Homeland Defense:

Actions Needed to Address Management of Air Sovereignty Alert Operations to Protect U.S. Airspace

GAO-09-612T: Published: Apr 22, 2009. Publicly Released: Apr 22, 2009.

Additional Materials:


Davi M. Dagostino
(202) 512-3000


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

This testimony discusses GAO's recently issued report on the North American Aerospace Defense Command's (NORAD) and the Department of Defense's (DOD) air sovereignty alert (ASA) operations. According to the National Strategy for Aviation Security, issued in March 2007, and officials from U.S. intelligence agencies with whom we met, air attacks are still a threat to the United States and its people. To address this threat, NORAD and DOD have fully fueled, fully armed aircraft and trained personnel on alert 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at 18 ASA sites across the United States. Of the 18 sites, 16 are maintained by Air National Guard (ANG) units and 2 are maintained by active duty Air Force units. If warranted, NORAD can increase personnel, aircraft, and the number of ASA sites based on changes in threat conditions. The Air Force provides NORAD with personnel and equipment, including F-15 and F-16 aircraft, for these operations. ASA units are tasked to conduct and train for both expeditionary missions (e.g., military operations in Iraq) and ASA operations. This testimony will discuss whether (1) NORAD routinely conducts risk assessments to determine the appropriate operational requirements; (2) the Air Force has implemented ASA operations as a steady-state mission, which would require programming funding and measuring readiness, in accordance with NORAD, DOD, and Air Force guidance; and (3) the Air Force has developed a plan to address the recapitalization challenges to sustaining ASA operations for the future.

Although NORAD had performed some risk assessments in response to individual DOD leadership inquiries about ASA operations, it had not done routine risk assessments as part of a risk-based management approach to determine ASA operational requirements. Moreover, NORAD has not conducted similar assessments since 2006. Although its units are conducting ASA operations, the Air Force had not implemented these operations as a steady-state mission in accordance with NORAD, DOD, and Air Force directives and guidance. For example, in response to a December 2002 NORAD declaration of a steady-state air defense mission, the Air Force issued a directive assigning specific functions and responsibilities to support the mission. According to the directive, the Air Force was to take 140 actions to implement ASA as a steady-state mission. NORAD partially assessed readiness through inspections; however, the Air Force, which as the force provider is responsible for measuring readiness for its missions by evaluating personnel, training, and the quantity and quality of equipment needed, has not done so for ASA operations. Air Force officials said they do not perform such assessments because the service has not formally assigned the mission to the units. Specifically, the Air Force issues mission Designed Operational Capability statements that identify the unit's mission(s) and related requirements (e.g., type anumber of personnel). Because the Air Force did not implement ASA operations as a steady-state mission in accordance with NORAD, DOD, and Air Force guidance, at the time of our review ASA units were experiencing a number of difficulties that challenged their ability to perform both their expeditionary missions and ASA operations. The unit commanders we interviewed identified funding, personnel, and dual tasking of responsibilities as the top three factors affecting ASA operations.

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