Editor’s Notebook

By Staff Writer | August 1, 2005

Hard Lessons Unlearned

Why train 20 people to hijack and fly airliners into big buildings, particularly when you can use four to carry bombs amid the populace and terrorize a city and a nation?

LONDON HAS PRESENTED US WITH two important lessons--the first on terrorism and the second on helicopter in emergency response.


We've talked a great deal recently about asymmetric warfare here at Rotor & Wing as well as throughout in the United States and many other nations. The July 7 suicide terror attacks in London proved just how immediate those discussions are.

For some, they have focused on the United States military's dominance and the assessment of whether any nation or viable group of nations appears able or willing to challenge the U.S. militarily. Some observers maintain none could. That is the heart of asymmetric warfare--belligerents so mismatched in capabilities that the weaker must exploit the stronger foe's weaknesses or submit to its will.

Abroad as well as in U.S. think-tank and war-college debates, the talk focuses on another aspect of asymmetric warfare--that waged by an enemy so dispersed, decentralized and amorphous that it is difficult for a traditional defense establishment to confront, let alone defeat. Al Qaeda and its network of affiliates is the most current example.

Asymmetric warfare is hardly new in history, nor is it new to Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. But the July 7 attacks highlighted that we have yet to correct many vulnerabilities that are likely to draw Osama bin Laden and his cohorts to attack again in the United States.

Those attacks and the ones last year in Madrid mark a new phase of Al Qaeda's war on us. U.K. police and security officials had warned since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington that it was only a matter of time before London was struck in that manner. Now, sadly, it seems only a matter of time before another big U.S. city is attacked.

But the United States seems to deny that reality. Just weeks before the London trains and bus were bombed, the U.S. Senate passed a homeland-security funding bill that cut money to support commuter rail and bus security throughout the country by a full third. The funding was paltry to start with, $150 million, and the cut made it clear that rail and bus security was not a U.S. priority. Just a week after the attacks, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff declared that transit basically was the problem of local governments; the feds are too busy protecting the air transportation system. That's a dangerously narrow view of the value of big-city trains and buses to both the U.S. economy and national security.

Chertoff's rationale highlights a basic flaw in the feds' efforts against domestic terrorism. "A fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people," Chertoff told the Associated Press. "A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people."

That larger number should be familiar; it's roughly the death toll of September 11. But what are the odds that Al Qaeda will repeat those tactics? Why train 20 people to hijack and fly airliners into big buildings, particularly when you use four to carry bombs (or, God forbid, chemical or biological agents) amid the populace and terrorize a city and a nation? Clearly more must be done in the United States to avert such terror.

Coincidentally, as we learn in this month's search and rescue report (SAR), U.K. officials are working on better integrating government and private helicopters in emergency response.

That harmonization effort started with those assets involved in sea and air SAR. Numerous government agencies, private organizations and charities are involved in such SAR cases, and their efforts in the past have at times been less than coordinated. Now the government agencies have established the National Emergency Response Coordination Center, staffed around the clock by representatives of the major players, to ensure that limited resources are dispatched to be most effect and with minimum duplication of efforts. The center will bring together the efforts and assets of the U.K. coast guard, the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, local police agencies and private helicopter operators. A larger goal of the harmonization effort is to have the coast guard, navy and air force work as an integrated and unified team on SAR cases.

Looking beyond their traditional roles, those officials recognize that SAR assets have capabilities that can be of great use in responding to major civil emergencies. In such cases, local response capabilities are often wiped out or overwhelmed. These officials are working on SAR units assisting until local agencies can recover. Federal, state and local emergency officials in the United States would do well to heed that lesson and learn from the efforts of their U.K. counterparts.

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