Learning to Track Low-Profile Aircraft

In the world of asymmetric threats to North America, NORAD is focused on learning to track low-profile aircraft that fly slowly at a low altitude, making it difficult to detect on radar. NORAD officials say the command has made progress in this area since a manned gyrocopter was flown from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., and landed on the grounds of Capitol in April 2015. Chief of strategic engagement, Steve Armstrong, said NORAD held a “tabletop exercise” recently in the National Capital Region (NCR) where they “reflew the gyrocopter event exactly the way it played out on the 15th of April.” This time, “We were able to track that thing … with enough fidelity that we were able to know where he was pretty much all the time.” This sort of exercise has led NORAD to make “some adjustments” to the way low-profile aircraft are tracked, especially in the NCR. The changes involve collaboration between the FAA and military radar data “in terms of what feeds the air picture.” Getting a view that is clearer and more detailed is crucial for the low and slow threat because of the sheer numbers involved in air traffic. In 2016, for instance, there were 35 million domestic commercial flights in the US, the FAA’s senior advisor at NORAD, Eugene Jiggits, Jr. said. “It’s a complex task to filter all those things out” and isolate the tiny bit of significant data on the airspace map.