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High Degree of Terror Swayed Military to Act

Army surveillance plane can do the work of dozens of police copters. But experts fear the start of a merger of roles of soldier and policeman.

October 17, 2002|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — On a clear day, the Army surveillance aircraft the Pentagon will use to track the shooter who is terrorizing greater Washington can tell a red sedan from a white van anywhere along the Beltway that encircles the city.

If two planes rotate shifts, as some defense officials are suggesting, they can do the work of dozens of police helicopters over several counties surrounding the nation's densely populated capital city, 24 hours a day.

Although they are wary of a military mission that is creeping ever closer to homeland defense, Pentagon officials offered the RC-7 surveillance plane this week to help hunt for a local killer. They did it, in part, because of the high level of terror wrought by a series of random slayings that have killed nine and seriously injured two in the last two weeks, defense officials and analysts said Wednesday.

The task also offered a tantalizing opportunity for the military: a difficult training mission applicable immediately in military hotspots from Afghanistan to Iraq.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 439 words Type of Material: Correction
Sniper plane -- A graphic published in Section A on Oct. 17 gave the wrong cruising range for a surveillance plane used in the hunt for snipers terrorizing the East Coast. The RC-7 has a cruising range of 1,700 miles, not 700 miles.

"I cannot imagine a tougher surveillance mission," said Ralph Peters, an author and former Army intelligence officer. "If you can find someone in Washington, D.C., you can find anyone in Baghdad."

In bringing a military surveillance team into the hunt for the shooter, law-enforcement authorities presented the Pentagon with a daunting task. They are asking the same men and equipment that have been unable to find Osama bin Laden among the barren hills of Afghanistan and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad to pinpoint an individual whose whereabouts in the Washington region are unknown -- until he fires.

The RC-7 plane highlights the broad range of resources -- from counter-sniper experts to sensors that can detect a bullet's path -- that the Pentagon could bring to the task. Defense officials and military experts say, and many fear, that participation in this case could mark the beginning of a merger of the roles of soldier and policeman.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld authorized the Pentagon's involvement this week after the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines what they could contribute.

Technically, the agreement does not limit the Pentagon's contribution to just the RC-7. The Pentagon merely acceded to an FBI request for "aerial surveillance," said Air Force Col. Jay DeFrank, a Pentagon spokesman. Defense officials confirmed, on condition of anonymity, that the RC-7 would be used, although other aircraft could be used later. The agreement is broad enough to include the use of satellite imagery, but a defense official said that has either not been considered or has not been requested by the FBI.

The RC-7 won out over the P-3 Orion surveillance plane offered by the Navy largely because the Army aircraft, a modified commuter plane similar to those used by US Airways at Washington's Reagan National Airport, would be less conspicuous aloft than the more distinctive Navy plane. Military officials use the four-engine turboprop plane, made by De Havilland of Canada, for detecting marijuana and cocaine fields in Colombia and for clandestine surveillance.

Its infrared camera has a heat sensor that can detect anything from body heat to car exhaust and is capable of working in low light, transmitting live video signals or saving them to tape. It is designed to loiter at a slow speed -- about 125 mph -- in all types of weather for up to 10 hours, in day or night, and offers the same radar coverage as a U-2 spy plane or a B-2 bomber. It can transmit voice interceptions and data either to satellites or to users on the ground.

"The theory on this is that they'll have this aircraft flying in circles over downtown Washington and they get a 911 call and the police tells the TV camera operator on the airplane where to point the camera," said John Pike, a defense analyst at, an Alexandria, Va., research group. "They basically start panning the camera out from the shooting scene until the operator sees a white van fleeing the crime scene."

At that point, the camera operator can radio in the location of the vehicle -- police recently released a composite picture, based on witness interviews, of a white Chevrolet Astro van with a ladder rack -- and let police know which streets to block.

In principle, police helicopters can do the job, but they don't fly as high or see as far. Unlike helicopters, a single plane flying at 20,000 feet can circle the region and then home in on a spot within seconds after a report of a shooting. While police on the ground might lose the getaway car, aerial surveillance rarely does, defense analysts said. But the car has to be identified first.

"That means getting the initial spotting, which police haven't been able to do," said Tom Sanderson, a terrorism analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington public policy center.

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