The role of police air units in domestic counterterrorism
Airborne patrols can be discreet — working in more of an observation and detection role — or the patrols can be very active and visible in a deterrence role
Today the trial begins for four men accused of plotting to shoot down military aircraft with surface to air missiles at Newburgh, New York’s Stewart Airport (among other terrorist acts). This plot, foiled in 2009, is another warning and reminder to all agencies and personnel that the fight against terror is far from over and threats remain right here in the United States. Airborne law enforcement provides an invaluable tool and resource in this fight.
Airborne patrols can be discreet — working in more of an observation and detection role — or the patrols can be very active and visible in a deterrence role. Some agencies have even begun to digitally record their flights with the recording being reviewed by analysts looking for anything that might escape the notice of the flight crew. Sometimes, intelligence is classified and does not work its way down to the flight crews, therefore a “second” look of the recording may prove valuable.
Shoulder-fired missiles, or Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), are a very big concern for law enforcement. These devices have the potential to down an aircraft with a large loss of human life. Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell called MANPADS one of the biggest threats faced by the United States. Numerous terrorist organizations have these weapons and they have been used successfully in previous attacks primarily against smaller business type jets.
Once again, directed patrols are critical to prevent these attacks. Although it might seem that only airport police jurisdictions bordering airports are responsible to prevent MANPAD attacks, the reality is far greater. A study done by the RAND Corporation showed that the Los Angeles International Airport alone requires a patrol area of over 800 square miles. MANPADS can have an effective range of 15,000 feet and several miles. This makes aircraft departing and approaching from a considerable distance targets as well. For example, approaching and departing airliners in the New York metropolitan area are well within target range over New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut.
All law enforcement personnel should have a familiarity with not only a fully assembled MANPAD unit, but also with their individual components. If one of these components was discovered alone it could certainly have significant implications on a larger investigation. Agencies should plan pre-attack countermeasures in cooperation with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA has already conducted surveys at many airports that could prove helpful when planning a counter-strategy.
Ground officers, airborne units, and marine assets are all patrolling, looking for persons conducting pre-operational surveillance, working for the chance to interrupt an actual attack in progress
The news on MANPADS is not all bad. Although often thought of as simply “fire and forget” missiles, the failed attacks on an Israeli passenger 757 in Mombasa, Kenya shows that some training and experience is required. It is believed the missile failed because the shooters did not properly deploy the weapon. While the airliner was being attacked a simultaneous and effective attack occurred at a hotel in they city itself. The hotel was the destination of Israel citizens that had just arrived on the now departing airliner enroute back to Israel.
Therefore, these strategies should not be sold only as counterterrorism strategies but rather, they should be “crime reduction” strategies of which terrorism is a part.
It’s been said that it is not a question of if, but when, a terrorist attack will again occur in the United States. What the public should know is that America’s law enforcement personnel on all levels are working diligently to identify and apprehend men like the Newburgh four before they can carry out their attacks. The public should know that cops across the country — in the air, on the water, and on the streets — are doing the job of counterterrorism.
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