NORTHCOM: Questions and Answers on the Eve of Implementation

Report Homeland Security

NORTHCOM: Questions and Answers on the Eve of Implementation

October 1, 2002 11 min read
Peter Verga
Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy
Transcript of speech delivered at The Heritage Foundation on September 26, 2002.


I.  Introduction


President Bush commemorated the first Patriot Day, September 11, 2002, with these words:  "Those whom we lost last September 11 will forever hold a cherished place in our hearts and in the history of our Nation.  As we mark the first anniversary of that tragic day, we remember their sacrifice; and we commit ourselves to honoring their memory by pursuing peace and justice in the world and security at home." 

The U.S. military actually took its first step in this pursuit one year earlier on September 11, 2001.   Members of the 102nd Fighter Wing, Massachusetts Air National Guard at Otis ANGB, led the first military response to the terrible attack on America.   Two F-15 Eagle jets from Otis arrived at the World Trade Center, just minutes after United Airlines Flight 175 sliced into the second tower. While they were unable to alter the course of history on that morning, they stood guard with renewed vigilance.  They were the first, but they were not the last.

The direct defense of the American homeland, Operation NOBLE EAGLE, commenced immediately after the September 11 attacks and includes the combat air patrols over key domestic locations, expanded air operations, and command and control of active component forces, including US Navy ships with anti-aircraft systems to enhance the security of US domestic airspace. NOBLE EAGLE also entailed Coast Guard inspections of cargo vessels and patrols in defense of major seaports.

On October 7, 2001, we took the fight to the enemy when we, along with our allies, launched attacks against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  This operation, "Enduring Freedom," successfully liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban, destroyed al-Qaeda training bases, and set the al-Qaeda on the run (and, as the special operations community said during Operation DESERT STORM:  "you can run, but you'll just die tired).

Five days from today, we will take another major step in the pursuit of "security at home":  on the first of October, we will stand up a new combatant command, the U.S. Northern Command.

II.  Defining Homeland Security and Homeland Defense

Now, before I specifically address Northern Command, let me offer some clarification and context. 

When referring to the defense of the homeland two terms are often used, incorrectly, interchangeably: homeland security and homeland defense.

As described by the President, "homeland security" is a concerted national effort to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism, and minimize the damage and assist in the recovery from terrorist attacks. 

The Department of Defense defines "homeland defense" as the protection of United States territory, domestic population, and critical defense infrastructure against external threats and aggression.  It also includes routine, steady state activities designed to deter aggressors and to prepare US military forces for action if deterrence fails.

With respect to homeland security, the Department of Defense will operate in support of a lead federal agency.  For homeland defense, the Department of Defense will take the lead and be supported by other federal agencies.

All of these efforts are crucial, and the role of the Defense Department in each differs in important ways.

In the war abroad, U.S. military forces, at the direction of the President, will engage terrorist forces and the governments or others who harbor them.

In this effort, the Department works closely with other government agencies, including the Departments of State, Treasury and Justice, and the intelligence community.  In military operations, the Department of Defense is the lead, with other Departments and agencies working in support of our efforts.

III.  The Three Circumstances

To support the efforts to improve security at home, there are three circumstances under which the Department of Defense would be involved in activity within the United States and the Northern Command AOR:

Extraordinary circumstances, which require the DoD to execute its traditional military missions.  Combat air patrols and maritime defense operations are examples of these missions.  As with military missions abroad, the DoD has the lead role in the conduct of traditional military missions in defense of the people and territory of the Nation.

In this instance, the DoD is supported by other Federal agencies.  Plans for such contingencies, to the extent possible, would be coordinated as appropriate, with the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council.  As an example, in the case of combat air patrols, the FAA provides data to assist the efforts of Air Force fighter pilots in identifying and, if necessary, intercepting suspicious or hostile aircraft.

Also included in the category of extraordinary circumstances are cases in which the President, exercising his Constitutional authority as Commander in Chief, authorizes military action.  This inherent Constitutional authority may be used in cases, such as a terrorist attack, where normal measures are insufficient to carry out Federal functions.

The second case is emergency circumstances of a catastrophic nature-for example: responding to an attack or assisting in response to forest fires, floods, hurricanes, tornados and so forth, during which the Department may be asked to act quickly to provide or to supply capabilities that other agencies do not have.

Lastly, there are temporary circumstances, wherein the DoD is given missions or assignments that are limited in scope where other agencies have the lead from the outset.  An example of this would be security at a special event like the Olympics.  Another example is assisting other Federal agencies in developing capabilities to detect and deter chemical/biological threats.

IV.  Why a Northern Command?


Turning to the topic at hand, many might ask, "Why do we need a Northern Command?"  The answer is three-fold:


First, we need a Northern Command because we face a threat environment very different from that which we faced during the Cold War. 


In the early days of our nation, the Army and the Navy provided for the Nation's defense with internal forts, fixed harbor defenses, and occasional naval cruises abroad.   Since the end of the 19th century, however, U.S. military forces have focused their efforts on engaging enemies overseas.


For more than 50 years, defending the nation entailed the permanent basing and deployment of US forces around the world to deter and defend against attacks on our country, our forces, our friends, and our allies.


During the Cold War it became clear that physical distance from the Soviet Union, no longer assured that we would be safe at home.  Accordingly, we developed the forces necessary to deter a Soviet attack.  NORAD was created to serve as an early warning system for aerospace attack, including ballistic missiles.  Because of the determination of the West, the Cold War ended without an attack on our people or our territory.


September 11th taught us, to our regret, that our people and our territory are still vulnerable to attack.  The battlefield has been brought home to America. 


No longer do these oceans give us protection.  No longer can we expect that friendly nations to the north and south will give us protection.  To successfully defend against terrorism, and other 21st century threats, we will continue to take the war to the enemy, to put pressure on the terrorists wherever they are across the globe, to ensure that they have no safe haven, no sanctuary, anywhere in the world.  The front line of 21st century conflict, must not, to the extent we can prevent it, be American soil.  However, though taking the war to the enemy abroad is our first and best approach, we cannot and will not forget that we must be prepared to fight at home.


Second, we need a Northern Command because the defense of our nation deserves an undivided focus.  For the first time the defense of the continental United States will be assigned a single, dedicated combatant command.  Joint Forces Command was responsible for defense of the land- and sea-based defense of the United States, Joint Force Command was also responsible for providing trained forces to other combatant commands and the exceedingly important mission to help transform our military for the 21st century. 


Last year's Quadrennial Defense Review reaffirmed the defense of our nation as the U.S. military's highest priority.  We have a Central Command to defend our nation's interests in Southwest Asia.  We have a Southern Command to defend our nation's interests in Central and South America.  Establishment of Northern Command complements our other nine regional and functional commands, which are dedicated to defending our nation and our interests abroad, by defending our nation at home.

Third, we need a Northern Command because the combatant command ensures unified action - a unity of effort with the actions of supporting combatant commands, other military forces (i.e., multinational operations), other federal departments or agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation or a Department of Homeland Security, and non-governmental organizations. 

Currently, the North American Aerospace Defense Command is responsible for the aerospace defense of North America.  Joint Forces Command is responsible for the land and sea defense of the United States.  Establishment of Northern Command provides a unified action - a single command and control authority - over the land, sea, and aerospace defense of the United States.

Consider this:  when we dial 9-1-1, we do not expect to have to deal with nine different law enforcement agencies - we expect to deal with one person who will energize the necessary agencies response.  The same should be true for dealing with the defense of our nation and military support to civilian authorities.

Northern Command can plan, coordinate, exercise command and control, and supervise the execution of the federal military response to external threats and aggression, as well as emergency and extraordinary domestic circumstances where the Secretary of Defense has approved military support to civil authorities.

V.  Northern Command's Mission

What will be Northern Command's mission?

The Department of Defense will establish U.S. Northern Command to consolidate under a single unified command existing missions that were previously executed by other military organizations.     

The command's mission will be homeland defense and civil support, specifically:

  • Conduct operations to deter, prevent, and defeat threats and aggression aimed at the United States, its territories, and interests within the assigned area of responsibility (AOR); and
  • As directed by the President or Secretary of Defense, provide military assistance to civil authorities including consequence management operations.

U.S. Northern Command's area of responsibility will include air, land and sea approaches and encompasses the continental United States, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, and the surrounding water out to approximately 500 nautical miles.  It will also includes the Gulf of Mexico, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  The defense of Hawaii and our territories and possessions in the Pacific remain the responsibility of U.S. Pacific Command.  U.S. Northern Command will additionally be responsible for security cooperation and coordination with Canada and Mexico.   

Approximately 500 civil service employees and uniformed personnel representing all service branches will provide this essential unity of command from U.S. Northern Command's headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo.  General Ralph Eberhart, who will also command the North American Aerospace Defense Command, will command Northern Command.

In addition to defending the nation, U.S. Northern Command will provide military assistance to civil authorities in accordance with U.S. laws and as directed by the President or Secretary of Defense.  Military assistance is always in support of a lead federal agency, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Military civil support includes domestic disaster relief operations that occur during fires, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Support also includes counter-drug operations and consequence management assistance, such as would occur after a terrorist event employing a weapon of mass destruction.

Generally, an emergency must exceed the management capabilities of local, state and federal agencies before DoD and U.S. Northern Command would become involved.  In providing civil support, the command will operate through subordinate Joint Task Forces such as Joint Task Force - Civil Support.

VI.  Northern Command Coordination with the Office of Homeland Security/Department of Homeland Security

An obvious question is:  How will Northern Command interact with the Office of Homeland Security or a Department of Homeland Security?


The answer is simple:  like all other combatant commands, there will be no direct link between Northern Command and the Office of Homeland Security or the future Department of Homeland Security for operational tasking on national policy related issues, unless directed by the Secretary of Defense.  Accordingly, Northern Command will not participate in interagency meetings.

Once policy has been established or a specific tasking has been authorized by the Secretary of Defense, coordination between USNORTHCOM and subordinate agencies or bureaus of the Office of Homeland Security or future Department of Homeland Security should be allowed to coordinate specific operational/tactical issues or to coordinate specific planning, training or exercise requirements. 

VII.  Conclusion


In conclusion, allow me to again quote the President's speech on Patriot Day:  "We protect our country by relentlessly pursuing terrorists across the Earth; assessing and anticipating our vulnerabilities, and acting quickly to address those vulnerabilities and prevent attacks."

The U.S. military is committed to "pursuing peace and justice in the world and security at home."  Operation Enduring Freedom is "relentlessly pursuing terrorists across the Earth."  Operation Noble Eagle is addressing "vulnerabilities" and is warding against attacks.  The establishment of US Northern Command is fundamental, necessary step in the pursuit of "security at home."

Thank you.  I'd be happy to try and answer any questions you may have.


Peter Verga

Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy