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Commander cites concern over aging F-16s

The Air National Guard flies the oldest of the fighter jets, with an average age of more than 21 years.

The commander responsible for preventing the use of hijacked aircraft to repeat the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said Thursday he is concerned about the aging of the Air National Guard F-16 fighters that conduct most of the domestic air defense missions.

Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, said he is "watching that as closely as I can," and following the Air Force analyses on the condition of the Air Guard's jets to see whether they can "eke some additional life" out of them.

"For now, the F-16s are hanging in there," Winnefeld told a defense writers breakfast.

The Air Guard, which operates most of the "Noble Eagle" air defense alert missions, flies the oldest of the F-16s, with an average age of more than 21 years. The Guard is not expected to get newer aircraft until the F-35 becomes operational and can replace the younger F-16s flown by the regular Air Force.

Winnefeld, a veteran Navy fighter pilot, said he has talked to Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, about the issue. "I'm sure the Air Force will step up to the plate to ensure that we have adequate aircraft," Winnefeld said. "And today, we do."

Winnefeld said he is confident the nation is much better prepared to prevent a similar attack, with more air alert sites and greatly improved cooperation and information sharing among the military, the FAA and other agencies. If the current capabilities had been present in 2001, he said, "we would have stopped at least three" of the four airliners used in the attacks.

Winnefeld said he has started an analysis within NORTHCOM of the potential need for an aircraft that could fly slower and lower to fill a "capabilities gap" in his air defense mission. While insisting that he was not ready to state a "requirement," the admiral said he was looking at an aircraft that could deal with smaller, general aviation aircraft, which fly at lower altitudes and at slower speeds than airliners.

He cited the use of a single-engine private plane to crash into the IRS building in Dallas on Feb. 18.

The Air Force and the Navy have been examining possible purchase of a turboprop aircraft, such as the Brazilian-made Tucano or the attack version of the T-6 trainer being offered by Hawker Beechcraft. Winnefeld said he was monitoring those studies and would like to see a decision within a year.

Another concern Winnefeld expressed was the restrictions on flying unmanned aircraft within U.S. controlled airspace. The FAA tightly limits the use of UAVs in airways used by airliners and other manned aircraft, because the drones are unable to see and avoid other planes.

Winnefeld said there is a growing need for the military to train with its UAVs in the United States to prepare for deployments overseas, but they cannot fly them from their bases to training areas.

The admiral said he also would like to be able to use UAVs for damage assessments during a natural disaster.

The military and the UAV manufacturers are working on systems that would allow the drones to detect and avoid other aircraft.

Winnefeld praised the Customs and Border Protection bureau for its success in getting permission to fly unmanned surveillance aircraft along the U.S.-Mexico border as part of the effort to stop illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

CBP had planned to start an additional UAV flight from Corpus Christi, Texas, on Wednesday, but it had to delay the operation because of conflict with training at the Naval Air Station.

The admiral said he is working closely with Mexican authorities in their fight against the drug cartels. Although the "threat is serious" to the United States, he said he is more concerned about "corrosive impact" of the drug smuggling and drug use in this country than the violence that could spill over the border.