USAF 'can shoot down hijacked planes'

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Two American Air Force officers have been given the right to order the shooting down of civilian airliners if they threaten American cities, the Pentagon announced yesterday.

President Bush gave authorisation for the revised rules of engagement as part of an overhaul of defence tactics in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks on America.

General Ralph Eberhart, the head of the North American Aerospace Defence Command, Norad, said a two-star officer, Major General Larry Arnold – a decorated fighter pilot who served in Vietnam and oversees 48 American states – would now have authority as a "last resort" to order hijacked aircraft to be shot down over the United States.

Joint responsibility for the new defence plan also rests with Lieutenant-General Norton Schwartz, a former command pilot who oversees Alaska. Previously, only the President, as the Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces, could authorise the downing of commercial airliners.

General Eberhart said: "If there's time, we'd go all the way to the President. Otherwise the standing orders have been pushed down to the regional level."

General Eberhart admitted that Norad, which was created during the Cold War, was prepared primarily for external threats. He told The New York Times: "If somebody had called us and said, we have a hijacking 100 miles out coming from Europe or South America, there are terrorists on board and they have taken over the plane, that's a scenario we have practised. We do not practise – and I wish to God we had – a scenario where this takes off in Boston and minutes later crashes into New York City. This is a whole new ball game."

On 11 September, jet fighters were called in after the first airliner hit the World Trade Centre, but they were not allowed to shoot down the second and third aircraft because only the White House had the authority to give the order.

Vice-President Dick Cheney said Mr Bush had ordered a fourth aircraft, Flight 93, to be "taken out" if necessary, but it crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers took matters into their own hands by storming the hijackers.

In Britain, the Ministry of Defence said Tony Blair would have to order the downing of a hijacked airliner.