Privatizing air traffic control jeopardizes national security
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the push by some members of Congress to privatize the Air Traffic Control function in the Federal Aviation Administration. This concept on its face may seem innocuous enough and appears to support the mantra of many Americans that a smaller government is a better government. In this case, however, it presents a hidden and to this point unaddressed danger to the national security of the United States.
As our military has become smaller and less capable of projecting power globally, the need to defend our homeland has become more critical than ever before. Now, as an instrument pilot who frequently flies my company aircraft for business, I understand the need for robust infrastructure and much-needed budget stability required to keep our nation safe. One of those essential investments in that defense lies in our National Airspace System.
Most Americans remember where they were on that bright, sunny morning of September 11, 2001. Hijacked aircraft were used as weapons of mass destruction by members affiliated with al Qaeda. What most Americans did not appreciate was how quickly and effectively the National Airspace System was shut down to all aircraft flights.
As soon as air traffic controllers and the military realized what was happening, aircraft were ordered to land immediately at the nearest suitable airport. Armed fighter jets were scrambled over Washington, DC, and New York City to defend against expected follow-on attacks. It was an amazing feat of communication and coordination. It would not have been possible, however, if there was not a little known but critical component of the nuclear defense posture of the United States involved with the process.
Since World War II, the United States has always maintained a robust nuclear and national defense posture. Procedures associated with the execution of nuclear operations are enshrined in an Operational Plan that dictates the how operations will be carried out. The three main components of the nuclear triad consist of manned bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The first component, manned bombers, is inextricably linked to the functioning of the National Airspace System in the event of a national emergency.
No one doubts that the 9/11 attacks constituted a national emergency. During that crisis, the ability of air traffic controllers to shut down the airspace and coordinate defensive aircraft flights became a top priority. This coordination played out with unprecedented skill and efficiency. Learning from the tragic experience of 9/11, Congress felt the need for even better coordination of the defense of the United States’ homeland and authorized the creation of Northern Command. As part of this new command’s air defense responsibilities, the Department of Defense established a hot line between Northern Command and the Federal Aviation Administration to coordinate airspace security and ensure the safe and timely shutdown of the country’s airspace in the event of a nuclear attack or national emergency.
The drive to privatize the Air Traffic Control function within the National Airspace System is moving forward at an unprecedented pace with legislation currently pending before Congress. Unfortunately, the negative impact this proposed statute poses for our national security cannot be dismissed under the guise of smaller, more efficient government and unsupported “budget savings.”
With a resurgent and confrontational Russia willing to use the specter of nuclear conflict in Europe and even the United States as a bargaining chip, with an aggressive China modernizing every aspect of their nuclear forces and military, and an unpredictable North Korea making almost daily threats to annihilate the United States, now is not the time to shift control of our nation’s airspace and defense into the hands of a lowest-bidder contractor or airline-created conglomerate.
The government’s job is to efficiently and effectively spend the taxpayers’ money, which does not always mean shedding governmental responsibilities to the private sector. The nation’s airspace belongs to the American people, not the airlines or the other users of the system, which is why the safety of the system is an inherently governmental function. The health, maintenance, and proper functioning of the Air Traffic Control System and the National Airspace System should remain with the government and not become a privatized commercial entity.
Lippold is a retired naval officer who was the Commanding Officer of USS Cole (DDG 67) when it survived a suicide terrorist attack by al Qaeda. He is a highly regarded national security expert who currently serves as President of Lippold Strategies, LLC.
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