Guarding America's western skies

While America’s war on terrorism has taken the fight to the heart of the enemy in Afghanistan, another important aspect of the fight against terrorism is being waged from closer to home.
McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma is the headquarters of the Western Air Defense Sector (WADS), one of three sectors – and the largest – in the continental United States.
Using a variety of radar and radio assets located throughout the western United States, as well as fighter aircraft that are on continuous alert, WADS guards its portion of the nation’s skies from terrorist attacks (Operation Noble Eagle), a job that has taken on more significance since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
WADS is made up of about 400 personnel from the Washington Air National Guard, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, civil service components and about a dozen members of the Canadian military.
“It’s a unique situation,” Maj. Anett Mummery, director of staff, said, referring to the fact that an Air National Guard unit is operating out of an active U.S. Air Force Base. In October 1997 the WADS completed a seamless transition from the active duty Air Force to the Air National Guard.
WADS originally began as the 25th Air Defense Division, established at Silver Lake (Everett), Wash. in 1948 and moved its headquarters to McChord in 1951.
In 1957, the unit became part of the North American Aerospace Defense command (NORAD), a joint U.S.-Canada command.
The Northwest Air Defense Sector was established in June 1987 as a subordinate unit of the 25th Air Division. In 1990, the 25th Air Division was deactivated, and First Air Force became the sector’s parent unit.
In January 1995, the Northwest Air Defense Sector consolidated with the Southwest Air Defense Sector, its counterpart at March Air Force Base in California, to become WADS.
People – from tracking technicians to identification technicians to air weapons officers – are at the heart of maintaining a constant radar picture over the western United States in order to implement Noble Eagle, ensure American air sovereignty and support law enforcement at the southern U.S. border.
Tracking technicians initiate and maintain contact with radar tracks, determining whether they are friend or foe and assigning letters and other information for reference.
“This is where it all begins,” said mission crew commander Lt. Col Eric Vogt. “We have a set of eyes constantly monitoring that.”
Keeping abreast of a large number of blips on a crowded radar screen is no easy task.
“I think it’s the hardest job here,” Lt. Col. Robert Ezelle, director of operations, remarked. “It’s a tough job.”
Identification technicians then process tracks of interest in order to make sure they are valid radar contacts.
From there, air weapons officers send out coded challenges and wait for the proper coded response.
If an aircraft is not identified through electronic or other means, WADS is obligated to scramble fighter interceptors in order to “put pilots’ eyes on the target,” as Vogt put it.
Aircraft can be sent up for other reasons as well, such as last month, when a phoned-in bomb threat to a Hawaiian Air flight caused F-15 fighter jets from McChord to be scrambled to escort the jetliner to Sea-Tac Airport. No bomb was found.
Fighter aircraft also make combat air patrols (CAP) over certain geographic areas, Ezelle said, declining to go into any more detail about such missions.
Crew commanders such as Vogt put all the information they get from tracking technicians, identification technicians and air weapons officers together in order to see the overall picture.
“We’ve got a lot of ways to do the ongoing mission,” he said.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks where terrorists used commercial airliners as weapons against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, WADS aerospace warning and control mission has remained unchanged.
However, post-Sept. 11 has seen increased connectivity with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with WADS ready to respond to FAA requests for assistance in the form of additional aircraft.
The FAA remains responsible for domestic airspace, and along with the Air National Guard operates Joint Surveillance System (JSS) sites located throughout the Western United States.
WADS worked with the FAA, as well as the Secret Service and U.S. Customs Service, to provide air security at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah last month, Major Mark Hurd, chief of plans, said.
There were about 20 WADS personnel in total at the Olympics, with eight present at any given time, he said.
“It went smoothly,” Hurd noted.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the ongoing war against terrorism have provided WADS personnel with a sense of purpose and resolve as they carry out their mission of protecting American airspace, Ezelle said.
“I think morale is fantastic. We’re proud to do our mission,” he said. “Our fellas have really rallied around tremendously.”

Every now and again on television, I see that a local or national news anchor person gets to take a ride in a fighter plane. It’s great publicity for the military and it makes for a great story. Taking a spin in a high-performance fighter jet is something I’ve always wanted to do, and since I was at McChord Air Force Base, it seemed like a good time to inquire about my chances of ever riding in a fighter plane. I was put on an apparently long list of such people and told “Don’t hold your breath,” and something about the Air Force being picky about who they let ride in their jets. Ouch! Apparently, working for a small legal newspaper in Tacoma doesn’t compare with local and national television news personalities. I hate it when reality intrudes on a dream.