Missiles vs. airliners: a serious threat
Even though the attempted surface-to-air missile attack by al Qaeda on an Israeli airliner failed, it is a cause for concern. The Soviet-designed SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles and the Soviet-designed, B-40 rocket propelled grenades are readily available to the enemies of Israel and the West. Far less available, but much more accurate and reliable, are the U.S.-made Redeye and Stinger shoulder-fired missiles that were used to help drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War. Conceivably, al Qaeda may have a few Redeyes and Stingers.
The question arises: Just how vulnerable are U.S. air carriers operating out of U.S. airports to this kind of attack? Currently, we have 420 commercial service airports. So, what would it take to defend our airliners against these highly-mobile and relatively easy-to-conceal weapons?
This question prompts this observer to think back to 1968, the year the North Koreans boarded the U.S.S. Pueblo and threw her crew in prison. The initial response of the Johnson Administration was to deploy all available fighter aircraft to South Korea in support of a possible ground assault designed to free our sailors and return the U.S.S. Pueblo to our control.
At the time, this paratrooper was assigned as the Ground Liaison Officer to the 19th Air Force, the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing (F-4 fighter-bombers) and the 58th Bomb Wing (B-52s). Within days of the theft of the U.S.S. Pueblo, the 19th Air Force and the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing (72 F-4s) were en route to South Korea.
Within a week, all six of the South Korean air bases capable of basing our fighters-bombers were saturated with our attack aircraft, parked wingtip-to-wingtip. We were literally running out of places to put them.
Shortly before our arrival, North Korea commandos managed to slip through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in an attempt to destroy the South Korea equivalent of our White House. We reasoned that if North Korean commandos could almost reach South Korea’s most well-defended residence, then they could probably reach any or all of our six airbases and destroy many of the precious aircraft we had just pulled out of South Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.
We had only been at Osan Air Base a week when Major General Bob Burns, the commander of the 19th Air Force, turned to me and said, “Major Hamilton, your job is to the design new ground defenses for all six of our airbases. I can put 1,200 Air Force military policemen at your disposal. But they are not really the kind of infantry troops needed to defend the perimeters of these six airbases. Go to UN command headquarters in Seoul and see if you can borrow some ground troops. Also, you’ll need a plane to get around South Korea, so take my T-39 (Saberliner) and its crew.”
What a challenge, and what support! Off I went to Seoul. Shamelessly using the name of General Burns and painting Pearl Harbor-like verbal pictures of all six airbases in flames, I talked the 8th U.S. Army out of six experienced platoon sergeants. Next, I talked the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army out of six infantry battalions, one for each of our threatened airfields.
For the next two months, that Saberliner took me from airbase to airbase where my six borrowed sergeants and I designed perimeter defenses and taught infantry defensive procedures to 1,200 airmen.
But my biggest challenge was working with the ROK infantry battalion commanders. Every ROK outpost and machine gun emplacement was the subject of intense diplomatic negotiations; each preceded by an elaborate tea ceremony. But the ROKs are super soldiers. Not one air base was attacked, and I was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal.
So, what will it take to defend our 420 commercial service airports from al Qaeda missile attacks? About 420 ROK battalions would do it. And, that would be a good bargain.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy by William Penn – a novel about a terrorist attack on Colorado’s high country.
©2002. William Hamilton.