WASHINGTON — The Air Force and Air National Guard are pushing to cut back round-the-clock air patrols over some U.S. cities, saying the unprecedented security flights are straining their planes, pilots and crews, senior Pentagon officials said Friday.
"That was never intended to be a permanent thing," said Air Force Secretary James Roche, referring to the 24-hour-a-day homeland defense flights being flown since Sept. 11 over Washington, New York and other cities.
"The question is, at what point can we come back . . . to something that may be more easily managed."
The comments by Roche at a breakfast with defense writers were the latest and most public of a drumbeat of complaints about the program within the Air Force and National Guard. Commanders managing the flights have told senior Pentagon officials in recent weeks that they are straining aging jets, maintenance crews and budgets.
The military has flown more than 13,600 air defense flights since Sept. 11 at an estimated cost of $324 million. Military officials say continuing the missions indefinitely would tax defense resources and, ultimately, require an additional congressional appropriation.
Roche said Friday that, besides the wear and tear on the aircraft, the daily patrols are taking away from time that pilots and crews need to train for overseas combat missions.
Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said this week that the Pentagon was evaluating the long-term feasibility of the patrols.
"We're watching carefully to see, are we putting undue stress on a system that can't accept it?" Stufflebeem said. "If you overuse military equipment, or you don't give crews time to train, they may not be ready" for the next mission.
Pilots flying the air patrols make the same complaint.
"We need to do some training to keep the sword sharp," said 1st Lt. Gil Acosta, a 27-year-old fighter pilot from Orlando, Fla., who was reassigned from combat missions over Iraq to fly the combat air patrols. "Now you're flying around every day. The sword isn't getting any sharper."
Defense officials said the Air Force had begun discussions with the new office of homeland security on limiting the number of flights. "Yeah, it's being discussed, but we haven't got it figured out yet," a Pentagon official said.
But even as they negotiate with homeland defense officials to cut down the Pentagon's commitment to aviation safety, Air Force officials acknowledge that keeping the skies safe is not easy.
Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Air Force and NATO Airborne Warning and Control Systems aircraft have patrolled U.S. skies. And Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighter jets have flown continuously over New York and Washington. Altogether, more than 250 planes have flown on the homeland defense missions, including fighter jets, AWACS planes, C-130 transport planes and tanker aircraft, which refuel the fighters in mid-flight.
The air patrols have responded to Federal Aviation Administration concerns 266 times since they were instituted, but none of the incidents proved to be threatening, said Barry Venable, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which manages the missions.
Some military experts have argued that the new security measures imposed by Congress and the FAA make the combat air patrols unnecessary.
Others say the fighter jets are more useful for making people feel secure than for their potential to actually bring down a plane hijacked by a suicide bomber.
The jets were not able to do anything recently when a 15-year-old student pilot took off alone in a private plane, violated military airspace and crashed into a Tampa, Fla., office building.
"Quite frankly, the place to stop incidents in the air is on the ground before they happen," a Pentagon official said. "There's many levels that need to be worked through before you call in the guys with the guns."
Roche said that the FAA should begin to take more responsibility not just for improved airport security but also for "tracking and pinpointing" suspicious planes.
"What we're trying to look at is, can we maintain the confidence of the government and the American people--recognizing that much has been done with airlines, much has been done on airport security--and can we start to have a less burdensome posture," he said.