Unique Status Challenges Northern Command

October 2004
By Robert K. Ackerman
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The U.S. Northern Command’s (NORTHCOM’s) situational awareness room monitors a range of conditions across the United States. The command must incorporate threat intelligence from overseas combatant commands with reports on domestic concerns such as natural disasters to carry out its homeland missions.
Intelligence, information sharing require different approaches.

The two-year-old U.S. combatant command tasked with both homeland security and homeland defense is juggling conflicting requirements as it strives to establish a vital infostructure. The U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, must balance the need to deter, prevent and defeat threats to the United States with legal limitations on domestic information sharing. This poses both technological and organizational challenges to intelligence dissemination and communications.

NORTHCOM draws on defense-wide command and control systems to meet its interoperability needs. The command’s intelligence requirements largely are met by existing systems and components in the intelligence community. But, NORTHCOM also is building an information architecture that will allow it to carry out its domestic responsibilities for homeland defense and disaster mitigation.

Maj. Gen. Dale W. Meyerrose, USAF, is the director of command and control systems for the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the director for architectures and integration for NORTHCOM, as well as the chief information officer for both commands. What sets NORTHCOM apart from the other combatant commands, he offers, is its emphasis on transnational threats. While the other commands also face these threats, NORTHCOM’s mission emphasizes that thread to a greater degree. These transnational threats can encompass terrorism, drugs, smuggling and human trafficking. Intelligence that fuses information and supports the command’s ability to be proactive about a threat is at the crux of the command’s most important intelligence needs.

The biggest challenge currently facing NORTHCOM is to be able to anticipate future events, the general continues. This might entail anticipating event-based elements such as a hurricane or a forest fire, for which the command plans a campaign similar to a military effort. However, a far greater challenge exists when faced with the threat of terrorism.

“The element of the unknown or the unexpected, especially in terms of transnational threats or terrorism, is truly our biggest challenge,” the general warrants. “We can’t treat that like the forest fire season or the hurricane season. First, [the terrorist threat] is constant. Second, the source of where those threats come from is hard to define, hard to penetrate and hard to anticipate.”

NORTHCOM works on the terrorist threat with other combatant commands and the intelligence community, he adds. Part of this cooperative effort involves ensuring that these partners in homeland defense understand NORTHCOM’s concerns about transnational threats.

“We try to work as many of those [transnational threats] as we can as an away game,” the general analogizes. “In this arena, having a terrorist event as a home game is not desirable. We would like to engage all of those threats as an away game as much as possible.

“Therein lie our biggest issues,” the general declares.

The many different changes currently being proposed for the intelligence community have NORTHCOM in a holding pattern. Any reorganization that is as major and drastic as that proposed will require large adjustments that would need to take place over time, the general notes. These changes could involve new relationships, procedures and policies.

Possible community changes complicate the command’s intelligence picture. NORTHCOM must continue to adhere strictly to existing laws regarding sharing of domestic information. Gen. Meyerrose relates that the command works closely with other government elements, including law enforcement officials, on sharing information legally. Some information may be law-enforcement sensitive or may involve evidence to be used in a court of law. “We do not get into any of that, nor do we store any of that,” the general emphasizes.

However, the command does need information shared on potential situations or developing series of events. Established NORTHCOM cells work closely with components of the departments of Justice, Transportation, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services to share information at the operational level. This allows NORTHCOM to anticipate where it might need to help these partners, Gen. Meyerrose explains.

The command also needs top-flight intelligence on transnational threats and their potential significance to the United States. And, this intelligence must be a part of NORTHCOM’s relationships with the other regional combatant commands. Because NORTHCOM does not have its own intelligence collection element, it relies on the other regional combatant commands to collect intelligence and then share it with NORTHCOM.

A U.S. Air Force C-130E equipped with a modular airborne fire fighting system dispenses fire retardant on a wildfire sweeping through Simi Valley, California. Fires, hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters often bring NORTHCOM into activities in support of civil government organizations.
Enabling this sharing is command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) interoperability among the commands. Gen. Meyerrose describes this C4ISR interoperability as “very robust” due in part to many U.S. Defense Department-wide C4ISR programs established over the past few years. Command and control systems that aimed at shortening the kill chain or at providing time-sensitive targeting also enable NORTHCOM to interface with the other combatant commands, the general observes. “The standard military C4ISR programs such as the Global Command and Control System, the Global Command Support System, and the plethora of intelligence systems are the very same ones that we use with our fellow combatant commanders,” he says.

Several information technologies loom large on NORTHCOM’s wish list. Gen. Meyerrose cites technologies that enable the command to share an event-based presence. These include items that allow cross-domain sharing across different security classifications. Another key area involves elements for tagging information so that it can be retrieved or integrated horizontally with other elements.

The general also cites a need for technologies that work equally well in the .mil, .com, .edu and .gov domains. These include publish-and-subscribe Web-enabled technologies currently under development. And, any technologies that will enable the command to link behavior and the motivation for sharing information will ensure that information is pushed to a user who is unaware of it—or pulled if a user absolutely needs it.

The command needs technologies that work with wireless in a protected environment. This is separate from conventional security needs, the general points out, in that it involves safeguarding information for sharing rather than just focusing on the disciplines of encryption and compartmented information.

Each of these key technologies may come from private industry, Gen. Meyerrose allows.

The past year has seen four major changes in the command, according to the general. First, the command has been able to successfully work real-world operational contingencies. These contingencies have run the gamut from forest fires to special security events such as President Ronald Reagan’s funeral, the G-8 summit in Georgia and both political conventions. In dozens of cases, civil authorities have requested NORTHCOM’s assistance. The general offers that the command’s experience in these cases has demonstrated a degree of ability to deter and pre-empt potential hostile activities.

A second major change involves the command’s exercise program. It has grown so much, Gen. Meyerrose says, that a large part of it now includes federal, state and local governments. This program has merged with the national exercise program, where the departments of Defense and Homeland Security jointly perform exercises on an annual basis. The three partners host the effort on a rotating basis.

A third transition is that the command’s need-to-share construct has continued to grow since its onset. NORTHCOM has increased the inclusion of organizations with which it routinely shares information, the general notes, and the command has a common operational picture that it shares with 35 major organizations. Many of these are not even in the Defense Department, he observes. “We have gotten a lot of traction on the elements about what ‘need to share’ means, how it works culturally and what technologies are needed to enhance that,” the general says.

A fourth achievement is a common operational environment that allows the command to dynamically create protected information exchange for an event-based presence in support of military and civil authorities. The command has dispatched mobile teams to train nearly 4,000 people on its common operational environment, which has been adopted by government agencies.

However, some vital requirements still persist after a year of work. The ability to provide military assistance to civil authorities is largely event-based, the general states. Natural disasters such as hurricanes and large forest fires can require a command presence that poses a significant challenge. And, the command must work with agencies and other parts of the federal government.

“Our business is one of seams and seam management,” Gen. Meyerrose declares.

NORTHCOM has worked on need-to-share cultural issues with other government entities, the general relates. “Our level of interface with many agencies within the government and with the military forces—the National Guard and the Coast Guard—that we use on a routine basis has grown fairly sophisticated.”

Cultural barriers remain to be surmounted. To find grounds of inclusion and cooperation, the command seeks to establish a plan that uncovers issues during its development. Exercises, scenario development and assessments all have generated a better understanding of the command’s role and that of its potential partners, Gen. Meyerrose offers.

“We have had a great deal of success in breaking down those barriers,” he declares. “That does not mean that we are satisfied; that does not mean that we are not looking to continually improve. But, all the things have helped work toward that.”

One key has been the presence of liaison officers in NORTHCOM headquarters. Many government agencies have provided representatives, and the command has reciprocated with its own personnel in those agencies’ offices. This has increased understanding among all parties and has paid great dividends, Gen. Meyerrose states.

The command often can be expected to support civil government authorities in an event, and this support can take many forms. When an event begins to take shape, NORTHCOM works through a defense coordinating officer in a state’s emergency operations center close to the governor and the state Guard agency head. As the situation develops, that defense coordinating officer can offer appropriate NORTHCOM capabilities for the use of these civil authorities. This enables a governor to make an informed request to the president for federal assistance, the general points out.


Web Resources
NORTHCOM Homeland Defense: www.northcom.mil/index.cfm?fuseaction=s.homeland
NORTHCOM Limitations: www.northcom.mil/index.cfm?fuseaction=s.who_limitations