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Brig. Gen. Larry K. Arnold Force Structure: What's it mean?

by Maj. Gen. Larry K. Arnold
1st Air Force Commander

s dedicated military professionals, we have an obligation to the American public to protect our skies. Without question, our citizens expect no less. Congress provides us the resources and I am confident that the professionals in the Continental United States North American Aerospace Defense Command and 1st Air Force are keeping our skies safe every day.

Since the end of the Cold War, our longtime air defense mission has evolved into one of air sovereignty. We no longer face the threat of Russian Bear bombers flying along our coast but still have an enduring right to protect our airspace from unknown threats.

Air sovereignty --— guarding America’s skies from airborne terrorists, drug traffickers and rogue nations — is what CONR/1st Air Force is all about. Air sovereignty means ensuring we know who is out there.

Just as our mission has changed over the past decade, so has the military. Defense cuts based on a reduced threat have affected us all, but we still do our important job very well even with reduced resources.

We have 10 fighter wings dedicated to our mission — 20 pilots sitting alert around the clock waiting for the order to fly when needed. They interact with our three air defense sectors, where trained weapons controllers tirelessly monitor radar screens 24 hours a day, seven days a week, watching for that unknown threat.

At the Southeast Air Defense Sector in 1997, weapons controllers tracked 427 unknown aircraft and intercepted "unknowns" 36 times. In the same year, the sectors in the Northeast and West handled 65 and 104 tracks, respectively.

The professionals throughout 1st Air Force perform the air sovereignty mission with great skill and finesse. The results of the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review, however, will affect our mission. The QDR called for reducing 1st Air Force’s dedicated structure to four fighter wings. The Air Force adjusted this number upward to six fighter wings with seven alert sites — 14 pilots alert and ready to serve when called upon.

Are seven alert locations enough to perform the air sovereignty mission? Certainly there is greater risk with seven sites than with ten alert sites. The leadership in the Air Force and in the Department of Defense believes we have a window of opportunity based on a real reduction in threat to our country that warrants this risk. I am confident 1st Air Force can and will do the job despite the QDR results.

So, who will be affected? Our alert fighter wings at Great Falls, Mont.; Burlington, Vt.; and Atlantic City, N.J.; will no longer perform the air sovereignty mission. In addition, our fighter wing at Ellington Air National Guard Base, Texas, will become a general purpose unit, with an air-to-ground mission, and still maintain an alert commitment. Our fighter unit in Fresno, Calif., will move its alert site to March Air Reserve Base, Calif., and, finally, our Fargo, N.D., unit will assume alert duties at Langley Air Force Base, Va.

All these changes seem mind-boggling and I realize change is hard to accept. But just as 1st Air Force so successfully converted to an Air National Guard organization, I know you will continue to perform our mission above and beyond my greatest expectations.