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Military Pilots Drilled to Down Hijacked Planes

October 03, 2003|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — At least twice a week, the military practices what two years ago would have been nearly unthinkable: shooting down a civilian airliner hijacked by terrorists.

Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, head of the U.S. Northern Command, said Thursday that strong safeguards are in place to prevent an accidental or unwarranted shoot-down of a commercial airplane. Commanders, pilots and air defense crews are drilled on those procedures as many as four times each week, Eberhart said.

The rules allow for an order to shoot down a civilian plane only if there is no other option to prevent a Sept. 11-style attack, the general said. Authentication procedures exist to make sure "someone can't just get on the radio and say, 'This is the president, I order you to shoot down that plane,' " Eberhart said.

He declined to elaborate on new procedures, saying they were classified, and would not disclose who in the chain of command had the power to issue a shoot-down order.

Military jets were in the air during the 2001 attacks but were too far away to shoot down the airliners before they struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Under the new procedures, Eberhart said, commanders worry more about missing a chance to prevent an attack with a hijacked plane than about mistakenly downing a peaceful jet.

Eberhart told reporters, "I'm more worried that they would be trigger-hesitant than trigger-happy."

Those involved undergo repeated psychological screening and testing, Eberhart said.

The Pentagon created Northern Command in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks to coordinate military defense of the United States.

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