Base Takes Off as Watchdog of U.S. Skies
It’s 12:23 p.m. at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, and Jeff Houlihan has his eyes on every aircraft in the skies between Canada and Venezuela, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
He’s sitting at a computer connected to law enforcement data banks and radar antennas, perusing a screen full of color-coded dots, one for each of the more than 4,000 private, commercial and military planes in flight. He’s searching for potential terrorists.
An orange dot moving north toward the U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana catches his attention. With the push of a button, Houlihan learns that plane’s flight plan, passenger load, mechanical and ownership history, criminal record and flight paths for the last two years.
“It’s OK,” he says. No need to summon Mexican troops, the FBI, U.S. Customs Black Hawk helicopters or the base’s squadron of heavily armed California Air Guard F-16 fighter interceptors.
As the nation goes to battle stations in anticipation of a war with Iraq, Houlihan’s Air-Marine Interdiction Coordination Center, which not long ago focused on drug smugglers, has become pivotal in homeland defense.
Long a low-key hodgepodge of federal air surveillance experts like Houlihan, armed forces broadcast programmers, photo archivists, air refuelers, cargo planes and fighter jets, the 2,258-acre base has, as one F-16 pilot put it, “finally found its niche.”
“Before Sept. 11, 2001, we were constantly having to redefine our relevancy,” said Air Guard Maj. Mark Jansky. “People kept asking, ‘What are you defending us against?’ ”
Not anymore. “9/11 and Iraq have added a whole new mission to this base,” said Don Traud, an Air Reserve captain and base spokesman.
Since January, 20,000 Marines have been deployed from March Air Reserve Base to the Persian Gulf. In predawn departures Wednesday, most of the base’s 10 giant air refuelers also left for overseas duty.
And the fleet of five sleek F-16s, which can travel at more than twice the speed of sound, get scrambled at least once a week -- usually to investigate, and occasionally to escort, planes not following prescribed routes.
Sometimes those aircraft are venturing too near nuclear power plants or other restricted spaces.
Sometimes the fighter planes are in the air so long that they must refuel over Southland skies, nosing up to tankers several times their size.
Jansky was at the joystick of one of two F-16s not long after Sept. 11, 2001, when they were ordered to escort an Air Canada jumbo jet back to Los Angeles International Airport because a passenger had become disruptive shortly after takeoff.
The base, which skirts Interstate 215 a few miles southeast of downtown Riverside, has a history of flexing with the contingency at hand.
“Just about everybody in the ‘Who’s Who of the Air Force’ has come through this base,” Traud said. “That includes Curtis E. Lemay, commander of the Strategic Air Command, and Lt. Col. Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, who became a five-star general.”
It started out as a dusty strip called March Field, built as a training facility in early 1918 amid reports that Germany was preparing to carry World War I into the skies with air machines.
After World War II, the facility was renamed March Air Force Base. Tensions in Europe during the Cold War brought March its first B-52, “The City of Riverside.” The giant bombers stood on alert near the base’s 13,300-foot runway for two decades as part of America’s nuclear deterrent.
A few years after the Vietnam War, the B-52s were retired. Since then, the base has served as a launching point for refuelers and cargo planes. In 1993, March Air Force Base itself was retired, leading to its designation three years later as a reserve base. Today, about 8,200 people work there.
On Tuesday morning, 50 of them, all air tanker maintenance crew members, prepared to board a 43-year-old C-141 that would take them to assignments overseas.
Air Force Tech Sgt. Dennis Apple, a 33-year-old reservist who works at Intel Corp. in Phoenix as a technical training engineer, was part of the group.
“A decade ago, I was in Desert Storm,” he said, gazing up at the huge blue-gray cargo jet that had been outfitted with airline seats.
That war was exciting, he said, “but back then, I didn’t have kids.” Now he worries about his wife having to maintain the household alone -- and, in turn, worrying about his safety.
They were about to join 250,000 U.S. military personnel already in the Middle East, and none of the reservists knew when they would be coming home.
Sent off by tearful children and wives -- many of them rocking babies in their arms -- they boarded a bus that took them to their plane. As the bus rolled away, one of the men shouted optimistically, “See you in September.”
Less than a mile from the tarmac, in one of the base’s dozens of squat stucco buildings, Houlihan and 50 other air surveillance agents, all employees of the newly formed Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were busy sorting out the white, green, blue and orange dots moving across dozens of oversized computer screens.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., called the surveillance unit an efficient and vital component of national defense because of the comprehensive data it collects.
“It could potentially be the one system we have that reveals a stray aircraft in the hands of terrorists,” he said.
Fusing data streaming in from 128 separate radar sites, including balloons designed to detect low-flying aircraft, each computer can track 12,000 targets at once in near-real time.
Above the agents’ heads were four 6-by-7-foot screens. One displayed satellite-generated weather patterns swirling over the Southwestern United States. On the others were close-up views of air traffic in Washington, D.C., southern Florida and Southern California.
The agents scanned the moving dots for “targets of immediate interest” -- any aircraft outside its flight plan, hugging the terrain over international borders, traveling without an active transponder or near restricted air space.
“A few months ago, we had a guy flying erratically without a transponder near Crawford Ranch in Texas while President Bush was there,” Houlihan said.
“We eventually determined it was an El Paso Natural Gas pipeline inspector checking something a mile off his flight plan. Then we sent the Secret Service out to his landing airport to remind him to improve his flying skills.”
In August, the unit had three major events to watch: a plane was flying near Bush’s Crawford ranch, Colombia’s president was being inaugurated, and a suspected drug-smuggling operation took place at the border between Idaho and Canada. Hours of tense scrutiny passed, ultimately without incident.
In January, a dozen March agents were transferred to Washington as part of an effort to coordinate surveillance over the nation’s capital. Houlihan, frustrated by the loss of personnel, noted that the transplanted agents are reading data sent from Riverside. And the shift, he said, left his office undermanned
Before the agents’ move, one person was designated to monitor California alone. Now that job has been given to an agent who must also keep tabs on Arizona and Mexico.
“Doing three areas at once is tough,” Houlihan said. “No one is comfortable about that. Obviously, the capital is a specific [target] and must be protected. But the situation has left certain portions of the nation’s northern borders vulnerable in terms of surveillance.”
Specifically, Houlihan said, the border of the northern United States in the vicinity of the Great Lakes is not receiving the attention that it did only two months ago.
His unit’s complaints have reached the ears of lawmakers.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a prepared statement: “It was brought to my attention that they may be short-staffed because experts were transferred to Washington, D.C., in response to increased terrorist alerts. I would hope that these positions will be replaced as soon as possible. Not to do so would create a critical lapse in our homeland security efforts.”
Tony Crowder, who oversees the surveillance center from his office in Washington, D.C., agrees.
“Yes, we have been stretching our resources and people to meet the change in threats to the United States,” he said. “But because the change has occurred so rapidly, we have not yet been able to do the restructuring of personnel and equipment we need to.”
In the meantime, Houlihan said, “We’re doing the best we can to take the sky away from the bad guys.”