Air Defense: February 27, 2004

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Buried away on page 3 of the Washington Posts Metro section on February 11, 2004 was a snapshot of a most visible and public addition to White House security. Workers were photographed installing what appeared to be an Avenger pedestal-mounted Stinger (surface to air missile) system on top of the Old Executive Office Building. Located next to the White House at the corner of 17th and Pennsylvania, the building was constructed between 1871 and 1888 and originally held the Departments of State, War, and Navy. It is registered as a National Historic Landmark and still used by the Vice Presidents office, Office of Management and Budget, and the National Security Council. 

The Old Executive Office Building provides both a secure location as well as significant elevation to lift sensors and launch pods out of the urban ground clutter of downtown Washington D.C. Rooftop installation also is less visually intrusive than having a HMMVW-mounted Avenger permanently parked on the White House lawn and provides several important advantages over previously reported air defense measures such as rifles with armor-piercing ammunition and shoulder-launched Stingers. When compared to shoulder-launched Stingers, Avenger provides the capability to quickly launch missiles, rapid multiple round fire, and use all-weather sensors. While the vehicle-mounted Avenger requires an operator inside the turret, the fixed installation may put the operator inside of the building for comfort reasons.

A single Avenger mount provides eight ready-to-launch Stinger missiles in missile pods, along with a FLIR sensor, laser range-finder, and video autotracker. According to various sources, the FLIR has a 10 kilometer acquisition range, the missiles have around a 4 kilometer range, and a 50 caliber machine gun is available for last-ditch defense. In addition, the system can accept cues from other sensors and use the data to slew-to-cue to engage targets, as well as IFF information. HMMVW-Avenger systems have been deployed around the DC area during heightened Homeland Security alerts. 

Fixed Avenger mounts are the latest and most drastic visible improvement for White House air defense since 9/11. Despite two successful air penetrations of White House airspace over the last 30 years by helicopter (1994) and small plane (1994), NORAD had assigned Air National Guard F-16s out of Langley Air Force Base 30 minutes flying time south of DC -- to respond to air space incursions prior to 9/11/01. Today, the first responders are ANG F-16s out of Andrews Air Force Base literally 30 seconds flying time east of DC. In addition, one or more U.S. Customs Service Blackhawk helicopters fly patrols to intercept low-and-slow contacts.

It is likely that the Avengers are a stepping stone to other measures in the future. With a range of four kilometers, a Stinger missile can only effectively cover threats coming directly toward the White House, leaving the Capital and other government buildings vulnerable to aerial attack, unless other fixed Avenger mounts are scheduled to go up on one of the Senate or House office buildings. Currently in service with several nations and soon with the US Marines, a ground-launched version of AMRAAM would provide longer range and a more capable missile against larger commercial aircraft. More exotic laser systems currently being demonstrated by the Army might also find their way being discreetly deployed around Washington D.C. at a future date. 

One headache in current planning is Reagan National Airport. Shut down for several weeks after 9/11, the airport is almost literally across the river from the Jefferson Memorial and flight time of seconds away from both the Pentagon and downtown Washington. Twenty airlines operate out of 44 gates, flying aircraft ranging from turboprops to 737s. To prevent terrorist takeovers, U.S Air Marshals are reported to be present on every one of the flights in and out of Reagan National Airport and all passengers must remain seated within 30 minutes of the airport. At least two commercial passenger flights have been diverted from Reagan to Dulles because passengers failed to remain seated before touchdown. The ideal solution would be to close down Reagan, but with nearly 13 million passengers, including Congressmen and Supreme Court Judges, it is unlikely this will happen any time in the future. Doug Mohney

 


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