September Commander's Corner
By Lt. Col. Jeff "Nasty" Beckham, 169 Fighter Wing/ACA
/ Published September 10, 2021
MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. --
“SCRAMBLE… SCRAMBLE… SCRAMBLE…” We’ve all heard it over the giant voice followed by alert fighters blasting down the runway a few minutes later. But what exactly is the Aerospace Control Alert (ACA) mission? And how does the Swamp Fox team contribute to the defense of the American homeland? This article provides a brief rundown for all SCANG members and community partners to become more familiar with this 24/7/365 mission.
McEntire JNGB is one of several ACA-trained units across the continental United States (CONUS). The Airmen and F-16s inside the ACA compound belong to the 169th Fighter Wing, but they fall under operational control of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) continental U.S. region (CONR) supporting Operation Noble Eagle, the command’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. While it has undergone several structural reorganizations over the years, NORAD has existed since 1957 when the United States and Canada agreed upon a bilateral air defense strategy. NORAD is currently divided into three geographical regions including Canada, Alaska, and the continental U.S. . CONR is further divided, roughly along the Mississippi River, into the Eastern Air Defense Sector (EADS) and Western Air Defense Sector (WADS). So, when you hear the scramble klaxon here at McEntire JNGB, our alert fighters are launching under the command and control of EADS. Ok, cool… but what do they actually do?
NORAD’s mission is to conduct aerospace warning, aerospace control, and maritime warning in defense of North America. Simply put, alert aircraft are always armed with live weapons, and represent the “business end” of that mission as a last line of defense against airborne (and potentially maritime) threats to the American homeland. Sounds pretty straight-forward, right? Well, not so fast. Back in the early days, the air defense mission meant intercepting Russian bombers off of our coast before they could attack U.S. targets. In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, air defense focus shifted to asymmetric threats like hijacked or stolen aircraft originating within our borders. Most recently, in accordance with contemporary National Security Strategy, there is a renewed emphasis on near-peer competitors with advanced capabilities, including stealth cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons that can be launched from well outside the Air Defense Identification Zone surrounding the United States. Also of note, most ACA intercepts result in benign assistance to civilian aircraft in distress or making an honest mistake and violating restricted airspace. The Swamp Fox ACA-trained team remains vigilant to counter this entire spectrum of challenges, making the mission much more complex than it appears at first glance.
Finally, it is important to explain who makes up the ACA team at McEntire JNGB. We usually think about pilots sprinting out to airplanes, being launched in mere minutes by a maintenance team with the precision of a NASCAR pit crew. But there are many others behind the scenes who make the mission happen. Command Post runs a 24/7 operation to maintain communications with EADS and other higher headquarters. Security Forces stand guard around the clock to make sure that nothing gets in the way of our alert fighters making it out to the runway. ACA also relies on support from the control tower, airfield management, the weather shop, fuel trucks, and a whole slew of base agencies on recall in the event of a scramble. The NORAD mission is truly a team effort and the 169th Fighter Wing is proud to be a part of this team.