For all the political ire and law enforcement angst over securing the land border with Mexico, surprisingly few people in public focus on securing the airspace. Up there, at altitude, there are opportunities for smugglers, outlaws and terrorists to move around at will.
That brings us to the King Air 200 flying over the Gulf of Mexico on July 27. The twin turboprop airplane, on loan for the day from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Corpus Christi, is playing the role of a “target of interest.” That’s airspace defense speak for “airplane that isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing.” In this case, the specific illicit behavior is trying to sneak into the United States from Mexico.
The flight is part of a government exercise called AMALGAM EAGLE 16. Participants included the military and civilian aviation authorities from Mexico and the United States. The objective is fairly simple: practice what to do when an airplane is making an unauthorized transit across the border. That includes military airplanes following the target on radar and military fighters scrambling to intercept it.
This is Joe Bonnet’s time to shine. He’s the director of joint training and exercises at North American Aerospace Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command. This is the third annual AMALGAM EAGLE exercise. “The really cool thing is that this exercise grows in scope and complexity each year,” he says.
It will be hard for many people to understand why Bonnet thinks this is at all cool without the background. The United States’ airspace is monitored via radio and radar by civilian tracking stations, each of which handles a zone. When an airplane goes from zone to zone, it is handed off to various tracking stations. Airplanes file flight plans to the FAA (and international counterparts) to ensure someone has an idea of who is up there and where they’re going.
That’s how it’s supposed to work. But it’s no shock to hear that criminals use airplanes to violate the border. Aircraft hauling drugs move from south to north, and those moving cash or fugitives move north to south. There’s also the specter of a terrorist group or cartel squad dashing across the border in an airplane and crashing it into a metropolitan area. The pilots of these illicit flights obviously don’t use transponders or answer radio hails.
At that point it’s up to a bevy of U.S. federal agencies talking to each other to quickly activate a response. This is easy to say but hard to do. “There are a lot moving parts,” Bonnet says. “There are players geographically distributed all over the world. They have their own communications, IT systems and bandwidth restrictions.”
After 9/11, the United States made a steady effort to coordinate these responses, from the initial radar sighting to the radios of the Air National Guard pilots who intercept airplanes. And the procedures get tested constantly, according to Bonnet. “Now everyday, about three times day, we (NORAD) will get a call from the FAA,” he says. “Intelligence can flow from the FAA to TSA to NORAD to CBP. That wasn’t established 15 years ago.”
The Mexican government is not in such lockstep. Mexican airspace agencies don’t routinely speak to their defense counterparts, nor to the U.S. military. In this kind of discussion, the verb “speak” can mean something like “a plane carrying a squad of cartel hitmen is making a secretive flight from Sinaloa to an airfield in South Texas.”
So, some practice is in order. And that brings the conversation back to AMALGAM EAGLE 16. There were two scenarios of this week’s flight, carved off into two legs of the trip. The King Air 200 took off from Corpus Christi and headed toward New Orleans, simulating a south to north run.
The previous two exercises were scripted, which are useful but not particularly realistic. AMALGAM EAGLE 16 was more dynamic, since the players from Seattle to Merida Mexico used real-time updates to change the game plan. This kind of (sorry) on-the-fly change really tests the players’ coordination.
This week’s scenario started with a report from Mexican officials regarding a flight of what Bonnet calls “special interest aliens.” This term rings terrorism bells, as it designates aliens from areas like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. An airplane with special interest aliens, cruising towards New Orleans, is a four-alarm air defense fire.
The goal is to make sure that the Mexican Air Force, tracking the interloper with airborne warning and control system (AWACS) airplanes, can hand off the chase to American military aircraft. “This is the first time the Mexican and U.S. AWACS did a battlefield handover,” Bonnet says.
The exercise changed the rules when new intelligence indicated that the special interest aliens were actually run-of-the-mill drug smugglers. This would have entailed an interception by Air Force National Guard F-15s based in New Orleans, and a law enforcement takedown on the ground.
Weather disrupted these plans, and the F-15 interception never happened, but the updated information travelled from Mexican officials to American. So the King Air 200 turned around and became a southbound target of interest for the exercise’s second leg.
This time, U.S. authorities let the Mexican civil and military authorities know that an illicit flight was heading toward Merida. Mexican T-6C+ interceptors took off and intercepted the King Air, escorting it to the airfield in Merida. There, the U.S. border patrol plane landed as Mexican law enforcement staged on a nearby runway and swarmed a mocked-up aircraft. Scenario over.
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This ended the flight portion of AMALGUM EAGLE 16. Now, the hard part begins as Bonnet and his team examines the data for areas of improvement. Nothing glaring leapt out, he says, but with more than 75 people involved across nearly a dozen locations, it’ll take a while to look.
And then he’ll start planning next year’s exercise. “I am confident there will be an AMALGAM EAGLE 17,” Bonnet says. “If we’re all on the same team, we have to practice for the big game.”