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Post 911 practice downing hijacked jets { October 3 2003 }

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October 3, 2003
Pilots Practice How to Down Hijacked Jets

WASHINGTON, Oct. 2 The United States military practices how to shoot down hijacked commercial airliners as often as three to four times a week, honing its defenses against terrorist attacks on American cities, a senior general said on Thursday.

In some of the drills, which began after the attacks of Sept. 11 revealed shortcomings in the military's readiness to react, the North American Aerospace Defense Command has rented commercial jets, loaded them with military volunteers and carried out mock hijackings up to the point where airborne Air Force fighter pilots would fire air-to-air missiles.

"We exercise this several times a week whether it's an airplane shooting down an airplane or air defenses in the national capital area," said the officer, Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart of the Air Force, who heads Norad, referring to surface-to-air missile batteries stationed around the Washington area.

The frequency of the military exercises, which include testing local air defense ground crews and simulating a nationwide series of terrorist attacks, reflects the concerns of senior military and civilian authorities that hijacked jetliners could still pose a threat on the scale of the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes.

In an interview with defense reporters on Thursday and in a separate conversation at the Pentagon later, General Eberhart said the rehearsals did not reflect any new specific threats. Rather, he said, the no-notice drills are a grim reminder that the country remains engaged in a global campaign against terror.

"After Sept. 11, it became obvious that this was a new world, even uglier than we imagined," said General Eberhart, who is also head of the United States Northern Command, which oversees the military's contribution to domestic counterterrorism efforts.

Two years ago, Vice President Dick Cheney revealed that in the hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush had ordered the downing of any more passenger jets that imperiled Washington. Military jets scrambled to intercept a fourth plane, but it crashed in Pennsylvania before they took any action.

Several days after the attacks, Mr. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved new rules of engagement that reflected the heightened concern over how to confront such attacks more swiftly.

Before Sept. 11, the Pentagon had no formal rules on how the military should deal with airliners taken over by suicidal hijackers bent on using them as weapons.

Now, General Eberhart said, military pilots and air defense crews are routinely quizzed about the rules of engagement involving a hijacked airliner, about which officials are authorized to order the downing of such an aircraft and about how to verify such life-and-death orders.

General Eberhart said these strict rules were in place so that "somebody can't just get up on the radio channel and say, `Hey, I'm the president of the United States, shoot that down.' "

Air Force pilots who fly missions that could be ordered to down a hijacked jet are specially certified and trained, and they undergo psychological evaluations to ensure they are not "trigger hesitant" at the moment of decision.

"We have long discussions with people to see if they're mentally prepared to do this, pilots and operators on the ground for air defense systems," General Eberhart said. "We certainly don't take this lightly."

He added that pilots are taught that shooting down a hijacked airliner would only be ordered as "a last resort," and that crews are told, "If we don't do this, innocent people on the ground are going to die, too."

The process that could some day lead to such a downing begins in a sophisticated situation room at Norad headquarters in Colorado Springs. On giant screens in the top-secret room, military officials track the flights of thousands of aircraft flying over the country. A major change after the Sept. 11 attacks was to tie the military into the Federal Aviation Administration's flight-tracking database.

General Eberhart declined on Thursday to describe the procedures the military uses to intercept a plane, determine whether it has been hijacked and decide whether to shoot it down, saying that would only give valuable information to adversaries.

Ultimately, the decision to shoot down an airliner would rest with the president, but Mr. Bush has in the past authorized two midlevel Air Force generals to order the downing in the event that he, Mr. Rumsfeld or General Eberhart were out of contact, and an attack was imminent.

In most cases, the military plans the practice downings. In June 2002, Norad rented a Delta 757 airliner and its crew, loaded it with military volunteer passengers and staged a mock hijacking over the northwestern United States, into Canada and Alaska. Fighters tracked the plane.

But there are also real-life situations that hone the training. Norad has scrambled or diverted fighter jets already airborne more than 1,500 times since Sept. 11 to check out aircraft that have strayed off course, have inadvertently turned off their transponders or have an unruly passenger aboard.

Dozens of Air Force F-15 and F-16 jets conduct irregular combat patrols over major American cities and at the first sign of trouble can be directed to a position within minutes, officials said.

In those instances, General Eberhart said, "I can guarantee that fighter pilot, they're thinking about it, and going through all the rules of engagement."

He added that unlike the case of pilots' flying over hostile territory, "when you know that what you're about to shoot down has a lot of innocent people on board, and maybe one, two, three or a handful of terrorists, that's a much different thing."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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