Northern Command Emphasizes Homeland Defense

January 2003
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Deterring, preventing and defeating threats shares mission space with disaster relief and consequence management.

The newest U.S. combatant command, tasked with defending the homeland, is taking a military approach to using civilian assets. This does not involve discarding existing U.S. laws that mandate separation of military activity from local responsibilities. Rather, it involves organizing and coordinating threat protection and emergency response efforts to maximize available federal, state and local government resources. And, it may include placing the military command under civilian leadership.

The U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which stood up in October 2002, is co-located with the North American Aerospace Defense Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. Its area of responsibility includes the contiguous United States, Alaska, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Canada and Mexico as well as their coastal economic zones out to 500 miles from shore.

Its commander, Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, USAF, relates that, in terms of roles, responsibilities and missions, NORTHCOM is just like any other regional combatant command. What separates it from the other commands is that its homeland is its area of responsibility. Not only does NORTHCOM have the classic homeland defense mission of protecting against external threats, it also must assist civil authorities upon direction by the executive branch.

Gen. Eberhart lauds the command’s cooperation with federal, state and local agencies, calling it one of the major success stories currently unfolding. “Relationships are being formed that were not there before, and other relationships are being strengthened that have been in place for decades,” he states. As an example, he notes that the command recently conducted an exercise at Peterson Air Force Base that included senior representatives from 45 government agencies. This organizational connectivity lies at the heart of one of the command’s missions.

“The biggest challenge facing both the new commander and the new team is to get the right people selected, trained and, in some cases, certified to perform duties on the staff of this command,” Gen. Eberhart declares. “Then, we must establish the right relationships with component commands and with other organizations—including the services—supporting the combatant commanders.” These commands most likely would include the Pacific Command, the Southern Command, the Transportation Command, the Special Operations Command and possibly the European Command. The new Strategic Command also will be a key player in NORTHCOM efforts as it harnesses technology and assets that will be important to the success of its mission, Gen. Eberhart adds.

NORTHCOM also expects to support several key government agencies. For crisis management, the Justice Department, its Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the U.S. Secret Service could serve as the lead organization in an activity involving NORTHCOM. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would serve as lead for consequence management.

“We’re redefining ‘joint’ with this new command in our relationships,” the general declares.

In an attack on the U.S. homeland, NORTHCOM may find itself operating under the guidance of a civil agency. In this scenario, a governor would request assistance from the executive branch. If the president determined that assistance from NORTHCOM was warranted, then the lead federal agency or department would provide direction for the command’s activities.

The advantage that NORTHCOM brings to crisis or consequence management is “one-stop shopping” for whatever capabilities government needs, the general offers. NORTHCOM would establish command and control upon reaching the area that needs assistance. While NORTHCOM would command and control its own forces, the state’s governor and the lead federal agency would remain in charge, and the command would take its tasking from them.

“If you look at how we are redefining ‘joint,’ and how disparate we are in terms of the different government agencies that will be represented—directly or indirectly—as we provide for homeland defense and assist in homeland security, then you can start to imagine the type of information needs and information assurance that will be very critical to our success,” Gen. Eberhart offers.

In the past, commands have discussed sharing air, land and sea pictures in joint operations. NORTHCOM, however, must fuse information from a variety of other sources such as the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). So, the command is approaching this challenge from a classic military sense, the general states.

“First of all, I need to know the ‘friendly’ order of battle,” he relates. “Where are our ships; where are our capabilities in terms of land forces and aircraft on alert—but not just military forces as we normally define them. Where are the Coast Guard ships; where is Customs; where is the Border Patrol? What is the friendly order of battle?”

Then, the command must look at the enemy order of battle. Gen. Eberhart characterizes the enemy order of battle as both manmade and natural. A hurricane approaching the coastal United States can represent an enemy order of battle in that NORTHCOM may need to assist in consequence management after the storm strikes. “We need to be able to understand where it is; what forces we have that can respond and assist if requested; how we are able to react quickly,” he posits. “If we can cut the time it takes to respond, then we in turn will reduce casualties and will limit damage.”

Achieving that goal will require information technology that allows the command to share the diverse information that affects its mission. “We usually are pretty good at sharing information vertically,” the general continues. “But we need technology that can share this horizontally in a common operational picture, so that we can take feeds from the Coast Guard, Customs, the FAA and the FBI. This involves information technology to share and fuse information—and not just traditional intelligence, but all the information that is relevant.

“Secondly, we must have information technology that allows us to do collaborative planning—not just across the NORTHCOM staff, but also with our components and, in many cases, with these other government agencies that we may be required to assist,” he states. Whether a hurricane is approaching or a terrorist attack is imminent, the command would harness this technology to have its operational plans in place when it shows up at the scene of the crisis.

The general explains that the command will take existing operational pictures that it will call up as needed in its operations center. The challenge will be to fuse these pictures into a single picture and filter it to deal with the problem at hand. “This picture will be so disparate that it will be new and different,” he offers.

NORTHCOM expects to have the same relationship with the intelligence community as do all the other combatant commands. However, the asymmetrical threat that faces the United States requires collecting information on both external threats as well as domestic menaces that have infiltrated or reside in sleeper cells. Dealing with domestic threats is the responsibility of federal agencies and law enforcement, the general notes. However, when these organizations do not have the capability to protect the citizenry, the president has the responsibility to ensure that protection is extended where necessary.

In that vein, NORTHCOM is working to break down the cultural barriers to information sharing. These stovepipes can be more of a problem than legal barriers. “Sometimes they may be well-intentioned, in terms of protecting information to pursue a criminal case,” Gen. Eberhart notes. “But, we are most concerned about protecting the men and women of this land.

“So, we have to work together to ensure that we protect that information and that the information is shared according to the laws of this land,” he emphasizes. The general adds that, in some cases joint interagency task forces combating drug trafficking have been granted special authority to accommodate those kinds of missions. “If over time, we see that we need those types of provisions to be successful in Northern Command, then we will go forward to the secretary of defense and ask for those changes,” he warrants. The general adds that he knows of no changes that need to be made.

The threat of terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction does exist, and NORTHCOM takes it seriously, Gen. Eberhart declares. “We must do everything we can all the way from pre-emption to day-in/day-out deterrence. We must convince people of this deterrence [by saying], ‘Don’t try; you won’t be successful. If you are successful, the price you will have to pay will be unacceptable.’

“So, we must approach this from across all the classical military methods, from deterrence to pre-emotion to defeating. Then, God forbid, we must be prepared to react, clean up and minimize loss of life and damage if someone is successful,” he asserts.

“The possibility [of a successful terror attack] exists. I’m an optimist. I think if we do those things correctly, then we won’t experience one.”


Additional information on the U.S. Northern Command is available on the World Wide Web at

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