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Military seeking to halt fighter jet patrols in U.S.

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WASHINGTON — The military is exploring ways to stop the around-the-clock anti-terrorism patrols that fighter jets have been flying over American cities since Sept. 11, defense officials said.

But four months after the devastating attacks on U.S. soil, any decision on ending the combat air patrols may come down to largely a political calculation of how safe Americans would feel without them, they said.

As a part of heightened homeland defense, the missions began after terrorist hijackers crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They have flown constantly over New York and Washington, DC., since then.

Other patrols are flown randomly over other major metropolitan areas and key infrastructure, and jets are on alert at 30 bases across the country to scramble if called.

The military also has been authorized to order pilots to shoot down commercial aircraft if necessary.

Officials have been looking to cut back on the program for some time, knowing from the outset that the high-tempo use of manpower, equipment and money couldn't be kept up for long with the existing people and budget, one defense official said on condition of anonymity.

Now that four months have passed and aviation security has been improved somewhat, some wonder it if might be time to start rethinking the patrols, the official said.

The operation uses 11,000 people and 250 aircraft, another official said, also in return for anonymity. Those figures include maintenance crews, pilots for 100 F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as crews for tankers needed for mid-air refueling and AWACS — Airborne Warning and Control System — planes to provide radar information.

The pilots, mostly from Air National Guard units, go up for flights of two to six hours. The jets are refueled about every two hours, meaning some go through two mid-air refuelings on a single sortie.

From Sept. 11 to Dec. 10, the operation flew 13,000 missions. The cost was $324 million, Defense Department spokeswoman Susan Hansen said.

Air Force officials had no immediate comment Sunday.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, which runs the operation, said periodic review of missions is standard procedure.

"We continuously analyze our ongoing operations as a matter of prudent military planning," said Maj. Barry Venable, a spokesman for NORAD in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"We will continue to execute our role (in homeland defense) until the national leadership directs otherwise," he said.