Angels on High: CAP Evolves to Meet Homeland-Security Needs

With the United States leading the global war on terrorism at the same time that America’s armed forces are heavily engaged in a number of areas around the world, the challenge of defending the U.S. homeland has become an increasing concern, primarily because the size of the nation’s naval/military establishment, including the reserve components of each branch, is today much smaller than it has been at any previous time since the start of the Cold War. In addition, the age-old rivalries and traditional concepts of warfare have not been valid since the breakup of the Warsaw Pact in 1990 and the dissolution of the USSR itself the following year.

Instead, there has been a dramatic shift in the nature of warfare itself, which is no longer always, or necessarily, a conflict between nations per se but, in today’s world, a clash between civilized societies and dissident groups, frequently international, of fervent believers such as the Islamic extremists who over the past two decades have been responsible for so many of the terrorist attacks throughout the world. Although in the long sweep of history this is not a new phenomenon, it is new to the United States and its armed forces, which for more than fifty years had the advantage of training for an enemy who was readily identifiable.

Because of the current drain on U.S. military manpower for overseas deployments for a variety of missions ranging from peacekeeping to counterinsurgency operations, Pentagon decision makers have been looking more diligently at volunteer military organizations to augment the depleted ranks of so-called “regulars” and reserves. These organizations are divided more or less into two major categories: (1) those that are state-sponsored – e.g., state defense forces of various types, and naval militias; and (2) those such as the Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), which are sponsored by a branch of the U.S. military.

One Week Before the Storm

Although it is recognized today as the primary civilian auxiliary to the United States Air Force, the CAP has a long and illustrious history of service to the nation that pre-dates the Air Force itself.  A “child of its times,” the CAP was conceived in the late 1930s by Gill Robb Wilson, a New Jersey aviation advocate who had the vision and foresight to realize the potentially important role that civil aviation might play in times of war in which U.S. forces were involved. With a major assist from Fiorello La Guardia, then the mayor of New York City, the CAP was established on 1 December 1941 – less than one week, it should be noted, before the 7 December 1941 Japanese surprise attack against Pearl Harbor and the subsequent U.S. entry into World War II.

In much the same way its seagoing counterpart, the Coast Guard Auxiliary – which relied on patriotic yachtsmen to help out in time of need, using their own yachts – started out, the CAP began as an all-volunteer civilian organization that, initially at least, depended on the use of privately owned aircraft to carry out its liaison and reconnaissance missions. However, it did not take long for those missions to expand in scope, with the most notable new assignment being anti-submarine duty.

Red and Yellow Over the Deep Blue Sea

This complex and unfamiliar task was of transcendent importance during the dark days of early 1942, when the German Wolfpack fleets (U-boat submarines) stood watch along the East Coast of the United States and devastated the merchant marine supply convoys departing U.S. ports. Many of the scores of U.S. and Allied merchant ships sunk during that grim period were so close to the coast that survivors of the sinkings could almost wade ashore. During the war, CAP pilots flew more than 500,000 hours, logging a collective total of 24 million miles on patrol – and, of greater importance, detecting 173 submarines, attacking 57 of them, hitting and damaging 10, and sinking two. On the debit side, 64 CAP aviators lost their lives in the line of duty. By Presidential Executive Order, the CAP became an auxiliary of the Army Air Forces in 1943. In an interview after World War II, a former U-boat captain confirmed what many CAP volunteers had long believed – namely, that the Wolfpack operations in U.S. coastal waters had been suspended “because of those damned little red and yellow airplanes.” In 1948, one year after the U.S. Air Force became a separate service, the CAP was designated its official civilian auxiliary force.

Changing With the Times

Today’s CAP carries on the traditions of volunteer service in much the same manner as its predecessor of the WWII era. This is not surprising. As times and requirements have changed during the organization’s six-plus decades of service, the Civil Air Patrol has changed at the same time to remain a force multiplier and valued asset to first the Army Air Force and now the United States Air Force. While still carrying out many of the same missions as their WWII predecessors, today’s CAP aviators have been tasked with a number of additional duties across a broad spectrum of missions, particularly those related to cadet training and aerospace education, and current operations.

The CAP Cadet Program is exceptionally well organized and provides an excellent venue for young people to become involved in service-related activities. By definition, that “service” is not only to the community but also to the nation, and requires being exposed to training that encourages teamwork, moral leadership, and the development of the technical skills needed to support emergency services – with healthy dollops of aerospace education, and military history and customs, also included. Among several additional opportunities provided through the CAP Cadet Program are a college and flight training scholarship program, an International Air Cadet exchange program, and national encampments. Through these activities, the CAP’s enthusiastic cadets are provided the opportunity to test and expand their own self-confidence by, among other things, assuming increased responsibility through leadership positions, and the setting and achieving of personal as well as professional goals. The CAP carries out other aerospace education programs, both internal and external, for both adult and cadet members. These rigorous programs, which are focused on aviation in general and Air Force needs in particular, also are offered to the general public in the form of a special program – “Fly A Teacher” – for teachers and other educational professionals at all levels.

Maintaining the Minuteman Tradition

Through aerospace education and other programs, the CAP provides an exceptional information campaign through which the private sector can easily become more conversant on the opportunities available. Free room materials and lesson plans for aerospace education also are available at all times, and each year the CAP sponsors the premier national conference in the field. In all likelihood, however, the CAP is today still best known for its work in current operations, particularly those involving search-and-rescue and disaster-relief missions. For its role in the 21st century, however, the CAP has expanded its mission set to include counter-drug reconnaissance missions and homeland-security operations. For two decades, in fact, the CAP has been a valuable, and highly valued, asset in the nation’s war against drugs – primarily by providing the scarce airborne surveillance platforms needed to assist local as well as federal law-enforcement agencies in detecting and eradicating crops of illegal drugs.

In addition, since the 9/11 attacks on America and the start of the global war on terrorism, the CAP once again has demonstrated its versatility by providing similar assets for the protection of critical infrastructures – e.g., nuclear power plants.  The organization’s ability to provide, at minimal cost, airborne platforms fitted with state-of-the-art technological surveillance equipment makes the CAP a prime asset both for local law-enforcement agencies and for state homeland-security offices as well as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Volunteer U.S. military organizations such as the CAP have served the local community and the nation since the Revolutionary War. The current missions carried out by the CAP – through the training and under the oversight provided by its parent organization, the United States Air Force – once again proves the extra value provided by these quintessentially American types of organizations. From its inception in 1941 to the present day, the Civil Air Patrol’s volunteers have demonstrated their ability to remain relevant to changing requirements while carrying on the Militia and Minuteman traditions of defending “home and hearth” as well as answering the call of the nation when needed.

Brent Bankus

Brent C. Bankus retired as a promotable Lieutenant Colonel from the Army National Guard Active Guard Reserve Program with over 25 years service. His military career, beginning in 1979 as an Armor/Cavalry officer encompassed command and staff positions in the U.S. Army, Army National Guard, and the Army Reserve. He has served in assignments within the United States and Germany as well as missions to Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Sinai, Eritrea, Guam and Hawaii. He has a BS from Bloomsburg University, PA, an MS in Information Management from Strayer University, VA and an MS in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps Command and General Staff Colleges and the U.S. Army War College. He is a consultant with Resource Consultants, Inc.



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