WASHINGTON – The US military plans to mobilize thousands of troops to protect Washington against potential terrorist attack during the inauguration of president-elect Barack Obama, a senior US military commander said Wednesday.
They will fly combat air patrols and man air defenses, organize large scale medical support, and help local law enforcement provide security in the capital, said General Gene Renuart, head of the US Northern Command.
"(It's) not because we see a specific threat, but because for an event this visible, this important and this historic, we ought to be prepared to respond if something does happen," he told reporters.
Renuart said some 7,500 active duty troops and 4,000 national guard troops will take part in the operations in support of the inauguration of the 44th US president on January 20.
Overall responsibility for security during the inauguration falls to the Secret Service.
But Renuart's command, which is co-located with NORAD, is responsible for preparing for any contingency.
Some troops will march in parades, serve in honor guards or perform other ceremonial duties, he said.
But most of the national guard troops will back up local law enforcement, while active duty forces will provide specialized capabilities, according to the general.
Renuart said NORAD, the US-Canadian command responsible for defending North American airspace, will increase combat air patrols over the United States to guard against another September 11 type attack.
"Our integrated air defense system in the national capital region will be up and robust and available," he said. It typically includes Patriot missile defense batteries deployed at key points around the city.
Chemical response units also will be on alert in case of a chemical weapons attack, he said.
A joint task force for the capital region is planning medical response in case of an attack that produces large numbers of casualties, he said.
"It is prudent for us to assume that it would make news for a terrorist element, or a rogue element of some sort, to interrupt that (the inauguration).
"So it is prudent for us to plan for the possibility of that kind of event, and be prepared either to deter it or respond to it," he said.
An ever present fear is another attack like the one on September 11, 2001 on New York and Washington with hijacked airliners.
But Renuart said both NORAD and the Northern Command have worked hard to prevent a repeat, devising systems that allow them to determine whether a suspicious flight poses a threat.
Civilian aircraft have been intercepted 400 times a year without a shoot-down, he said.
"Fortunately, we have not had to do that," he said.
"But there are a number of aviators out there who have had a chance to see an F-16 up very close, who have been landed at an airfield that wasn't their planned airfield, and were greeted by 30 or 40 of their newest friends in the FBI."
He said in virtually every case "a mix of buffoonery or mechanical failure or just lack of understanding rules of the road" got them into trouble.
The attacks in Mumbai, India have raised the spectre of another kind of threat -- suicide attacks by heavily armed, well trained assailants.
Renuart said the United States was better equipped with counter-terrorism teams to deal with that kind of attack than India proved to be, but he said "the key is how quickly can you respond."
"Certainly, the Mumbai attacks ought to be understood clearly down to the local level -- the speed to which a small group of people could begin to hold a fairly large city hostage," he said.
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