During the hearing Wednesday, Flying Under the Radar: Securing Washington DC Airspace, convened by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, committee members grilled top officials responsible for protecting the restricted airspace of Washington, DC in response to the small gyrocopter that made it through restricted airspace to land on the West Lawn of the Capitol.
Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) was especially incensed that this could happen.
The individual flying the barely visible gyrocopter had taken off from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on April 15 en route to the Capitol building, flying low through the highly restricted airspace around the National Capitol Region (NCR). His course took him through northwest DC and down the National Mall until he landed on the West Lawn of the Capitol.
On January 26, 2015, a “quad copter” device crashed on the southeast side of the White House complex, as well as a similar device with radioactive material that landed on the roof of the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence on April 22, 2015.
“These events raise questions about similar manned and unmanned aircraft entering DC’s highly restricted airspace and threatening high value targets and individuals,” Chaffetz said, adding, “Given the increased production and use of small manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, the committee is concerned about this security threat, as well as the coordinated response and mitigation efforts by federal agencies.”
A known threat
The problem is, this isn’t suddenly a new threat. The threat pretty much has always existed. In Sept. 2011, Homeland Security Today reported that US counterterrorism (CT) intelligence sources at that time were surprised an attack against federal and other buildings using remotely controlled model planes or small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) hadn’t already been carried out.
That month, 26-year-old US citizen, Rezwan Ferdaus, was charged with working to carry out just such an attack.
Charged with three counts of terrorism, Ferdaus allegedly planned to attack a variety of targets that included the Pentagon and the Capitol building with large radio-controlled (RC) aircraft packed with C-4 plastic explosives.
Veteran CT officials said the possibility of an attack like this “has been on radar screens for decades … What’s surprising is that terrorists haven’t tried to carry out an attack like this before,” said one of the officials who talked to Homeland Security Today at the time.
But the threat goes back much farther than that. At one of the first post-Soviet weapons of mass destruction (WMD) counterproliferation meetings of top government officials and scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in early May 1994, then Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, began his address to the conference attendees with three out of the box terrorism scenarios. One involved terrorists flying a small UAV into the US Capitol.
In Nunn’s fictional, but realistically possible, attack, terrorists launched a small UAV from a windowless van parked near the National Air and Space Museum. Attached to the UAV’s wings were two 40 pound canisters of weaponized Anthrax spores.
Hidden inside the van, the terrorists remotely flew the drone to the Capitol a short distance away, and crashed it into the building. It was the night the president was delivering a State of the Union Address to Congress. In Nunn’s account, hundreds of lawmakers, the vice president and senior government leaders died. It was a silent, virtual decapitation of the government’s leadership. The president survived, but the federal government was paralyzed, and a huge geographical area was rendered bio-hazardous for a very long time.
“Is this possible? Of course it is,” a seasoned CT official told Homeland Security Today in 2011, stressing that terrorists can easily buy small recreational RC aircraft. He added that larger UAVs also are easily obtainable.
“What’s the surprise in all this," he said, "is that something like this hasn’t already been tried,” emphasizing that it’s a threat possibility that’s been on counterterrorism officials’ radar “for a long time … it’s not like we also hadn’t thought that these remotely controlled planes could be used to carry explosives … or even biologicals.”
He and other officials also said that if such an attack was successful, it would be difficult to “pick up these small” remotely controlled aircraft in time to try to “bring them down.”
While one of the officials said there are classified “methods” in place to hopefully detect such UAVs, he said it’s not a certainty that they’d necessarily be discovered – “or stopped!”
Where we’re at now
And that’s pretty much what the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was told this week by NORAD/USNORTHCOM Commander Admiral William Gortney, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta, about Florida mailman Douglas Mark Hughes’ having flown a single-man gyrocopter into Capitol airspace and landing on Capitol grounds to protest campaign finance laws.
“First and foremost, the FAA’s mission is aircraft and airspace safety,” Huerta told the committee. “We operate the nation’s air traffic control system to safely separate aircraft. Our primary focus is getting aircraft safely to their destinations and managing the safe flow of thousands of aircraft and their passengers around the country every day.”
Huerta said, “We also work very closely with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security on a daily basis to support their aviation security missions, particularly here in the Capitol Region. As part of that support, we provide them a raw air traffic radar feed so they have situational awareness of what is happening in our national airspace system.”
But, he said, “To enable our controllers to perform their core safety duties controlling air traffic, the first thing we have to do is to separate the aircraft that are communicating with controllers from all of the other objects in the air that are not aircraft. These other objects that the radar detects could be things like vehicles on nearby roadways, flocks of birds, weather events or occasional kites or balloons.”
Huerta said, “Air traffic controllers could not do their jobs if they had to work with an unfiltered radar feed. They would not be able to distinguish the aircraft they are charged with safely handling from the other elements on their radar scopes.”
Huerta explained that, “We require aircraft that fly in the airspace around Washington, DC, and other large cities around the country, to use transponders that broadcast basic information such as the type of aircraft, speed, direction and altitude. When the radar detects those aircraft, it picks up the transponder information and displays it on a controller’s radar screen. Controllers can then see all of the flights in a specific area, along with all of the identifying information for each aircraft. Anything that doesn’t have a transponder shows up as a symbol resembling a simple small dot on the radar screen – and there are typically many of them across a controller’s radar screen.”
“To assist controllers in focusing on safely managing air traffic,” Huerta explained, “we apply filters to the controllers’ radar to eliminate the vast majority of those small dots. Safely managing air traffic is a controller’s mission and they must be able to do that without distraction.”
“To support aviation, and national and homeland security, the FAA shares a real-time, unfiltered radar feed with our partners in the Department of Defense and several other agencies, so they can see exactly what we see and apply the appropriate filters for their own mission to protect the airspace,” Huerta said, noting, “We also embed technical air traffic staff at a number of North American Aerospace Defense Command facilities around the country to provide additional operational expertise and support.”
“On April 15, Mr. Hughes’ gyrocopter appeared on our radar as one of those small, unidentified elements,” but, “All available information about the slow moving, irregular symbol made it indistinguishable from other non-aircraft radar tracks,” Huerta told the committee.
“After the incident, we conducted a forensic radar analysis and looked for a symbol that might match Mr. Hughes’ gyrocopter,” he continued. “We understood he had taken off from a small airport in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and we had an approximate time, so we looked at unfiltered radar data. A trained radar analyst identified a slow-moving symbol that traveled from Gettysburg toward the Capitol, and vanished from radar at about the time Mr. Hughes landed on the West Lawn. We now believe that unidentified radar element was Mr. Hughes’ gyrocopter. The dot appeared only intermittently throughout the flight.”
“Through post-event analysis, what we now understand is that the gyrocopter was detected by several of the” Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) sensors “as it approached and transited through the Washington DC Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA). However, the aircraft’s flight parameters fell below the threshold necessary to differentiate aircraft from weather, terrain, birds, and other slow flying objects so as to ensure that the systems and those operating them focus on that which poses the greatest threat,” NORAD/USNORTHCOM Commander Admiral William Gortney told the committee.
Gortney explained that, “The airspace surrounding the National Capitol Region (NCR), known as the Washington DC Special Flight Rules Area, is monitored by the Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), which is a vast network of radars, cameras and other detection and warning devices. Each system is designed to detect, track and monitor specific parameters. The fusion of data from all the systems provides a robust surveillance and track capability.”
Without encroaching on discussing classified systems, Gortney told the committee that, “The IADS system was implemented following, and in direct response to, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and has continued to evolve with the threat over time, to the point that we are extremely capable of identifying and tracking a wide range of potential threats to the NCR, including anything from commercial aviation down to small, single engine aircraft. However, a small manned gyrocopter, or similar low altitude and slow speed aerial vehicle, despite the low threat capability associated with such a vehicle, presents a technical challenge.”
Gortney told lawmakers that, “Identifying low altitude and slow speed aerial vehicles from other objects is a technical and operational challenge. Our initial analysis of this event has further confirmed the need to continue to improve our ability to identify low altitude and slow speed aerial vehicles operating in the NCR,” and that, “We are working with the Services on technical and procedural solutions, including integrating advanced sensors into the IADS architecture.”
“One example of these advanced sensors is the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) which is currently in an operational exercise out of Aberdeen Proving Ground,” Gortney said.
Writer William Matthews first exclusively reported on the JLENS NCR testing in his February, 2014 Homeland Security Today report, Sensors on a Leash. JLENS sensor testing began in December. Although their objections are baseless, civil liberties groups have claimed the JLENS testing – and possible eventual permanent deployment to help protect the NCR – presents an invasion of privacy.
The Ferdaus plot
According to the 42-page affidavit of FBI Agent Gary Cacace in support of the criminal complaint against Rezwan Ferdaus, in April 2011 the Northeastern University graduate with a degree in physics detailed his attack plans – which included step-by-step instructions – on two flash drives he provided to undercover FBI operatives posing as members of Al Qaeda.
His attack allegedly was going to be carried out against the Pentagon and Capitol building using three RC aircraft and six people, including himself, whom he described as an “amir,” an Arabic term meaning leader.
According to the affidavit, Ferdaus told FBI undercover agents he wanted to create as big a “psychological” impact as possible by killing as many Americans as possible, including women and children he allegedly considered “enemies of Allah.”
According to the affidavit, Ferdaus’ desire to attack the United States was so strong that he’d confided, “I just can’t stop; there is no other choice for me.”
In May 2011, according to the affidavit, Ferdaus traveled from Boston to Washington, DC to conduct surveillance and take photographs of the Pentagon and Capitol building, and identified and photographed sites at East Potomac Park from which he planned to launch the RC aircraft containing the C-4.
The affidavit stated Ferdaus told the FBI undercover agents that “more stuff ha[d] to be done,” including expanding his “aerial assault” with a “ground directive.” Ferdaus apparently intended to incorporate some sort of armed ground assault with automatic weapons … with this aerial assault,” the affidavit quoted Ferdaus saying, “we can effectively eliminate key locations of the P-building then we can add to it in order to take out everything else and leave one area only as a squeeze where the individuals will be isolated, they’ll be vulnerable and we can dominate.”
Once isolated, Ferdaus planned to “open up on them” and “keep firing” to create “chaos” and “take out” everyone.
According to the affidavit, between May and September 2011, Ferdaus researched, ordered and acquired many of the materials and components for his attack, including the purchase of one RC F-86 Sabre. He also allegedly planned to use an RC F-4 Phantom model plane.
Several RC plane manufacturers produce numerous versions of these planes, which have wingspans up to 63 inches and can reach a top speeds over 60 miles per hour.
While the affidavit stated these planes “are capable of carrying a variety of payloads (including a lethal payload of explosives),” sources familiar with the RC aircraft said more powerful engines would likely have been required to accommodate the weight of the C-4 that Ferdaus allegedly would have had to put inside each of the planes.
It couldn’t be determined if Ferdaus had worked to install more powerful motors or to find ways to make the aircraft lighter in order for them to carry the C-4. Officials explained to Homeland Security Today that the planes would have to be able to carry at least two pounds of the explosive to do “any substantial damage” to buildings like the Pentagon or Capitol.
Ferdaus was aware of this, too, according to the affidavit, which stated he was working to “find out how much (weight the remote controlled) airplane can hold.”
Nevertheless, Ferdaus allegedly told an FBI undercover operative that the “model airplane … can carry a good enoughpayload and it will detonate on impact.”
According to the affidavit, Ferdaus received from the FBI undercover operatives 25 pounds of what he believed was C-4, as well as six fully-automatic AK-47 assault rifles and grenades.
According to the FBI and other sources, Ferdaus became “radicalized” via the Internet, and had come to embrace “violent jihad” against the United States.