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NATO Planes Going Home

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday that NATO early-warning airplanes and crews that have been based at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City for anti-terrorism sky patrols will return home in mid-May.

The decision to call home the AWACS planes and crews, the first to ever come to U.S. assistance, was made after "a recent U.S. evaluation of homeland security requirements," said NATO officials in Brussels, Belgium.

Upgrades to U.S. air defenses and enhanced cooperation between civil and military authorities in the United States means that the NATO early warning planes are no longer needed, the NATO officials said.

NATO sent five AWACS early warning planes in October, in its first-ever operation inside the United States, to replace U.S. aircraft supporting the military action in Afghanistan. Two more of the Airborne Early Warning and Control System aircraft were added in January.

The Air Force also has said it wants to stop flying U.S. continuous anti-terror air patrols over parts of the United States and instead leave fighters on "strip alert," ready to launch in emergencies.

The Air Force is consulting with the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and with the White House's Office of Homeland Security to determine a long-term plan for domestic air defense.

Rumsfeld thanked NATO for the assistance.

"I'm told that to date some 830 crew members from some 13 different NATO nations have patrolled the U.S. skies," Rumsfeld said, noting the crews clocked 4,300 hours in over 360 sorties.

The operation has been based at Tinker. NATO's AWACS operating with multinational crews are normally based in Geilenkirchen, Germany.

NATO's founding treaty states that an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all. But that article had never been invoked before Sept. 11.

AWACS planes are modified Boeing 707s with a giant rotating radar disk on top that allows the crew to monitor aircraft hundreds of miles away.

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