Homeland Defense:

Actions Needed to Improve Management of Air Sovereignty Alert Operations to Protect U.S. Airspace

GAO-09-184: Published: Jan 27, 2009. Publicly Released: Jan 27, 2009.

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According to U.S. intelligence, the threat to U.S airspace remains. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is to defend U.S. air space and the U.S. Air Force has 18 sites in the United States that conduct air sovereignty alert (ASA) operations. ASA operations support fighter aircraft in conducting homeland air defense operations. GAO examined the extent to which (1) NORAD has adopted a risk-based management approach to determine ASA operational requirements; (2) the Air Force has implemented ASA operations as a steady-state mission in accordance with Department of Defense (DOD), NORAD, and Air Force directives and guidance; (3) the Air Force assesses the readiness of units conducting ASA operations; and (4) the Air Force faces challenges in sustaining ASA operations for the future and what plans, if any, it has to address such challenges. GAO reviewed relevant ASA guidance, directives, and planning documents; and interviewed DOD officials, including the commanders of all 18 ASA sites.

Responding to individual requests from DOD, NORAD has done some assessments to determine ASA operational requirements. NORAD has not adopted a risk-based approach to determining ASA requirements, including routine risk assessments. Although GAO previously reported on the benefits to organizations that routinely do risk assessments to determine program requirements, NORAD does not conduct such assessments because DOD does not require NORAD to do so. However, such assessments could enhance NORAD's ability to determine and apply the appropriate levels and types of units, personnel, and aircraft for the ASA mission. The Air Force has not implemented ASA operations in accordance with DOD, NORAD, and Air Force directives and guidance, which instruct the Air Force to establish ASA as a steady-state (ongoing and indefinite) mission. The Air Force has not implemented the 140 actions it identified to establish ASA as a steady-state mission, which included integrating ASA operations into the Air Force's planning, programming, and funding cycle. The Air Force has instead been focused on other priorities, such as overseas military operations. While implementing ASA as a steady-state mission would not solve all of the challenges the units must address, it would help them mitigate some of the challenges associated with conducting both their ASA and warfighting missions. NORAD has partially assessed the readiness of ASA units; however the Air Force has not evaluated personnel, training, and quantity and quality of equipment. Readiness measures are designed to ensure that DOD forces are properly trained, equipped, and prepared to conduct their assigned missions. For example, while NORAD evaluated the extent to which aircraft were maintained for ASA operations and the units' ability to respond to an alert and to locate and intercept aircraft, it did not evaluate training. Because the Air Force has not implemented ASA as a steady-state mission or formally assigned the mission to the units, it does not assess ASA readiness. By assessing the readiness of units that consistently conduct ASA operations, DOD would be better assured that these units are organized, trained, and equipped to perform ASA operations. The Air Force faces two challenges to sustaining its ASA capabilities over the long term--(1) replacing or extending the service life of aging fighter aircraft and (2) replacing ASA units with equipment and trained personnel when they deploy. For example, if aircraft are not replaced by 2020, 11 of the 18 current air sovereignty alert sites could be without aircraft. The Air Force has not developed plans to mitigate these challenges because it has been focused on other priorities. Plans would provide the Air Force information that could assist it in ensuring the long-term sustainability of ASA operations and the capability of ASA units to protect U.S. airspace.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with the recommendation. The Air Force has taken actions that could mitigate potential challenges, if proactively managed. Specifically, the service has initiated efforts to test the effective service life of its remaining F-15 and F-16 fleets. In addition, the service has requested funding to update both platforms with radar and communication equipment that will support ASA operations. The Air Force has also identified the extent to which it could cover its alert sites if either the F-15 or F-16 fleet were unavailable. The potential grounding of ASA aircraft-such as the grounding of F-15s during 2007 and F-22s during 2011, the ongoing delays in the F-35 program, and the unspecified fielding locations for the F-35 aircraft could pose challenges in the future. Further, the Air Force could have challenges if the retirement of the current fleet of F-15s and F-16s are not managed in a manner that considers the effect on ASA operations. For example, if the Air Force were to decrease the number of older models of F-16s in the inventory, this could affect ASA operations since these aircraft are flown by units that conduct these operations. Also, if the Air Force retires the fleet of F-15s and F-16s with the longest remaining effective service lives before those with shorter service lives, the service could experience a shortage in fighter aircraft available for ASA operations before the 5th-generation aircraft (such as the F-22 and F-35, with stealth characteristics, fused sensor data, and advanced radars) are available. Taken together, the Air Forces actions-if continuously monitored and effectively implemented to account for the challenges we raised-meet the intent of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to develop and implement a plan to address any projected capability gaps in ASA units due to the expected end of the useful service lives of their F-15s and F-16s.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with the recommendation. DOD has addressed one of the three elements of the recommendation. The National Guard Bureau has incorporated ASA operations in its fiscal year 2013 Future Years Defense Program. Rather than updating and implementing the ASA program action directive, the Air Force canceled the program action directive. This leaves the Air Force and the National Guard Bureau without clear roles and responsibilities for operational planning, programming, and budgeting for ASA operations, which GAO has identified as an internal control weakness. The Air Force has also not updated any of the identified policy and doctrine documents in the recommendation. Consequently, overall roles and responsibilities remain undefined.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to implement ASA as a steady-state mission according to NORAD, DOD, and Air Force guidance by (1) updating and implementing the ASA program action directive; {2) updating the Air Force homeland defense policy, homeland operations doctrine, and concept of operations to incorporate and define the roles and responsibilities for ASA operations; and (3) incorporating the ASA mission within the Air Force submissions for the 6-year Future Years Defense Program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with the recommendation and has subsequently addressed one of the three components of the recommendation. The National Guard Bureau has incorporated ASA operations in its fiscal year 2013 Future Years Defense Program. Rather than updating and implementing the ASA program action directive, the Air Force cancelled the program action directive. With respect to updating policy and doctrine, when the Air Force updated its Homeland Defense and Civil Support Policy Directive (Air Force Policy Directive 10-8) in 2012, the department modified the focus of the directive to focus exclusively on the civil support mission. Consequently, while the new directive implements DOD-wide policy and guidance regarding civil support, establishes the Air Force?s civil support policy, and identifies the civil support responsibilities for different Air Force components, this policy directive nor any other Air Force policy directive provides such information for ASA operations conducted under the homeland operations mission set. The Air Force published updated Homeland Operations doctrine in April 2013 (AFDD 3-27), but this document did not reflect updates NORAD has made to the operational definition encompassing the ASA mission (known as aerospace control alert, or ACA). As reported in GAO-09-184 and in a subsequent GAO report regarding ASA operations (GAO-12-311), the Air Force?s resistance to fully implementing this recommendation leaves the Air Force and the National Guard Bureau without clear roles and responsibilities for operational planning, programming, and budgeting for ASA operations; limits their ability to accurately identify ASA expenditures; and increases vulnerability to improper use of limited resources.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to establish a timetable to implement ASA as a steady-state mission.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: During our 2011-2012 review of the alert mission, we found that the National Guard Bureau, in coordination with Air Combat Command, had implemented this recommendation by placing the alert mission on the secondary mission statements of the units conducting ASA operations. We believe this better positioned units to report on their readiness to conduct alert operations and therefore meets the intent of our recommendation. Bureau officials subsequently told us they were reconsidering their actions and that they may address our recommendation through another approach. This reconsideration led to NORAD expressing some concerns and a bureau official acknowledging that the problems we identified in our 2009 report could reoccur if this new approach was not fully implemented. It is too early to determine the impact of the bureau's decision.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the military services with units that consistently conduct ASA operations to formally assign ASA duties to these units and then ensure that the readiness of these units is fully assessed, to include personnel, training, equipment, and ability to respond to an alert.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based on our report's finding and recommendation, NORAD developed a quantitative computer simulation model to study basing locations that were part of the alert operation. NORAD's computer model provides DOD with data to assess risk of the alert operation, which helps decision makers identify and evaluate potential risks associated with various allocations of resources. The model allows NORAD to analyze how changing the number and location of alert basing locations would affect its ability to defend the homeland from commercial aviation attacks. The model uses real-world data on the opportunity for attacks from within the commercial aviation system and on NORAD's operational capabilities, along with assumptions about the randomness of these factors in practice, to generate numerous simulated events and assess NORAD's capability to defeat them. Further, by assessing ACA operational capabilities for various combinations of basing locations, the model helps NORAD quantify how risk would change if certain locations were removed from 24-hour alert status. We believe this action meets the intent of our recommendation and that NORAD's model enhances the command's ability to make risk-based decisions with regard to alert requirements.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Commander of the U.S. command element of NORAD to routinely conduct risk assessments to determine ASA requirements, including the appropriate numbers of ASA sites, personnel, and aircraft to support ASA operations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with the recommendation. DOD noted that it has a global force management system that it uses to formally manage its forces around the world. However, the approach that DOD uses to backfill personnel and units for ASA operations is still managed on an ad hoc basis. NORAD and the Air Force have developed some planning documents, such as a plan for backfilling ASA units on a large scale. For example, one of the planning documents identifies potential units that could conduct ASA operations at bases that are equipped with F-15s if those aircraft were grounded for a period of time as they were in 2008. In addition, Air Combat Command and the National Guard Bureau developed a memorandum of understanding that identifies a process by which Air National Guard units will be scheduled to support non-ASA Operation Noble Eagle missions, such as national special-security events, throughout the year, if called upon. The agreement identifies a process by which Air National Guard units will be identified and scheduled to support these missions, if called upon, and the time frame during which each unit will be ready to support these missions. It also identifies Air Combat Command as the command that will be responsible for providing funds to those units when called upon. However, the Air Force has not developed similar Operation Noble Eagle planning documents to replace ASA units that deploy to support overseas operations or units that are taken off alert for a short period of time when they fail an alert force evaluation. Consequently, the National Guard Bureau, in coordination with Air Combat Command, must try to find personnel and equipment that are available to support these units. In addition, since it is unclear who is responsible for funding these backfill efforts, the National Guard Bureau must use funds that were programmed for other purposes to cover these costs.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to develop and implement a formal method to replace deploying units that still provides unit commanders flexibility to coordinate replacements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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