.C.  Previous to this assignment, he was the program manager for the Air National Guard’s tactical fighter fleet.  Col Kang flew F-16s in the Regular Air Force and the Air National Guard and is a USAF Fighter Weapons School graduate.  He is a graduate of the Air War College’s Grand Strategy Program.  The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Becky Vanshur