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TECH SERGEANT “TANK”: Well, the actual range is classified, but between 250 and 300 nautical miles is what I can read.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, take a ride on a NATO AWACS. And, critiquing the CIA.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I'm Keith Porter. For the first time ever foreign troops are patrolling American airspace.
MCHUGH: NATO AWACS planes are
PORTER: Common Ground’s Cliff Brockman recently flew along on a mission with one of the NATO crews.
AWACS PILOT: [speaking over an intercom system, with the sound of jet engines in the background] This is the pilot. We’ll be cleared for takeoff shortly.
[sound of the aircraft taking off]
It’s in the morning and below freezing both outside and
inside our plane. It warms quickly though as we begin our flight. We leave
Tinker Air Force Base in
GERMAN OFFICER: We are pleased that, that on our particular part we can help you out in your home defense over here, and that’s a great job for us to be over here.
BROCKMAN: Did you ever think that
NATO would be patrolling the
GERMAN OFFICER: Not before the Article V was to come into effect.
BROCKMAN: What is your specific role?
GERMAN OFFICER: Yeah, I’m the tactical director is what we call it in NATO. I’m responsible for the, what we call mission accomplishment. That means I’m telling the, my flight deck at what orbit, at what altitude they have to fly. And also supervising the weapons and surveillance section, the detection, tracking, and weapons control. And I also monitor the technicians at the radars and all the systems, including communication.
BROCKMAN: The 17 crew members come
This plane is a converted Boeing 707 with a large radar dome mounted on top. Inside it’s stuffed with radar and communications equipment. There are no weapons on board. Flight information officer Jonathan says the AWACS is a flying command center.
FLIGHT INFORMATION OFFICER JONATHAN: Right now we’re in the mission crew area. There are nine stations in our crew area. Any of the stations can be programmed to, for people to fulfill any of the jobs that we require. But typically we split it up into three different sections. The section toward the back of the aircraft is our weapons section. They’re the ones that generally, in the event that there’s an emergency, they’re the ones that would communicate with other fighters flying in the air and would direct them towards targets and ensure that they get where they need to go. When they aren’t doing that, which hopefully they don’t do that very often. When they aren’t doing that, they can perform other kinds of surveillance—looking at specific areas or staying in touch with other air traffic or guiding fighters that might be flying to tankers when they need to refuel, or things like that.
In the middle section we have our tactical director and our surveillance officer. These front three screens are typically, we configure them to be our surveillance area. We have our surveillance operators here. They’re keeping an eye on the aircraft and looking for suspicious aircraft, etc. And keeping an eye on kind of the big picture and the specific areas of interest.
BROCKMAN: And there are really no windows in the plane.
FLIGHT INFORMATION OFFICER JONATHAN: Right. The reason behind that is twofold. One, the radar on top of the aircraft puts out a significant amount of energy and so in terms of ensuring that everybody inside the aircraft is shielded from, from the power of the radar, not having windows helps with that. Also, you can imagine about nine or ten people gathered around computer monitors; it makes it easier to control the light so that you can see what’s going on, and you can look at those small little dots and notations on the computer screens.
BROCKMAN: Surveillance is the crew’s main mission. During our flight to the East Coast a tech sergeant, who’s nicknamed “Tank,” busily gets the radar dome operating.
TECH SERGEANT “TANK”: Well, we have a 30-foot dish on top of the E-3. It weighs about six tons and it rotates at six rotations a minute. And it gives us the advantage of having a look-down capability. We can actually see, we can see down, see low and slow-moving targets with this type of radar. And we also have the ability of mobility. Basically we can move the thing around and if there’s a track of interest somewhere we can move the airplane to that particular track. It’s a very unique system in the fact that we can track very low-moving targets, low and slow-moving targets. So basically if you go fast enough in your car we can track you.
BROCKMAN: What kind of advantages would this have over a ground-based radar?
TECH SERGEANT “TANK”: Well, the biggest advantage is the fact that we can move it. We can move this thing. We can also have the fact that, say if a ground-based radar, a mountain gets in the way, we can actually move this system to the other side of the mountain and look down in the gullies and the valleys. Ground-based radars have more power, but, because they don’t have to move things around as much, they don’t have to be mobile. But the biggest advantage is mobility. We can look down, give our weapons controllers a very good picture as to what’s happening in the air and also we can actually downlink our picture to the ground so our commanders on the ground can see what’s going on as well.
BROCKMAN: What kind of range does it have?
TECH SERGEANT “TANK”: Well, the actual range is classified, but between 250 and 300 nautical miles is what I can brief. The radar beam will intersect with the airplane at the tips of the wings, the tail, and the nose, but we have software that blanks that out. So we don’t actually get any returns from that,, that we see on our screens.
BROCKMAN: And it’s not really a dead spot then, either?
TECH SERGEANT “TANK”: Not, not really. We, because we can, the radar is so powerful at ranges that far out we’re still gonna pick up targets. No problem.
BROCKMAN: The radar dome displays its
data on computer monitors just forward of where “Tank” sits. “
BROCKMAN: What are those things that we’re looking at there? Those commercial jets?
BROCKMAN: Have you seen anything so far today?
BROCKMAN: How do you stay alert?
BROCKMAN: The flight is lengthy. Even
if everything is routine the crew must stay alert. Crew members take staggered frequent
short breaks. Usually it’s to the galley for a cup of coffee, water, or a TV
dinner. “John,” a communications officer, is from
“JOHN”: Today we got up, or I got up at . We are into work at just before four to get the necessary equipment I needed for the mission. We took off a couple of hours after that. And here we are. We’re transiting to the orbit area. We never really know how long the day’s going to be. It can be anywhere typically here 12 to 15 hours flying time. So a duty day could be 18, 19 hours.
BROCKMAN: And then it’s back.
“JOHN”: Then it’s back, get some rest, and do it all over again.
BROCKMAN: It’s a serious mission. But there’s time for a little fun as well. Remember “Tank,” the radar operator? He doubles as a magician during his breaks.
“TANK”: Now, what I’m gonna do is, I’m gonna run through the deck like this. You say “Stop” anywhere you want. And whatever card you stop at, I’m gonna put it back in the deck. You can shuffle the deck and just lose it anywhere you want. I will find your card. If I don’t find your card I will give you $100. If I don’t find—or if I do find your card you don’t owe me anything. So there’s no way you’re gonna lose. Would that be your card right there?
“TANK”: OK, good. You have the eight of diamonds. All right. Good deal. I usually don’t win any money. I try not to take money off people. But it’s just a way to pass the time up here. Occasionally you get long, long missions.
BROCKMAN: There’s no magic to being
away from home and family. But the crew, including our tactical commander, all
GERMAN OFFICER: The reception was really great. I was here the last time six years ago on a different subject so I was familiar with people over here. They are very friendly and helpful. But this time it’s really, I must really say overwhelming, the reception, the kindness. They are really friendly people over here. So we are very pleased, because we not always get this really nice and kind reception like we got in here.
BROCKMAN: Even so, our Turkish pilot says it’s not quite like home.
TURKISH PILOT: I have a wife and a little daughter.
BROCKMAN: Tough being away from them?
TURKISH PILOT: Absolutely. But there are times that we need to understand the priorities. Families are important, but freedom is a lot important than families. If you don’t have freedom you have no family.
BROCKMAN: Here on the flight deck things get a little more exciting. We’re about half way through and the plane must be refueled. Rather than waste time landing the fuel comes to us. It’s on board another specially designed plane. Our flight engineer, “Jim,” explains what’s happening as we watch.
“JIM”: We’re refueling behind a KC-135 tanker. We’re about 15 feet behind it and maybe 20 feet below it. It has a refueling probe that sticks into the front of our plane and pumps us gas. Right now we’re taking about 20,000 gallons of gas right now.
BROCKMAN: How long will this refueling last?
“JIM”: Anywhere between 20 minutes to 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how fast the gas pumps.
BROCKMAN: What are some of the difficulties or the challenges in a situation like this, refueling?
“JIM”: Well, for the pilots, they have to follow the movements of the other plane. If they don’t follow they have to disconnect us or we’ll damage the refueling boom.
BROCKMAN: Indeed, both the pilot and co-pilot are studies in extreme concentration as they match each slight movement of the plane right above us. The flight is bumpy while we’re doing this, but the refueling goes smoothly. Then it’s back to our mission as the tanker pulls away.
[sound of radio traffic between the two aircraft]
BROCKMAN: Several more hours pass with no signs of anything suspicious. Eventually another AWACS plane arrives to take over. As the crew puts its, the plane is now off-station just a little early, and we head back to Tinker Air Force Base. Once the mission crew finishes filing its inevitable reports, they’re free to take a nap or read. Everyone that is, except the men on the flight deck.
[more radio traffic]
BROCKMAN: The view from the flight
deck is impressive despite the thick clouds below us. At one point our Turkish
navigator tells me we’re above
[more radio traffic]
BROCKMAN: The tactical commander helps strap me in with a shoulder harness on the flight deck. The landing gear lowers and we land.
[sound of the aircraft landing]
BROCKMAN: And taxi to a stop. We’ve been in the air for 12 hours. For our crew there will be some rest, relaxation, and some ground work. Then in a couple of days they’ll do it all over again.
[more radio traffic]
BROCKMAN: For Common Ground I’m Cliff Brockman, Tinker Air Force Base,
MCHUGH: Cliff reports prior to
September 11, AWACS flights over the
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details, or visit our Web site at commongroundradio.org. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MCHUGH: Retired Admiral Stansfield Turner has had a long and distinguished career
in military and government service. He is a Rhodes Scholar and a former
President of the
PORTER: Since leaving the CIA,
Admiral Turner has written a number of books on terrorism, democracy, and the
need to better control nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Lately he has
been concerned about problems with the
There certainly should be an investigation. And secondly, the excuse that we
should postpone the investigation because we’re still in the middle of all
this, I don’t believe is wise. We’re going to be in the middle of all this for
a long time and if there is something wrong with our intelligence apparatus and
the way it’s operating we’ve got to correct it quickly, not wait till war is
over. I don’t know how to speculate on whether if you pulled all the clues that
were available on 9/10 that would have told us there was an attack coming at
If there were enough pieces out there it would be
because some information from a flight training school in
PORTER: As the former Director of the CIA I’m wondering if there are things that you think we could have done differently that would have prevented the September 11 attacks?
TURNER: Yes. When you go way back
to 1941 we missed the call with our intelligence of
PORTER: Are there specific steps that the Bush administration should take along those lines?
TURNER: They should give the Director of Central Intelligence authority to direct the collecting activities of the photographic people, of the electronic people, of the human intelligence people. Secondly, they should give the Director of Central Intelligence the authority to command that each one of those agencies share its information with the others. Now, I don’t mean total sharing because there is a reason for people not wanting to share. That is, maybe you obtained this information from a human spy. And revelation of that information might lead to that spy being identified and killed. So there’s reason to keep it very limited in its distribution. But today, the person in charge of human spying is the one who determines how much distribution there is. It should be the Director of Central Intelligence who says, “No, that is so important that we must share it a little bit, at least.” And he would then—he or she—would then direct how much sharing and with whom. Somebody with a broader perspective than the individual in charge of the spying element should determine how much of that.
So those are the two principle things. The third one I would want to give the Director of Central Intelligence authority to put together the budgets of all the intelligence community. Why? Because you again want them to be cooperative, not overlapping. You want to put a theme behind your budget. That is, where are we taking intelligence? Where do we see the future? Is it in more satellites? Is it in more humans? Is it in more analysis? Whatever. But somebody who has the overall perspective should be looking at that and saying, “I’m putting this budget together in a way that will emphasize whatever needs to be emphasized.”
PORTER: Looking back over recent history, especially since the end of the Cold War to perhaps September 11, what could we have done differently to make the world a safer place? Were there big missed opportunities during that time frame?
TURNER: I wish we had understood
earlier how important all of the other nations of the world are to our
well-being. And therefore been a little more willing to take into account the
problems of other countries before they festered into envy and resentment
against us because we do things differently, we live on so much higher a
standard of living. We sometimes appear to the rest of the world to be
imperious and unilateralist. We should have tried to understand that without a
major enemy like we believed Communism and the
Now, we can’t raise the standard of living of every
PORTER: I know you’ve been very vocal on the control of nuclear weapons and on nuclear proliferation in particular. Are there opportunities that we missed there? Are there things that we could have been doing over that decade that we weren’t doing?
TURNER: Over this decade the
Russians have been unable to maintain the size of their nuclear arsenal. They
built their nuclear weaponry to last about 15 years and then they intended to
replace it piece by piece. We built our weaponry to last much longer and
refurbish it as it goes along, so that it will have a longer shelf life. Well,
it’s been ten years now of the 15 in a sense, and they haven’t replaced much of
anything because they are too poor. We should have taken advantage of that as
soon as we perceived it and said, “Hey,
So why are we sitting up here at these absurd numbers? It’s because of a artifact of the Cold War. We got carried away with ourselves and we said, “Well, if they’ve got 10 we’ve got to have 12.” And if they said, “Well, they’ve got 12, we’ve got to have 14.” And it went on up to the unbelievable number of 70,000 nuclear warheads between our two countries. We should have certainly as soon as the Cold War ended have said, “Let’s really take this down to something that is much more reasonable.”
PORTER: Several years ago you wrote a book about the tension that exists between the desire to live in an open society and the desire to prevent terrorism. How are we doing along those lines? Are we making the right decisions?
TURNER: I’m a little concerned today that we can’t get too carried away with ourselves. But I don’t think we’ve gone too far at this point. The military tribunals that have been authorized are probably the most controversial intrusion into our normal due process of law. Yet I believe because they can be kept secret, because they can be conducted overseas, and because they allow you to deal quickly with a problem, that they are worthwhile. We haven’t authorized any yet, we just said they’re there in theory. So we’ll have to see how we actually apply that. And in the one or two cases that have arisen, we’ve not resorted to military tribunals. We need to maintain an alertness here that we don’t go helter skelter in too much intrusion.
PORTER: I have a question for you
about this split between unilateralism and multilateralism in
TURNER: One of the key lessons of the events of 9/11 is that we have to have cooperation from other nations. This is a global fight against terrorism. It is not a fight just against terrorism versus Americans. And therefore we can’t go it alone entirely. On the other hand, when you’ve seen the squeamishness of our allies over the President’s statement about an evil axis—and I happen to think it was not a wise statement—but nonetheless, the allies and friends were much more squeamish than I think they deserved to be. You realize how, how difficult it is to get other people to go along with controversial actions like bombing and such forth. So we have to be willing to go unilaterally at times. I think we’ve emphasized it too much—or more than that I think we’ve given the impression we want to be unilateral. More than we really are being unilateral. And we need to avoid exacerbating people’s concerns as we did with the phrase “evil axis.”
PORTER: You mentioned our European
allies and you are a former commander of NATO’s Southern Region. And I’m
wondering about the split between the
TURNER: NATO has a strong bright
future as a political alliance. I don’t see any way the NATO allies other than
PORTER: That is Stansfield Turner, Director of Central Intelligence during the Carter administration.
PORTER: Cassettes and transcripts
of this program are available. The transcripts are free; cassettes cost $5.00.
To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at:
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MCHUGH: Transcripts are also available on our Web site: commongroundradio.org. Commongroundradio is all one word. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Cliff Brockman is our Associate Producer. B.J. Liederman created our theme music. Common Ground is produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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