TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (AP) _ The Air Force wants to stop flying continuous anti-terror air patrols over parts of the United States and instead leave fighters on ``strip alert,'' ready to launch in emergencies.
In an Associated Press interview Friday, Air Force Secretary James Roche said the Air Force is consulting with the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and with the White House's Office of Homeland Security to determine a long-term plan for domestic air defense.
The air patrols, which responded to the multiple suicide hijackings on Sept. 11, are tying up about 265 airplanes _ mostly fighters, tankers and radar planes _ and about 12,000 airmen, Roche said.
That compares with 14,000 Air Force personnel committed to the war in Afghanistan, he said, making the Air Force the only service with a large-scale commitment to both fronts in the war on terror.
Pentagon officials made it known last month that the domestic air defense mission had become too burdensome, stealing from necessary air crew training for other missions. But Roche's comments were the first to spell out a potential solution.
Roche said he would prefer an adjustment that would place Air Force fighter jets on ``strip alert'' at certain bases around the country _ ready to respond to indications of threatening aircraft. That would replace the current practice of flying continuous patrols over Washington and New York and patrolling daily over a rotating group of cities elsewhere.
In addition to the combat air patrols, fighters now are on alert at more than two dozen bases.
Roche says he had not submitted a formal recommendation.
``I think eventually we'll move to strip alert'' only, Roche said while flying to Tinker Air Force Base from Washington. He visited Tinker to get a firsthand look at operations of Air Force E-3A Sentry aircraft, the AWACS planes that provide airborne radar surveillance in support of fighter air patrols.
``If we're on strip alert, then others can be training, and the wear-and-tear on aircraft goes down,'' he added. ``If it's strip alert it will lower the burden. It's easier for us to do.''
Roche stressed that scaling back the mission is not a decision for the Air Force. If the White House decides that 24-hour, 7-day-a-week air patrols remain necessary, he said, then the Air Force will find a way to do them, whatever the cost.
``We're trying to lighten the load,'' Roche said later in a pep talk to more than 100 U.S. and NATO AWACS crew members and commanders. He said one step has already been taken: linking military and Federal Aviation Administration radars to lessen the need for AWACS radar coverage.
Roche cited what he called an old Jewish expression: food creates hunger. ``The fact that you've done this so well makes it hard for national leaders to say, `OK, you don't have to do it anymore,''' he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has not revealed his ideas on whether continuous air patrols should be halted. He said this week the mission was ``very stressful on the force.''
Roche told the AP the Air Force has 105 to 130 airplanes in the air every day as part of Operation Noble Eagle, code name for the post-Sept. 11 mission of protecting U.S. territory.
He said he hopes the administration would decide by summer what the ``steady state'' of Air Force air defense will be for the long run.
During his visit to Tinker, Roche met with members of the NATO AWACS crews who fly daily over the United States, the first time in NATO's 53-year history that allies have come directly to the defense of U.S. territory.