NATO aircraft guard U.S. skies
OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Five NATO planes have arrived at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, officials said Friday, the first-ever deployment of non-U.S. aircraft for military missions in American airspace.
The airborne warning and control system aircraft, or AWACS, will supplement similar U.S. aircraft patrolling the skies over the United States, officials at NATO headquarters in Belgium and at Tinker told CNN.
Most of the United States' 30 AWACS, based at Tinker, have been flying around-the-clock surveillance of U.S. airspace, especially over New York and Washington, since the September 11 terrorist attacks. The planes' crews watch for suspicious aircraft and provide coordination for the roughly 100 fighter jets, out of 25 bases, also protecting U.S. airspace.
Washington asked NATO for assistance because some American AWACS have been dispatched to the Afghanistan region, where the United States is currently undertaking military operations against the ruling Taliban. "Our AWACS fleet was never intended to fly continuous coverage over our [own] territory," said an officer with NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
The NATO planes are E3As -- U.S.-built, specially equipped Boeing 707s. They are part of NATO's arsenal of 24 AWACS based in Geilenkirchen, Germany, and Waddington, Britain. Along with 74 U.S. NATO personnel, crew members from 11 other countries -- including 55 from Germany, 22 from Canada, 11 from Belgium and 11 from Italy -- have been deployed to the United States.
The deployment is the most visible signal of NATO's first-ever implementation of Article 5 of the 1949 Washington Treaty, which recognizes that an attack against one member should be considered an attack against all, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said Wednesday.
The 19-nation alliance, of which the United States is a member, already has deployed a naval force to the eastern Mediterranean Sea. NATO members also are providing access to European allied airspace, airports and airfields, and intelligence, and building on cooperation with the United Nations in providing peacekeepers.
"This has never happened before, that NATO has come to help defend our country, but it happened in this time of need and for that we are grateful," President Bush said. "Together, we're building a very strong coalition against terror, and NATO is the cornerstone of that coalition."
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