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Did US air emergency procedure aid suicide hijackers?

Cold-war-era crisis regulations in doubt

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Exclusive During last Tuesday's suicide attacks in New York and Washington, the US Department of Defense (DoD), the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), and US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would have declared an emergency situation which, depending on its severity, would have invoked one of two little-known regulations governing air emergencies in North America.

These regulations include provisions which appear not to have been put into effect, but which might have impeded the attackers and rendered their crimes less destructive on the ground.

Cure worse than disease

The most severe emergency declaration would be an Air Defense Emergency, which invokes a regulatory scheme known as Security Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids (SCATANA). It gives the Feds authority to clear the skies, divert or re-route aircraft, and disable navigation aids which the attackers might be relying on, including VOR (VHF Omnirange), VORTAC (VHF Omnirange/Tactical Air Navigation), TACAN (Tactical Air Navigation), LORAN (LOng RAnge Navigation) and GPS (Global Positioning System).

A lesser state of emergency would invoke the Emergency Security Control of Air Traffic (ESCAT) regulations. These are basically the same as SCATANA without the added insurance of disabling navigation aids.

The FAA has told The Register that navigation aids were not disabled Tuesday, but would not comment further. From that we can infer two possibilities: either an Air Defense Emergency was not declared and ESCAT was implemented in place of SCATANA, or one was declared but SCATANA was not fully obeyed. (And NORAD isn't talking to us about it, so there's little likelihood of determining which.)

However, the government's definition of an Air Defense Emergency is: "An emergency condition which exists when attack upon the continental United States, Alaska, Canada, or US installations in Greenland by hostile aircraft or missiles is considered probable, is imminent, or is taking place."

Which sums up the tragic events of Tuesday last fairly well, and inclines us to guess that Air Defense Emergency was declared, but SCATANA was not fully implemented.

Adding to this guess is the fact that the White House ordered planes which refused to comply with orders to divert shot down. Again, this is only a best guess, but it would be reasonable to require that a full Air Defense Emergency be declared before the President could legally issue such an order. (And if that's not the case, then perhaps it ought to be.)

So, working on the presumption that a full Air Defense Emergency was declared, we have to ask why SCATANA was not followed -- why navigation aids were not disabled.

Surely, such a step would have at least impeded the suicide hijackers. It's likely that none of them was a particularly capable pilot. (It doesn't take a great deal of skill to do what they did, which was simply steer the planes.) Perhaps they were relying heavily on navigation aids. If so, disabling them might have prevented them from finding their targets. It might have saved a great number of lives on the ground.

But it's not quite that simple. Why should an established emergency regulation be disobeyed? Perhaps because in this case the cure is worse than the disease.

Old and in the way

A US Air Force spokesman, who declined to confirm or deny whether SCATANA was implemented, did urge us to consider the consequences of disabling navigation aids with the skies over North America crowded with planes and its harbors jammed with ships.

It's likely that the decision not to disable navigation aids was taken out of concern that doing so would merely shift the danger from deliberate to accidental causes. We don't know how the decision was reached, whether by refusing to implement the required response to an Air Defense Emergency, or simply by declining to declare one; but in any case we have another fine example of a self-destructive regulation.

There's irony in having an emergency procedure on the books which can't be implemented safely. SCATANA is a cold-war fossil which has advantage only when the attack promises to do more damage than the inevitable accidents the procedure will invite -- say when nuclear-armed bombers are racing towards North America.

Too bad no one thought to update it when the cold war ended. ®

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