New military command shifts thinking on homeland defense
Establishing the U.S. Northern Command on Oct. 1 shifted the way the U.S. military thinks about defending the United States, the U.S. Department of Defense’s DoD’s point man on homeland security matters said.
Peter Verga, the special assistant to the secretary of defense for homeland security, spoke during a speech at the Heritage Foundation Sept. 26 about the mission of the new command and some of the effects NORTHCOM‘s rollout will have.
He said starting the command is important because it places the defense of the United States under one combatant command. This ensures unity of effort with supporting commands and other combatant commanders. “When we dial 9-1-1 on the telephone, we do not expect to have to deal with nine different law enforcement agencies,” Verga said. “We expect to deal with one person who will energize the necessary agencies and response.”
Verga differentiated between homeland security and homeland defense. He said homeland security is a concerted national effort to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce the United States’ vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize damage and assist in recovery from terrorist attacks that do occur.
The Defense Department uses the term “homeland defense” to refer to protecting U.S. territory, population and critical defense infrastructure against external threats and aggression.
This is important because, under the rubric of homeland security, the Defense Department acts in support of a lead federal agency. In homeland defense, the department takes the lead and is supported by other agencies.
He said NORTHCOM‘s chief will act just as any other combatant commander – with orders from the president transmitted through the defense secretary. He will assume command in three instances. The first is the most obvious: In extraordinary circumstances – such as another Sept. 11 attack – NORTHCOM will act. This includes conducting operations such as combat air patrols and maritime defense operations, and in cases where normal measures are insufficient to carry out federal functions.
The command will also act at the request of civil authorities under emergency circumstances, “such as responding to a terrorist attack, floods, hurricanes and such.”
Finally, the command will act under temporary circumstances. An example of this is the support the department gave to the Olympic effort in Salt Lake City.
Verga said the time is right for a combatant command for North America because the threat has changed. Sixty years of defending America by deterring aggressors overseas has ended.
“Sept. 11 taught us that our people and territory are vulnerable to attack,” he said.
The command gives undivided focus to the mission. For the first time, responsibility for defending the United States will be assigned to a single dedicated unified command, Verga said.
The command will be able to plan, coordinate, exercise command and control of, and supervise the execution of federal military responses to external threats and aggression. This applies as well to emergency and extraordinary domestic circumstances where the secretary of defense has approved military support.
Verga cautioned that the Oct. 1 start date did not mean a fully developed capability. The new command received an initial operating capability on that date. Plans call for the command to be fully operational by Oct. 1, 2003.
He anticipated the command would go through growing pains as it focuses on the new mission. The change should affect other commands throughout the United States. U.S. Joint Forces Command, for example, will be able to better focus on its mission of being the joint-force provider and examining ways to transform the military.
The director for military support – currently an ad hoc office on the Army staff – will migrate first to the Joint Staff or the Office of the Secretary of Defense and then possibly to NORTHCOM as the command hits its stride.