Author Topic: Book Review of The US Federal Air Marshal Service:... 1962-2012  (Read 377 times)

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Book Review of The US Federal Air Marshal Service:... 1962-2012
« on: September 12, 2018, 02:00:30 PM »
Book Review: The United States Federal Air Marshal Service: A Historical Perspective, 1962 - 2012: "Fifty Years of Serviceā€ By Clay Biles 2013

A somewhat dry story of the armed LE effort on US airlines.  However, I found it helpful to me personally.  There seemed a lot of parallels to current events with school shootings.  How do you protect something where there is an expectation of 100% prevention of incidents?  How do you protect something that is actually really safe already?  How do you protect something that is numerous (10K flights a day, hundreds of thousands of schools) when you cannot respond from off site fast enough (schools) or at all (aircraft in flight)?

Interestingly, except for big surges after particular incidents, the air marshals never randomly rode aircraft before 9/11.  They always rode flights based on specific intelligence that the flight was a risk or statistical analysis suggested it was a higher probability of attack. 

It was also an interesting evolution of threat. It started with communists and mentally disturbed people hijacking aircraft to take to Cuba.  In time leftist terrorism from Europe and the mideast became a bigger threat, focused on transnational flights. Finally the rise of Islamist terrorism gained momentum, once again on overseas flights.  Also the means shifted continuously, skyjackings using small arms and knives started, threatened bombs followed, real explosives followed, then bombs that were designed to go off with no warning (no hijacking, just blow up the aircraft), finally large teams of hijackers with small arms and grenades.

This presented a huge and shifting threat to the Air Marshals, early threat required one armed responder.  However, the late threat had 6-7 hijackers with AKs, pistols and grenades, even two marshals would have a hard time subduing the threat.

The Air Marshal program has suffered numerous moves from division to division within the FAA, dual hatted as safety inspectors as well as armed security personnel, working in the airport screening as well as armed riders, etc.  Finally they were shuttle around repeatedly in the post 9/11 time period including being under ICE for a while, under the TSA and a succession of senior leaders who were US Secret Service veterans instead of aviation security veterans.

The service goes through these big surges where a high profile incident happens (happened in the 60s, 70s and 80s) and the marshals went from less than a hundred to nearly a thousand using either a hiring process or borrowed manpower from numerous government agencies or even the military (during the 60s).  Some in the survival community lost their minds at the mere existence of the Visible Inter-modal Prevention and Response (VIPR) program, where TSA/DHS personnel including the Federal Air Marshals would do operations around bus, train and other transportation nodes.  I am starting to think it was a pretty good idea, getting the air marshals out where they are more likely to find a real bad guy than on a highly screened and secure airliner.  They need something to keep themselves busy and occupied, but you do need to have a healthy group of agents that can be surged when there are particular periods of threat to the aviation infrastructure.

Interestingly, they went through a period in the 90s when they became highly selective and became some of the best pistol shooters in the world.  There were less than 100 of them and they were assessed by JSOC to be peers to our Special Missions Units (Delta, etc) in pistol shooting ability.  They frequently trained with the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) as the latter did full mission profile training exercises for takedowns of hijacked airliners.

It goes through the problems of the organization, many related to the stresses of increasing the size of the organization dramatically after 9/11, hiring 600 new agents in a single month in October of 2001 and eventually stabilizing somewhere just over 1000 agents.  It also was stressed greatly by a model of covering a substantial percentage of all flights, not just targeted routes.  One issue is that they were traveling so much that they were not getting the time to shoot before very demanding qualifications.  Many were traveling around with the membership cards of a dozen different ranges across the US (at considerable personal expense). They still have an excellent reputation as shooters, but their reputation as pistoleros at this point is probably more on line with the Secret Service protective division (merely excellent) than JSOC (scary good).

Ultimately though, the book emphasizes the dedication of the agents and the reality of the threat rather than addressing the fundamental question of why produce some of the best pistol shooters in the world and have them stake out the safest spaces in the US?  Especially with all the other measures (enhanced screening of baggage and passengers, locking armored cockpit doors, the armed flight deck officers program, etc), what is the point of an expansive force sitting around waiting for their John McClain moment?  Ultimately this shares a lot with the school resource officer issue.  You want them to have the warrior skills to respond to a school shooting, but the chances they will need it is near non-existent and when you do get a real hard-ass, is the proper talent management putting them in a school or in a high risk squad or patrol division in a dangerous part of town?