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Midnight air defense scramble in skies over DC

air force F-16 scrambles at night.jpg

Oct. 30, 2012: An F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft takes off for a night mission at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Air Force F-16 fighters, Civil Air Patrol aircraft and a U.S. Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter will all participate in night exercises over Washington, D.C., in early December. (U.S. Air Force / Val Gempis)

Fighter jets have been quietly scrambled in the skies above the nation’s capital to run air defense “Falcon Virgo” from midnight until 2:00 am this week.

The Department of Defense announced Exercise Falcon Virgo on Monday, a program intended to test and refine the intercept and identification operations of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command -- the organization that safeguards U.S. airspace in collaboration with homeland defense, security, and law enforcement partners.

If there were an unauthorized air activity within U.S. airspace, NORAD would provide aerospace and maritime advance warning. And if all other methods fail, NORAD gives the government a powerful military response to counter and defeat such threats.

The aim of the latest Falcon Virgo exercise is to test the Visual Warning System that alerts pilots violating U.S. air space, and also certify new Command and Control personnel.

Kicking off December 4, NORAD and the Continental United States NORAD Region (CONR), began conducting an air defense exercises planning to conclude early Thursday.

Many teams are contributing to the national defense flight training including the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA and JADOC, the Joint Air Defense Operations Center.

The Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Coast Guard, CONR's Eastern and Western Air Defense Sectors and the National Capital Region Coordination Center are also involved.

Air Force F-16 fighters, US Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter, and Civil Air Patrol aircraft have been participating.

Within CONR is the National Capital Region in the Washington, D.C., area, which is protected by an elaborate air defense system: radars, cameras, a visual warning system, alert aircraft and Army artillery and more.

Additionally, CONR directs air activities and provides airspace surveillance and control to ensure air dominance over the homeland. Air Force and Army assets throughout the country are assigned to CONR to provide security against potential air threats.

Exercise Falcon Virgo was also successfully conducted in March early this year.

Exercises, like the one this week are thoroughly planned to make sure the homeland has a reliable rapid response to threats.  

One of NORAD command’s responses to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, was to immediately launch Operation Noble Eagle. Since then flight exercises like Falcon Virgo have been regularly conducted throughout the United States and even Canada.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been more than 3,400 possible air threats to the United States to which CONR fighters have responded. CONR fighters have also flown more than 59,000 sorties with the support of Airborne Warning and Control System and air-to-air-refueling aircraft.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at wargames@foxnews.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.

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