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Report: Fighter jet in California was on alert to intimidate protesters. Who sent the orders?

A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet near At-Tanf Garrison, Syria, June 13, 2020. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. William Howard)

A California National Guard fighter jet in Fresno was on standby to help restore order had civil unrest broke out last year, according to a Los Angeles Times story that cites multiple unnamed sources.

While positioning ground troops to help state and local law enforcement handle disturbances has been used commonly before, the order to have an F-15C Eagle on alert status to help handle civil unrest was considered unusual, the L.A. Times reported.

Sources who spoke to the L.A. Times said they believed the purpose of the fighter jet was to fly low over crowds at window-rattling speeds to intimidate and help disperse protesters.

But sources also said that deploying an F-15C Eagle that’s typically used for air-to-air combat as a tool to frighten civilian protesters and “show of force” would have been inappropriate use of military power.

“The decibel level alone from an F-15C demonstrating a show of force can break windows, set off car alarms and cause more fear than shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” Dan Woodside, a retired Guard pilot who has flown the F-15C, told the L.A. Times.

The newspaper reported that the fighter jet was on alert status in Fresno — fueled and ready for takeoff — for possible civil unrest response regarding the main national issues from 2020: coronavirus stay-at-home orders and mask mandates, protests over the police killing of George Floyd, and the contentious U.S. presidential election.

“It would have been a completely illegal order that disgraced the military,” one source told the L.A. Times. “It could look like we’re threatening civilians.”

“That’s something that would happen in the Soviet Union,” added another source. “Our military is used to combat foreign aggressors.”

The sources spoke to the L.A. Times on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from their superiors.

Fresno response

A public affairs officer for the 144th Fighter Wing stationed at Fresno Yosemite International Airport told The Bee that he and the wing commander were aware of the L.A. Times story. He declined to confirm whether the Fresno base had received orders for fighter jets to be on alert to help deal with civil unrest.

“It’s a lot of speculation and I’m not able to verify details in the story,” Capt. Jason Sanchez said when contacted Saturday evening. “Some of the stuff was opinions from their unnamed sources.”

Sanchez did confirm that members of the wing have been used for civil unrest situations in the past, but as backup personnel on the ground to assist local and state law enforcement.

Depending on its mission, the 144th wing receives requests for assistance from either the California governor or the Pentagon as part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

The 144th has approximately 400 full-time personnel. Another approximately 1,100 personnel are drill status guardsmen who work at the 144th for one weekend each month as part of the military reserves program.

Among the primary missions of the wing is to provide air defense along the West Coast for NORAD.

“If there was unfriendly aircraft in the skies, we’re part of the mission supporting that,” Sanchez said. “We’d have jets go up and investigate.”

The L.A. Times story states documents were reviewed that show a jet was placed on an alert status for a possible election-week mission and that officers discussed concerns of using the F-15 to intimidate civilians.

In addition, then-commander of the 114th Wing, Col. Jeremiah Cruz, sent an email to several officers to address growing concerns of the fighter jet use for domestic purposes, according to the L.A. Times story.

“There is no expectation that the F-15C will be used in any way in support of civil unrest,” Cruz’s email reportedly said.

While the order never came to use the fighter jet to intimidate civilians, the fact that leaders considered that option alarmed guard members, the L.A. Times further reported.

“It’s a war machine, not something you use for [suppressing] civil unrest,” a third source told the L.A. Times.

More about F-15

The F-15 Eagle has the capability to hit supersonic speeds, can fire air-to-air missiles and is armed with a 20-millimeter cannon.

In Fresno, the jets are used to train pilots for combat. A few others are kept on around-the-clock alert to respond immediately to attacks by aircraft.

Military spokespersons told the L.A. Times that the Defense Department and Air Force were not involved in any decision to place the F-15C on alert status for civilian disturbances.

Army Lt. Col. Christian Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman, told the L.A. Times that deploying the jet “for dispersing crowds would not be an appropriate use of the F-15.”

In addition, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office told the L.A. Times that Gov. Gavin Newsom never authorized use of a fighter jet to help in response to civil unrest nor would he have approved of it had it been recommended.

Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, who leads the California Guard and reports to Newsom, did not directly respond to interview requests from the L.A. Times, according to the story.

However, Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma, a spokesman for Baldwin, told the L.A. Times that the F-15C never was placed on an alert status for a potential response to civil disturbances.

“We do not use our planes to frighten or intimidate civilians,” Shiroma wrote in replied email to the L.A. Times.

This isn’t the first time questions have been raised about the California Guard’s use of aircraft in times of civil unrest.

The L.A. Times reported in October that the Guard used a reconnaissance plane to monitor Floyd-related protests near Sacramento in El Dorado Hills, where Baldwin lived.

In an interview with the L.A. Times last fall, Baldwin told the newspaper that he didn’t recall whether he had approved of the deployment of an RC-26B reconnaissance plane over El Dorado Hills. And he added that the fact he lived there had “nothing to do with” the mission.

Congress members voiced concerns that military planes were used inappropriately to surveil civilians.


(c) 2021 The Fresno Bee

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