A four-star general who's retiring from the military's top homeland security position said Thursday the nation's radar system needs to be replaced and its jet fighter fleet is getting old.
"The aging systems that we use for many of our NORAD missions is a concern for me," said Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command.
NORAD is a joint U.S.-Canada command that monitors air and space threats to both nations. Northern Command oversees the U.S. military's homeland defense and supports civilian authorities. Both have headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs
Renuart, who has headed both NORAD and Northcom since March 2007, will end his 39-year Air Force career on July 1. At a news conference Thursday, he said he feels good about the direction of the two commands and is leaving behind "no unfinished business."
But Renuart said the nation's current radar system needs to be updated with an integrated system of sensors that can seamlessly monitor space, maritime areas and U.S. border areas, as well as the air.
"The answer isn't just 'fix radar sites,'" Renuart said.
Renuart also warned that "our air defense alert fighters are aging," a reference to the current fleet of F-16 jets that are sent aloft during potential aerial threats, including disturbances aboard domestic airliners. Many older-model F-16s are flying well past their designed life span after undergoing upgrades.
Renuart said the Defense Department has provided the equipment his commands need, including temporary fixes for the radar system, and he noted that a new fighter is under development.
That jet, the F-35, will eventually replace the F-16, but the plane has been bedeviled by cost overruns and delays.
The Pentagon said in March the cost to build the F-35 has doubled since 2001 to as much as $113 million each, and it won't be available for the first training squadrons until 2011 — 13 months late.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday he is especially concerned about what he called the "fighter gap" between the F-16 and F-35.
"The answer isn't simple," Udall said in a written statement.
He said he will push for modernization of the F-16 fleet, including jets based at Colorado's Buckley Air Force Base, which have been scrambled at least twice this year when trouble was reported aboard domestic airliners.
Renuart said he believes NORAD and the Northern Command should remain under the same commander because of what he called synergies in cyber security, intelligence and other areas.
Some divisions are necessary because NORAD encompasses both U.S. and Canadian forces, while the Northern Command is a U.S.-only operation, he said. But even the separate operations work together, and splitting them would risk making them dysfunctional, Renuart said.
He defended the use of the Northern Command to support civilian authorities, saying commanders are careful not to overstep constitutional bans on using the military in domestic affairs.
"We understand the lanes that we operate in," Renuart said.
The Northern Command has improved its ability to respond to hurricanes, earthquakes and other domestic emergencies by working more closely with other federal and state agencies, he said.
Navy Vice Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. will formally take over NORAD and Northcom at a ceremony scheduled for Wednesday. Winnefeld will be promoted to admiral shortly before the ceremony.
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