Homeland Defense

Nov. 1, 2001

All previous American wars of the modern era–two World Wars, plus conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf–had at least one important feature in common: They took place somewhere else.

Each of these conflicts was fought “over there,” far from American soil. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought war to US territory, true, but thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean stood between the battle and the mainland. Even the Cold War with the Soviet Union focused largely on Europe.

Protected for nearly two centuries by broad oceans and docile neighbors, the United States simply has not had to face a significant military threat “over here.”

All of that changed utterly on Sept. 11. In the aftermath of the devastating September terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the national homeland is now squarely on the front lines.

The attacks, which killed thousands of American civilians, not only brought a war to US soil but instantly vaulted homeland security issues from a series of warnings in studies to a top national priority.

Declaring a war on terrorism, top leaders across the government said that those who support terror will be hunted and killed or punished, and radical changes in the way the United States defends its territory, citizens, and assets are being investigated.

There is much at stake. As President Bush noted in the aftermath of the attacks that left thousands dead, “This is a fight for freedom. This is a fight to say to the freedom-loving people of the world we will not allow ourselves to be terrorized by somebody who thinks they can hit and hide in some cave somewhere. It’s going to require a new thought process. And I’m proud to report our military … understands it’s a new type of war, it’s going to take a long time to win this war.”

Despite doom and gloom in many quarters, that was not the attitude of Air Force Maj. Gen. John L. Barry, director of strategic planning at USAF headquarters in the Pentagon, in an interview conducted before Sept. 11. Barry said the nation already has significant homeland security capabilities in place-though they exist at this time somewhat by default through capabilities provided for their primary missions.


A series of high-profile studies have concluded that the American homeland had become increasingly vulnerable to threats from crude nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, cyber-war, biological agents, and other “asymmetric” types of attack. As September’s outrages demonstrated, it did not take an actual invasion of the United States to kill thousands and rock the national business, political, and military establishments.

According to members of the Defense Science Board in a report “Protecting the Homeland” (which was released before the attacks), the nation faces not only new vulnerability as a result of advances in the means of attack but also difficulty in even responding to the threat. The Pentagon has to overcome bureaucratic lethargy, find the money for new investment, and rethink the whole concept of open borders, it said.

The Defense Department is expected to play a key role in future homeland security missions, these experts said, because the department (and the Air Force in particular) already has many of the resources and capabilities needed to prevent or respond to an attack on US society.

Still, much work needs to be done to protect the US, and evolving the Defense Department to better meet the threat will be an expensive and time-consuming process-a point top officials freely admit.

The Threat

US military dominance in areas such as fighter aircraft, tanks, and submarines means adversaries are highly unlikely to challenge the nation head-on. This makes America a target for asymmetric attack, as were the September attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, presumably engineered by exiled Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden.

By taking advantage of failures in aviation security, hijacking US airlines from domestic airports, and turning them into guided missiles to strike targets elsewhere in the United States, terrorists were able to bypass existing security and defense measures.

Even NORAD at the time was outward-looking, focused on tracking aircraft entering US airspace. NORAD did not respond to the developing terrorist incident until notified of the hijackings by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Complicating the matter, there is no shortage of other options adversaries may use to bypass US strengths to strike the homeland directly. “Biological, chemical, and information technologies are very inexpensive and widely available,” said the DSB’s report. “The trend is toward lower cost, higher performance, and even wider availability.”

The report presented a lengthy outline of the homeland security challenge, describing parts of the threat as “grim” for the United States. Outlining the “gravity of the problem,” the DSB determined the threat is real and growing.

The report concluded that “unconventional” nuclear weapon attacks, those not coming via peer ballistic missiles, present the largest single asymmetric risk to the United States–but are also the most preventable.

Still, according to the DSB task force, “the ability to protect against an [unconventional nuclear] attack is sorely lacking. This point is increasingly disconcerting given the magnitude and timescale of devastation associated with a successful attack.”

Most homeland defense advocates find missile defenses to be a critical element, needed to defend against the threat from expanding and proliferating cruise and ballistic missile technology. When these missiles can be nuclear-armed, the threat to the United States is magnified.

At the time of the September Massacre, Congress and the Administration were bracing for a showdown over Bush’s plans for a robust and expensive national missile defense system. Some critics such as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, immediately called for the debate to be set aside while a plan is formulated to respond to the attacks. But Levin also noted that the attacks confirmed his belief that the nation should be focusing more resources on the types of attacks the US is more likely to see. One requirement is for more human intelligence and better processing capability for the information that is collected, he said in September.

Although the threat of nuclear ballistic missile attack from a so-called rogue nation such as North Korea received the most attention in homeland security circles prior to this fall, other, less publicized nuclear threats remain important, the DSB determined.

The report stated the greatest nuclear threat comes from state actors, not roaming terror organizations, and the threat continues to grow because “more than 1,500 tons of weapon-grade materials in Russia [are] under loose control,” while smaller nuclear weapons could be carried and concealed in a backpack or truck.

Transportability creates a major problem when viewed in conjunction with our nation’s open borders. Keeping backpack-sized nuclear weapons or chemical and biological agents out of the United States will always require good intelligence, because random checks are unlikely to do the job.

Retired Air Force Gen. Charles G. Boyd, executive director of the US Commission on National Security/21st Century, said that US borders are the most porous in the world and will probably remain that way.

“You can stand on the Ambassador Bridge [between the US and Windsor, Canada] and observe eight lanes of traffic coming into Detroit. There’s no way you can examine more than a half of one percent of the traffic coming in,” he said, adding “more than 1.3 million people cross our borders a day.” Little can be done about that aspect of the homeland threat, Boyd noted.

There is talk in the aftermath of the recent attacks to better control the constant influx of people into the United States, possibly through controversial measures such as the profiling of potential terrorists.

Porous borders also contribute to the emergence of threats from chemical or biological weapons. If spread effectively, they could, in many cases, be as devastating as a successful nuclear attack upon the United States. As horrific as the Sept. 11 attacks were, experts have cautioned that the devastation could have been exponentially worse if the terrorists had used chemical or biological weapons in conjunction with the hijacked airliners.

In 1995, a Japanese cult released sarin nerve gas into Tokyo’s crowded subway system. The crime turned out to be relatively unsuccessful. However, it demonstrated the challenge posed by chemical weapons. As Charles Cragin, who was then acting Pentagon reserve affairs chief, noted in 1998, “The Tokyo first-responders didn’t have a clue for the first three hours on what they were dealing with, so people exposed to sarin gas wandered into hospitals, potentially contaminating them.”

Considered even more deadly is the threat from biological weapons such as anthrax. Defense Department preparations for the biological warfare threat are not sufficiently advanced, the DSB found. Russia has created enough anthrax to “kill the world’s population four times over,” and the US health care system’s ability to deal with mass casualties is suspect.

“This nation does not have an effective, early capability to assess the BW [bioweapon] threat, and as a consequence, cannot prevent such a crisis,” the report stated. “The task force paints a grim picture of the effectiveness of biological warfare. For example, an attack on a city with 100 kilograms [220 pounds] of bio-agent would kill one to three million people.” Further, it is much more difficult for the United States to monitor bioweapon development than it is to track nuclear weapons programs.

Recently thrust into the spotlight is the cyber-threat, typified by the sudden emergence of a series of computer worms and viruses. According to Army Maj. Gen. J. David Bryan, commander of DOD’s Joint Task Force for Computer Network Operations under US Space Command, there has been “significant growth” in the tempo, complexity, and destructiveness of computer threats over the past two years.

Commonly known viruses and worms such as Melissa, I Love You, Anna Kournikova, and Code Red (as well as many less well-known ones) have all affected the Defense Department to varying degrees. These broad threats and other outright attacks directed at DOD represent an ever-growing challenge, Bryan said.

Meanwhile, at least 20 nations are “developing tools to attack computer-based infrastructure,” while at their disposal is an Internet that “actually provides a superb command-and-control system, which was part of its original intent,” the Defense Science Board noted.

In the immediate aftermath of the twin towers and Pentagon attacks, it was widely suggested that the terrorists were able to prevent their planning from being detected by the US Intelligence Community by communicating via Internet rather than telephone.

Lawmakers are already calling for revisions in the rules counterterrorism units must follow when tracking threats. For example, one proposal would give police agencies permission to connect eavesdropping to a person instead of an individual telephone number-in recognition of the fact that mobile phone proliferation allows a single terrorist to use many different phones.

Phone and Internet service can also be a liability for DOD in other ways. Heavy reliance upon the commercial world for telecommunications and Internet access also poses a challenge to the Defense Department, the Defense Science Board found, as the department “leases the vast majority of those services from private industry, which for economic reasons tend to use the most cost-effective option rather than the most secure.”

With all these threats still emerging, defense experts assert that the nation can no longer effectively address national security by concentrating on forward perimeter defenses in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia-the approach taken throughout the Cold War. The September attacks show that perimeter defenses can be bypassed, bringing the conflict directly to America.

Not Helpless

Barry, USAF’s top strategic planner, said these high-profile reviews detailing homeland security shortcomings do serve a purpose. He noted that the studies “identify the areas where we are not strong,” a critical first step in correcting shortcomings. Barry also noted that, although the list of homeland security shortcomings is likely to be immense at first, identification will help the Air Force prioritize its investments.

In the meantime, homeland security capabilities already in place mean the Air Force is not starting from a “clean sheet of paper” when facing the problem.

The Air Force’s ability to respond to homeland threats encompasses well-developed capabilities–although some areas of the homeland defense mission certainly need improvement, Barry said.

“I don’t want to paint a rosy picture here that we’ve got this thing licked, because there is a lot of work to do,” said Barry. “There are concepts, organization, there are technological elements that have to be resolved–and we have to get better at it. So, we’ve got a long way to go.”

The Air Force also needs to “take credit for what is already out there,” said Barry. “NORAD, with US Space Command, certainly has a role” in defending the homeland against missile and electronic attacks, for starters. NORAD is able to provide early warning notification that missiles or hostile aircraft are approaching US airspace.

Now, it looks like NORAD will have a new dimension to its operations-surveillance of internal airspace. In the September attacks, terrorists were able to sidestep NORAD observation by commandeering airplanes already operating within US airspace. According to command officials, NORAD did not begin tracking and responding to the hijacked airliners until it was notified of the developing crisis by the FAA.

Barry also called attention to the role of existing air and space-borne Air Force intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in homeland security, assets that are expected to play critical roles in responding to the attacks militarily.

These observational capabilities “can be brought to the table” to deter potential threats to the homeland before they ever occur-or to help respond to attacks after the fact, he said. Systems such as the E-8 Joint STARS ground surveillance and E-3 AWACS airborne warning and control aircraft “are not exclusive capabilities,” he said. “Whether we are working the front end of the problem before we get hit, or consequence management after we get hit, there are some common elements on both ends of that spectrum.”

Although the aftermath of a homeland attack is often perceived as a civil matter to be dealt with by the FBI and Federal Emergency Management Agency, Barry noted the Air Force also has much to offer when recovering from an attack.

“We can do retaliation,” he observed. “We clearly would focus on that capability where we would go after the culprits … to destroy their capability.”

DOD’s National Guard and Reserve components are expected to have a significant role in dealing with homeland attacks. Current reserve affairs chief Craig Duehring said in August that the department is continuing to expand the number of civil support teams designed to respond to attacks with weapons of mass destruction. Ten of 32 planned emergency response teams, designed to respond to attacks anywhere in the United States within four hours, are in place now. Each is staffed with 22 Air and Army National Guard responders.

Meanwhile, the Air National Guard stepped into action as the September attacks unfolded, scrambling fighters based at Otis ANGB, Mass., and Langley AFB, Va., to defend New York and Washington.

Days after the attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney revealed in an interview with Tim Russert of NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Bush had authorized the pilots of the Air Guard aircraft to shoot down any civilian airliners that appeared to be threatening a city. They have continued to perform their Combat Air Patrol missions in the days and weeks since the September attacks.

“It doesn’t do any good to put up a Combat Air Patrol if you don’t give them instructions to act,” Cheney said. “If the plane would not divert, if they wouldn’t pay any attention to instructions to move away from the city, as a last resort our pilots were authorized to take them out.”

Shortly after the attacks, Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighters with supporting tankers and AWACS aircraft were flying CAP over about 30 American cities. Defense officials have declined to be specific about how many fighters will continue to remain airborne and over what locations, but they said aircraft are on “strip alert,” ready to fly within 10 to 15 minutes, at 26 bases.

Who’s in Charge

Cheney, in his role as vice president, had been named as a possible homeland security czar, a position that could be established in response to the mismatch of civil and military agencies expected to pitch in to prevent and respond to homeland threats.

Before the attacks, the US Commission on National Security/21st Century (known informally as the Hart-Rudman Commission) recommended establishment of a Cabinet-level homeland security agency and czar. Under the proposal, FEMA and related organizations, including the Customs Service and Coast Guard, would be combined into a new National Homeland Security Agency.

The Hart-Rudman Commission also suggested that a new assistant secretary of defense for homeland security be created to oversee the military side of the equation. Currently US Space Command at Peterson AFB, Colo., and US Joint Forces Command at Norfolk, Va., are just two of the commands playing key roles in the homeland security mission.

The DSB report also suggested creation of a high-level office to assume responsibility for the homeland defense mission, without suggesting who should take the lead. The DSB took notice of a “mismatch between those formally in charge and those that actually have capability.”

Barry noted that a clear chain of command up to a unified leader does not exist for military homeland security, although Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart–Commander in Chief of NORAD and US Space Command–comes close.

Asked if Eberhart, as CINCSPACE, is therefore a logical choice to assume a mission of homeland security CINC, Barry said such decisions must come from the President.

President Bush did announce Sept. 20 in his address to the nation that he was creating “a Cabinet-level position reporting directly to me, the Office of Homeland Security.” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge will lead the office. His role will be to coordinate the efforts of all the agencies involved, including DOD.

Defense Department activity definitely is on the rise. Even before the attacks, however, Barry felt that much work still had to be done. “We do clearly have to do better on this organization, as several commands all have a piece of the puzzle,” he said.

Uncomfortable Challenge

American traditions of freedom of speech and movement, restrictions against unreasonable search-and-seizure, and open borders all make homeland security especially challenging. As analysts have noted, the relationship between the nation’s law enforcement and military communities is an uneasy one, but the consensus is that more cooperation will be needed.

“Homeland security encompasses all aspects of the government,” said Barry. “These kinds of attacks affect not just the military; they can affect the whole country.”

Other changes suggested by the review groups may not be popular with the Pentagon, further complicating the establishment of new homeland security capabilities. Boyd, who retired in 1995 as deputy commander of US European Command, warned that implementing the recommendations advanced by the Hart-Rudman Commission will be a long-term challenge.

The Pentagon bureaucracy will challenge homeland defense initiatives, he said. “How do you stop the services, for example, from doing all the things they know how to do-and that they like to do?” Boyd asked. “They’ve got to do some things that they’re not so interested in,” such as deal with “the asymmetrical threats that have us worried.”

The DSB also forecasted a difficult institutional road to homeland security. In a telling passage from the homeland report’s executive summary, the authors wrote:

“It has been observed, ‘Here is the Defense Science Board again making recommendations to spend money, and there is just no money.’ The DSB believes that this situation must be regarded as something quite different. This is not a case of ‘yet another aircraft to go along with the many aircraft we now have.’ These threats are different, and the DSB sees a more fundamental need for the DOD and the Intelligence Community to restructure their investment balance.”

Perhaps one small bright spot emerging from this September’s attacks is that the homeland security mission and requirements can no longer be given simple lip service.

Effective homeland security requires layered, nontraditional protection-and the DSB report said homeland defense funding should be increased. For example, DOD has not prioritized information defenses properly, the DSB task force contended. “Too much money and time is being spent on the lower-level threats to the nation’s networks (e.g., hackers) and not enough on figuring out how to protect information systems from state and terrorist warriors who understand how to exploit compromised data,” the report read.

After the attacks, analysts suggested that the US had focused too much on the high and low extremes of homeland threats–at the top, ballistic missile attacks and, at the bottom, car bombs. Consequently, the government missed the midlevel threat that became a horrifying reality.

Intelligence, Considered Broadly

The DSB suggested that DOD and the Intelligence Community rethink their investment balance “which is always hard in a large bureaucracy.” The board noted that in the Fiscal 2001 budget, roughly $264 billion was devoted to “deterring regional conflicts to protect allies, friends, and American interests,” while only $3 billion was allocated to protecting the “homeland against biological, chemical, information, and unconventional nuclear attacks.”

This is not likely to be an issue in the future. Just the very first bills to recover from the Sept. 11 attacks and to begin planning for a way forward came to $40 billion. Much more cost and planning are expected.

Reprioritization is needed, experts say, because homeland defense is not a mission that should simply be dropped on top of existing DOD responsibilities.

Traditionally, homeland threats “are equated in peoples’ minds with ‘terrorism,’ and ‘terrorism’ is viewed more as an irritating, annoying mosquito bite than as a true threat to the homeland,” the DSB noted. “This is not the case”–not that anyone in the US will ever overlook terrorism again.

The problem is larger, and the solution must be more comprehensive, the DSB said. For example, good intelligence can not only deter potential adversaries by creating better attribution but can also be a key factor in heading off and responding to almost every type of possible homeland attack.

Critics such as Levin said there was apparently a complete intelligence failure before the attacks. Analysts had warned for years about the threat of a “space Pearl Harbor” or a “cyber-Pearl Harbor” but seemingly ignored was the likelihood of a Pearl Harbor-style terror attack using domestic airliners.

Barry agreed that more is needed. “It’s a bigger issue than intelligence. … We are all looking at how to improve [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] and what forks in the road we need to work to get the most ISR and the optimum ISR complex,” he said. “That ISR challenge is going to be a big part” in the future, he said, and the service’s leadership is cognizant of the need.

Air Force Secretary James Roche “has said this is probably the biggest intellectual challenge we have for the future,” Barry observed. “This is a major point for this new Administration,” he said, and the service is attempting to determine “what is the role that United States Air Force aerospace power can provide for homeland security?”

The ultimate goal is to “go to a global perspective where we can find, fix, assess, track, target, and engage any target. That brings home how valuable ISR is,” he said.

An Attention Getter

The attention heaped upon the homeland security mission began to catch DOD’s attention even before Sept. 11. When Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz announced five principles that would guide the Quadrennial Defense Review and military transformation earlier this summer, four of the priorities had a clear homeland security perspective when the resources needed to sustain operations have to be protected.

“Protecting our bases of operation and being able to defeat nuclear/biological/chemical weapons and ballistic missile attack” is a top planning priority, Wolfowitz said.

The other key points in the planning guidance are to “project and sustain US forces in distant anti-access or area-denial environments. … Be able to deny enemy sanctuary through various means, particularly long-range precision strike of different kinds. … Be able to conduct space operations. And … to ensure joint and combined interoperability integration of long-range strike and deep maneuver forces.”

With a much smaller “garrison force” than in the past-requiring operations based and controlled in the United States-homeland security has become more than a simple protection issue. It is now a national priority.

Adam J. Hebert is the senior correspondent for InsideDefense.com, an Internet defense information site, and contributing editor for Inside the Air Force, a Washington, D.C.-based defense newsletter. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Osprey Factor,” appeared in the August 2001 issue.