Improving NORTHCOM

COMMENTARY Homeland Security

Improving NORTHCOM

Jun 16th, 2003 3 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Today one general stands watch over America. He runs the United States Northern Command. That sounds impressive, but he has little real authority.

His domain, NORTHCOM, needs to become a full-service homeland security headquarters, to bolster other homeland security programs and serve as an important vehicle for defense transformation. Right now, though, it lacks the strong vision, resources and inventiveness necessary to bring much to the war on terrorism.

NORTHCOM was created under the Pentagon's Unified Command Plan (UCP), which lays out the geographic boundaries and functions of the various U.S. commands worldwide. In the wake of Sept. 11, the Joint Chiefs of Staff rushed out a new version establishing NORTHCOM as a single headquarters responsible for North America. It was the first time Canada, Mexico and the United States were assigned to any regional command.

But more than a year later, the command has done little more than set up shop. So it's worth asking what it should be doing. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Support Civilian Authorities. In the past, the Secretary of the Army coordinated Pentagon support to state and local governments. NORTHCOM should take on part of that role now. That will allow the command to establish solid working relationships with the other federal agencies and state and local governments it must work with in responding to a large-scale disaster or terrorist attack.
    Provide Force and Critical Infrastructure Protection. The challenge of providing force protection for military infrastructure and the defense industrial base has grown significantly since the Sept. 11 attacks. The military likely will require a flexible, well-orchestrated and responsive system to meet future terrorist threats. It makes sense to assign NORTHCOM overall responsibility for setting general force protection levels, balancing competing needs, assessing compliance and testing preparedness.
  • Take Greater Responsibility. Currently, NORTHCOM has only a very limited ability to command and control any nationwide operations. This could make future missions difficult to manage. One way to extend NORTHCOM's capabilities would be to establish a network of sub-regional commands to work with local authorities. They could serve as the nucleus for joint task forces capable of responding to a large-scale disaster or terrorist attack.
  • Work With Other Agencies. NORTHCOM now maintains only a small liaison office in the Pentagon, but it would benefit from the creation of a senior deputy commander and a staff assigned to the capital region. That person would also coordinate with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies.
  • Ensure Better Training. Current homeland security training is a mess. There is little standardization, much duplication, huge gaps and inadequate integration. NORTHCOM could serve as the focal point for homeland defense military training. Its expertise could help many civilian initiatives such as developing mission-essential task lists, establishing multi-echelon training centers, implementing training documentation systems and developing senior professional education.
  • Take Command. NORTHCOM has few forces directly under its control. As NORTHCOM looks to the future, it should revise its force requirements and consider how many people should be assigned to various headquarters. In its planning, NORTHCOM should consider the unique requirements for homeland security missions.
  • Support Improvements to Homeland Security. NORTHCOM should also play a key role in transforming the U.S. military from a force designed for the Cold War to one prepared to meet future security challenges. Operational practices, concepts, technologies and force structures designed to serve one region could well be applied to others. There are several areas, in fact, where NORTHCOM could lead the transformation effort. Intelligence sharing, interagency coordination, maritime surveillance, force protection, air defense and missile defense are just a few areas where NORTHCOM could develop the blueprint for other commands on implementing network-centric concepts.
An assessment of military requirements must also consider the requirement for "homeland security" overseas. Many areas where U.S. forces might deploy face the danger of nuclear, chemical or biological strikes. Host countries may lack the robust infrastructure required to respond to these attacks. American homeland security forces might be needed to help deal with a crisis there.

Homeland security forces should be well prepared to deal with catastrophic attacks, but also trained to do other military missions. Unfortunately, the current force structure uses National Guard forces that are not fully trained for war-fighting tasks; they would have to be reorganized quickly to respond to a major terrorist strike.

So far, the Pentagon has provided only a limited vision of how NORTHCOM might improve domestic security over the long term. There is a lot more that can and must be done to ensure our homeland remains safe.


James Carafano, author of the book "Waltzing into the Cold War: The Struggle for Occupied Austria," is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation (