WASHINGTON – Hundreds of European and American pilots are going home as the Pentagon cuts back on round-the-clock air patrols that have been guarding U.S. cities since Sept. 11.
Improved airport security and other safety measures allowed NATO and the U.S. military to reduce flights that had taxed manpower and equipment.
Officials hastened to say Wednesday that Americans are still safe.
"There are still combat air patrols," said Maj. Barry Venable of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the Colorado-based operation with authority to protect U.S. and Canadian airspace. "And they were just one component of a comprehensive military air defense."
Venable refused to confirm that fighter jets have stopped the all-hours flights over New York and Washington started after terrorists crashed hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But other defense officials confirmed that the Pentagon a month ago began phasing them out in favor of occasional patrols based on the threat on any given day.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's announced Wednesday that NATO's AWACS early-warning airplanes and crews that have helped by providing radar to the fighters will return home in mid-May.
"I certainly want to express my full appreciation and the appreciation of our country to our NATO allies and to the many dedicated air crews that have helped to defend our country in the immediate aftermath of September 11," he told a Pentagon press conference.
He said some 830 crew members from 13 NATO nations had been on patrol, flying some 4,300 hours and over 360 missions. It was the first time NATO had deployed over the continental United States to support a U.S. operation.
Pentagon records seem to indicate a decline in the use of American pilots as well.
The Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard reported this month that more than 1,400 people had been taken off active duty.
National Guard troops had flown many of the patrol missions. Though the figures could reflect a decline in missions over Afghanistan as well, officials said it was safe to say some of those were released due to the decline in air patrols.
Immediately after the attacks, jets were sent up in constant patrols over New York and Washington and randomly scheduled patrols over dozens of other American cities and potential terrorist targets.
Fighters were put on alert at more than two dozen air bases across the country to be scrambled in case of emergency.
The patrols were using 11,000 people and 250 aircraft, including the AWACS and tankers for midair refueling.
After months of the patrols, the military argued for changes. Officials said constant flights no longer were needed and that a large number of jets, pilots, maintenance and other support crews was being diverted from their normal training for combat.
The patrols also cost the Air Force as much as $60 million a week.
A revised system approved by the White House in March meant a change in the location, frequency and intensity of the patrols so they are flexible and dependent on the military's assessment of air threats.
The Pentagon does not want to publicly acknowledge exactly what the system is — or even that there is a new system — because it does not want terrorists to know when and where it will fly.
But as an example, officials say, at the highest threat level, a large number of fighters would patrol continuously over many major cities. At the lowest level, some fighters would fly intermittent patrols over randomly selected cities; others would be on short-notice alert.
The fighter pilots still have authority to shoot down a hijacked aircraft.
The new arrangement reflects the fact that security on commercial airliners and at airports — considered the first line of defense against suicide hijackers — has been strengthened.
It also reflects shortened response times for fighter jets at various military bases on "strip alerts" — a 15-minute notice for combat duty — in part because new links between military and Federal Aviation Administration radars give a better picture of potential air threats, officials said.
Regardless of the threat level, intermittent patrols will still be flown over a number of cities and sensitive facilities. Special events such as the World Series that draw tens of thousands of people will draw extra patrols.