The Denver Post concluded an excellent three-part series today on NORTHCOM that delves deeper into its roles and missions than any other news story I’ve seen in recent memory. The first story focuses on NORTHCOM’s role in maritime and cargo security; the second story looks at the future of NORAD; and the third story looks at NORTHCOM’s potential role in a pandemic flu response. Some highlights from each story:
The piece on maritime and cargo security describes a recent incident where officials intercepted inbound cargo that had triggered sensors:
A federal agent working with port authorities in South Asia sounded the warning: A cargo container had tripped sensors that detect possible chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The container was gliding west through the Mediterranean Sea on a ship bound for New York.
Here, at the military’s homeland defense headquarters in Colorado Springs, surveillance crews melded that tip with radar and satellite data. Surrounded by wall-sized screens, the high-tech trackers located the ship and followed it across the Atlantic Ocean.
About 200 miles off the East Coast, Coast Guard forces intercepted and boarded the freighter and searched the cargo containers until they knew all of them were safe.
Military officials wouldn’t say more about this classified incident that occurred in November, but the way it was handled begins to reveal how secretive military forces in Colorado – the center for airspace surveillance through the Cold War – increasingly target the high seas to reduce what commanders see as a major vulnerability.
And it notes NORTHCOM’s recently-expanded authority to act in this domain:
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently granted new authority to Navy Adm. Timothy Keating – commander of both Northcom and the U.S.- Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD – to call up aircraft carriers, submarines and other sea craft for maritime operations to deter and disrupt enemies and collect intelligence.
I’m glad to see NORTHCOM working together with civilian authorities and taking a more forceful role in combating these maritime threats.
The second article takes a look at the role of NORAD and future of the Cheyenne Mountain facility. It wonders whether NORAD is now obselete given the increasing importance of the NORTHCOM command post at Peterson AFB. And it looks at the information-sharing challenges within NORAD between US and Canadian officials:
Thousands of feet under granite in a command post built to withstand Soviet nuclear blasts, Canadian Maj. Pat Audet quietly supervised one of the U.S.-Canadian surveillance crews that for nearly 50 years have scanned North American skies guarding against enemy intruders.
But on this recent morning, Audet faced cardboard “top secret” signs taped over two of his surveillance screens. For “U.S. eyes only,” he said.
Such barriers to sharing information hint at changes reshaping this Cold War-era defense complex just southwest of Colorado Springs as well as the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, the U.S.-Canadian partnership that runs it….
Today, for the 170 or so Canadians posted at Northcom, just handling e-mail grows increasingly difficult. Canada’s Capt. Richard Bergeron, co-director of the joint planning group, pointed at separate U.S. and Canadian computer systems on his desk.
The reason for this lack of information-sharing perhaps stems in part from Canada’s abstension from US ballistic missile defense activities. The article also notes the decision in Canada to create a separate Canada Command to mirror NORTHCOM. It would be a shame if the ties built over the past decades by NORAD were to dissipate and the two countries’ security infrastructures were to become less integrated. I’d like to see this long-run outcome:
“I can see Northern Command, Canada Command and NORAD all becoming one,” said Canadian Lt. Gen. Eric Findley, deputy commander of NORAD.
The third story looks at NORTHCOM’s preparations for the avian flu, and suggests that the military would potentially take on the following roles and responsibilities in an outbreak:
Yet, spurred by President Bush during his recent visit here, Northcom officials are preparing to:
- Share early-warning data on outbreaks with civilian health authorities.
- Inspect passengers at airports and seaports for signs of flu.
- Slow travel and help police communities, short of attempting full-blown quarantines.
- Move medicines to hard-hit areas and victims to clinics for treatment.
- Back up civilian doctors by working shifts at overloaded hospitals.
- Possibly share vaccines, beds and ventilators.
…Civilian response leaders here – representing diplomatic, environmental protection, emergency management and transportation agencies – welcomed the prospect of military support.
Military forces “have assets we don’t have. They move tons of equipment every day. They’re also the best at planning,” said Capt. Lynn Slepski of the U.S. Public Health Service, now serving as a senior health adviser in the Department of Homeland Security.
The military’s preparedness to assume these responsibilities will be a critical success factor in potential efforts to combat an outbreak. It’s good to see NORTHCOM stepping forward to work with civilian authorities to plan for these contingencies.
Overall, a great set of stories by the Denver Post, and worth taking the time to read in full.