It was a scene unthinkable even 30 years ago as U.S., Canadian and Russian militaries worked together this week at the North American Aerospace Command headquarters to confront a common enemy: terrorist hijackers.
That’s exactly what happened during Vigilant Eagle 12, the third exercise of its kind designed to promote collaboration in detecting hijacked aircraft and scrambling military jets to intercept and escort them to safety.
This year’s three-day exercise was computer-based, with participants at the NORAD headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; and at two bases in Russia.
The scenario involved commercial airliners on international flights that had been seized by terrorists, Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard W. Scobee, NORAD’s deputy operations director, told reporters as the exercise wrapped up yesterday. One simulated hijacking took off from Alaska and was headed for Russian airspace; the other originated in Russia and was bound for the United States.
The scenarios required NORAD – the U.S.-Canada command that safeguards U.S. skies under Operation Noble Eagle — and the Russian air force to go through the procedures they would use to dispatch fighter jets to investigate and track the aircraft heading toward each other’s airspace. At that point, they handed off the missions to the other to complete.
Applying lessons learned during last year’s exercise, which involved actual aircraft, the participants worked through escort and handoff procedures using their different communications, command-and-control and air traffic control systems, Scobee explained.
To complicate the scenarios, and to reflect what assets might be available during a real-life hijacking, they had to work without input from the U.S. Air Force’s Airborne Warning and Control System or Russia’s A-50 Beriev system.
NORAD and Russia share surprisingly similar tactics, techniques and procedures, Scobee said yesterday during a post exercise news conference. “It is remarkable that they are so similar,” he said. “Even though we developed them separately, we see the problem similarly.”
Subtle differences became transparent during the exercise, Scobee said, because of the “clean handoff” as one command handed the mission and authority over to the other. “It was like a handshake,” he said.
The unifying factor, Scobee said, was an understanding that actions taken could mean the difference between life and death for passengers. “That is the No. 1 thing – and the Russian Federation is just like NORAD [and] the United States and Canada,” Scobee said. “We want to protect our citizens, and that is our primary goal.”
Scobee and Maj. Gen. Sergey Dronov of the Russian air force, who led Russia’s delegation in Colorado, praised the professionalism of both the NORAD and Russian militaries and their shared appreciation of the importance of the mission.
“Right now, we have a common enemy, and that is terrorism,” Dronov said through an interpreter.
“Our countries are uniquely plagued by terrorism,” agreed Scobee. “And this exercise gives us an opportunity to work together, to learn from each other about how we are dealing with those kinds of events.”
The goal, he said, is to increase the complexity of the exercises, refining concepts and procedures in simulation, then applying them in the sky the following year.
“Next year, we will go back and use lessons learned from this exercise and apply them to another live-fly exercise,” he said. “It will be one of those things where we learn from each other and keep building on the exercises we have.”
Future exercises will continue to integrate new curve balls that keep participants on their toes while reflecting how adaptable adversaries operate, Scobee said.
“It is a constant chess game, because just like we don’t keep our tactics stagnant, terrorists do the same thing,” he said. “They are always thinking of another way to try to get past our systems of control. So we always have to think about adjusting our tactics, our training and our procedures.”
Dronov said he was impressed during this year’s exercise by how quickly the participants dealt with challenging scenarios thrown their way. “They are also walking away with some priceless experience of interaction with each other,” he said. “I am confident that in the future, this cooperation will continue.”
The Vigilant Eagle series stems from a 2003 agreement between the U.S. and Russian presidents to promote closer cooperation as they move beyond the Cold War era, Scobee explained. The threat of international hijackers served as a foundation to help advance that effort, resulting in a relevant exercise program that helps address a recognized threat.
“The populations of the United States and Canada and the Russian Federation should hear this loud and clear: We are here to ensure their safety,” Scobee said. “Not only do we practice here at NORAD multiple times a day for this to happen, but now we are also practicing with our international partners to ensure that the air systems of all our countries are safe. And then, if something does go wrong, that we are there to take action.”
This helps to provide a unified front against terrorist hijackers like those who attacked the United States on 9/11, giving birth to the Noble Eagle mission, he said.
“We will never be helpless again,” Scobee added. “[The public] should hear that loud and clear.”