Tuesday, December 02, 2008

NORTHCOM: Guarding the nation's borders

by Staff Sgt. Matthew Bates, Defense Media Activity-San Antonio

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AFNS) -- Thousands of U.S. military men and women are deployed across the globe promoting democracy, guarding freedom and fighting terrorism. They are the fingers of the nation's military, extending its reach and capabilities on an international scope.

But as the events of Sept. 11, 2001, demonstrated, the United States is not impervious to attack. In the aftermath of these tragic actions, Department of Defense officials began to look at homeland defense in a whole new light.

In response, DOD officials in October of 2002 established the U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. Its charter: Provide command and control of homeland defense efforts and protect the nation's people, national power and freedom of action.

"We've shifted from an external focus to an inward focus," said Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., the NORTHCOM commander. "We realized we needed to create an organization responsible for homeland defense."

"We may be small in years, but we are no longer a young command," General Renuart said. "We are a mature organization, highly capable and highly equipped to execute the mission of homeland defense."

NORTHCOM personnel are responsible for monitoring all land, sea and air approaches within the continental United States, Alaska, Canada, Mexico and the surrounding water out to approximately 500 nautical miles. That also includes the Gulf of Mexico and the straits of Florida.

Command officials also are in charge of responding to any threats that arise within the United States and have prepared detailed plans for responding to situations that range from pandemic influenza to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear events. They also have redefined the command's readiness capabilities since Hurricane Katrina.

When it comes to providing forces in response to incidents, the command has nearly 50 National Guard officers fully integrated within its operations, in addition to National Guard civil support teams located within every U.S. state and territory, and 17 regional consequence response units.

NORTHCOM planners also use an active-duty military response unit of nearly 450 Marines who are the "gold standard" for responding to weapons-of-mass-destruction attacks, officials said. There also are pre-identified active-duty and Reserve components on a short string to provide additional muscle to initial response teams.

"The U.S. military absolutely has the capacity to respond to potential threats within our nation today," General Renuart said. "It will get better in this coming year and continue to improve beyond that."

Yet, protecting the homeland isn't the command's only mission.

"It is definitely our No. 1 priority," General Renuart said. "But we are also tasked with a civil support mission."

This mission includes supporting disaster relief operations that occur during fires, hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. The mission sees command officials sustaining counter-drug operations and managing the consequences of a terrorist event that employs a weapon of mass destruction within the U.S. border.

NORTHCOM forces generally support civil authorities through established joint task forces subordinate to the command. These include Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region, Joint Task Force-Civil Support, Joint Task Force Alaska, and Joint Task Force North. Other service components include U.S. Army North, U.S. Air Forces North, Marine Forces Reserve, and Fleet Forces Command.

"An emergency must exceed the capabilities of local, state and federal agencies before NORTHCOM becomes involved," General Renuart said. "In most cases, this support is limited, localized and specific."

Once the scope of the disaster is reduced to the point that local agencies can re-assume full control and management without military assistance, NORTHCOM personnel will depart, leaving the on-scene experts to finish the job.

Ultimately, NORTHCOM's goal is to prevent another 9/11 from happening -- a goal the command takes seriously and devotes a lot of time and manpower to accomplishing.

"We are continually adjusting our structure and capabilities to meet the demands of a changing world," General Renuart said. "While the threats we face have changed, our charter remains to provide for the security of the U.S. and defend it against any enemy, whether that be a lone terrorist or a full-scale invasion on our shores."