Homeland Defense: DOD's Aerospace Control Alert Basing Decision Was Informed by Various Analyses

GAO-13-230R Published: Feb 28, 2013. Publicly Released: Feb 28, 2013.
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What GAO Found

DOD's decision to change the alert status at two ACA basing locations was informed by various analyses, which assessed the impact on operational effectiveness to the ACA operation. DOD's analyses were based on a NORAD assessment--which included a computer model--a Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) computer model, and an analysis by NORAD's Continental U.S. NORAD Region. NORAD's analyses, informed by a model developed in response to a recommendation in our 2009 report and bolstered by additional NORAD analysis, identified two basing locations that could be removed from 24-hour alert status with little impact on ACA capabilities overall. In GAO's January 2012 report, GAO noted limitations to NORAD's computer model. For example, GAO found that it did not include a prioritized list of metropolitan areas and critical infrastructure locations that NORAD should protect and that it did not incorporate assumptions associated with all three elements of risk: threat, vulnerability, and consequence. Since the January 2012 report, NORAD has strengthened its risk-based management approach of the ACA operation by improving its risk analyses, including to change some of the assumptions used to address vulnerability and consequence in its model. With regard to the CAPE model, the CAPE office separately identified a point below which the number of ACA basing locations on 24-hour alert could not be further reduced without materially increasing risk. Both NORAD's and CAPE's analyses identified the Duluth, Minnesota and Langley, Virginia ACA locations as the best candidates to take off 24-hour alert status. In addition to these two models, the Continental U.S. NORAD Region convened a panel of subject matter experts to discuss and analyze the ACA basing strategy. These experts' analysis and conclusions were consistent with the results of the analysis using NORAD's model. The Deputy's Management Action Group-- which includes DOD senior leaders who monitor DOD's efforts to improve its defense business operations--approved the decision to change the ACA alert status at the two basing locations.

The Air Force estimated cost savings from reducing the alert status at the two ACA basing locations of about $73 million over fiscal years 2013 through 2017. In our January 2012 report, we noted that NORAD had not identified potential cost savings that could result from eliminating a given number of ACA basing locations on 24-hour alert. After DOD made the decision to remove the Duluth and Langley ACA basing locations from 24-hour alert, the Air Force calculated estimated cost savings. Air Force officials told us that the estimated cost savings are mostly from personnel who will no longer be required to fully maintain 24-hour alert status--by shifting from full-time to part-time status. We did not independently verify the Air Force's estimated cost savings. However, we discussed with Air Force officials their level of review and validation of the cost-savings estimate and determined that the Air Force's categories of savings were consistent with key principles of cost-savings estimates.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the federal government has undertaken extensive efforts to protect U.S. airspace. As a part of the federal government's overall efforts to protect U.S. airspace, the Department of Defense (DOD) performs Operation Noble Eagle, which consists of several missions, including aerospace control alert (ACA). The ACA mission includes aerospace control forces arrayed in a rapid response posture to conduct both air sovereignty and air defense operations against airborne threats. Among other things, this includes fighter aircraft and trained personnel on alert 24-hours a day, 365 days a year, at 16 alert basing locations across the contiguous United States and one each in Alaska and Hawaii to deter, respond to, and if necessary defeat airborne threats over the United States and Canada. These fighter aircraft and trained personnel can be the last line of multiple layers of the air defense of the United States.

GAO's prior work has highlighted improvements and challenges in the planning and management of the ACA operation, including challenges related to the North American Aerospace Defense Command's (NORAD) and DOD's ability to balance risks, costs, and benefits when making decisions about the ACA operation. Specifically, in January 2009 GAO reported on shortcomings in DOD's management approach to the ACA operation. Among other things, GAO reported that NORAD faced difficulty determining the appropriate levels and types of units, personnel, and aircraft for the ACA operation. GAO made five recommendations to DOD to improve management of the ACA operation, including conducting routine risk assessments as part of a risk-based management approach. DOD fully or partially agreed with all our recommendations. In January 2012, GAO reported that the Air Force had taken steps to implement one recommendation and partially implement the other four recommendations. GAO also reported on strengths and limitations of the computer model NORAD used for assessing domestic air defense operations, and we reported that NORAD had not considered cost in its analysis of the ACA basing strategy. NORAD and DOD had taken some action to improve their risk-based management approach; however, GAO made seven additional recommendations in January 2012 for NORAD and DOD to implement a more complete risk-based management approach that balances risk and cost for the ACA operation. DOD agreed with one recommendation, partially agreed with the other six, and highlighted actions it would take to implement the intent of the recommendations.

In 2012, based on the desire to find savings in the ACA operation that did not impede operational effectiveness, DOD determined that two ACA basing locations could be taken off 24-hour alert. The two locations are Duluth, Minnesota and Langley, Virginia.

Congress asked GAO to review DOD's analyses regarding its decision to change the alert status for those two ACA locations. This report assesses (1) the analyses NORAD and DOD conducted in support of the decision to change the alert status at two NORAD ACA basing locations, and (2) the extent to which DOD estimated costs or cost savings resulting from its decision.

GAO is not making recommendations in this report.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler, (202) 512-6912 or gamblerr@gao.gov .

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