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Homeland Security

Northern Command leader visits Hanscom

by 1st Lt. Stacie Shafran
Electronic Systems Center Public Affairs

03/05/03 - HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. (AFPN) -- Deciding when and how to use U.S. military assets during a domestic crisis are not "simple" decisions, said Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander of the United States' newest unified command, Northern Command.

The Department of Defense activated U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., on Oct. 1 to consolidate the U.S. military's homeland defense and civil support operations into one organization.

"If we have indications of an enemy in the Atlantic heading our way, we would work with the secretary of defense and use a naval component to counter it," said the general. "However, if there's a threat of terrorists in Chicago, for example, and it affects homeland security, that would involve the governor of Illinois first and then maybe the Department of Justice and the FBI."

The general said that if the state believed it could not handle the threat, the governor would ask the president to supply military support. Only then, if the president agreed, would the secretary of defense direct Northern Command officials to support the mission.

That is the way it has to work, the general said, citing political, practical and legal concerns with military involvement in civil affairs.

During last year's Washington-area sniper attacks, U.S. Northern Command officials coordinated aerial surveillance assistance to the FBI.

"We had some surveillance platforms that we operated on a (military) plane, and (the law enforcement officials) would be aboard, either operating the sensors and the cameras or they'd be telling us where to go," said Eberhart. "Then they'd be able to download the information to their operation centers and (for) their analysts."

It is this type of cooperative effort that marks the primary challenge the new command officials face.

"I like to say we redefined the meaning of joint," said Eberhart. "Joint usually means working with the other services' soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Joint to us certainly includes the Coast Guard and it certainly includes the civilians. It includes a wide array of other federal agencies too."

During training exercises and in war-gaming, Eberhart said that U.S. Northern Command troops will routinely work with between 20 and 50 different government agencies.

"What these relationships are really built on is face-to-face contact, trust, confidence and friendship, not organizational charts or memorandums of understanding and agreement," he said.

To do what the secretary of defense calls "connecting the dots," of data, U.S. Northern Command officials are working to develop a common operational picture that will help link the various lead and support agencies that have a need to share information with one another.

"The intelligence part of the spectrum has to be able to gather and share information, not only with military organizations and agencies and not just with the national intelligence command, but also with other sources, most notably law enforcement agencies," said Eberhart.

Ultimately, the command will need to have architecture to share information and be able to come to grips with interoperability in terms of local responders, he said.

For U.S. Northern Command to successfully carry out its mission, the staff also has to understand the laws for involving military troops in civilian affairs.

The Posse Comitatus Act is the prime example. It was enacted after the Civil War in response to the perceived misuse of federal troops charged with domestic law enforcement in the South.

The act segregates military involvement from civilian affairs.

Eberhart explained that various laws empower the president to allow the military to assist civilian law enforcement, but that it will never be the lead agency in a civil situation.

Regardless, the command must prepare daily to handle almost any potential situation.

"We look at threats and ask what do we think might happen? We watch the weather to see if a hurricane or a snowstorm or a flood might occur, and we review the laws and the plans that would be appropriate if military forces were needed," Eberhart said.

"We look at threats in terms of what could be terrorist attacks and what the Department of Homeland Security has done in terms of the threat level and what that might mean to us to make sure we know the same information they do in terms of threats," he said.

Eberhart also said Northern Command officials would much rather be on the front end of a problem to deter, prevent or defeat an attack, as opposed to just being good at cleaning up afterward.

The general is in a unique position.

Besides U.S. Northern Command, he also commands the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which is a bi-national military command of Canadian and U.S. forces tasked with aerospace warning and aerospace control for Canada, Alaska and the continental United States.

Separate commands, NORAD and USNORTHCOM work together to provide air defenses for North America and the remainder of USNORTHCOMs area of responsibility.

NORAD aircraft have flown more than 27,000 sorties of combat air patrols since Sept. 11, 2001. The purpose of these flights, said the general, is to make sure the United States is postured to react if there is another hijacking or if someone decides to attack the country from the air.

As for Northern Command, the idea for it is not exactly new, the general said.

"We've been wrestling with the issue of creating this new command for at least a decade, if not longer," he said. "But it was hard to justify establishing a new command, given the cost and the manpower that it would need."

Setting up a new command required a great deal of planning, the first part of which was finding the right people for the job.

"If you have the right people and they are properly trained, properly equipped and properly led, there is not much you can't do," said Eberhart.

By October the general expects to have a complete operating staff. Above everything else, the general said he hopes that U.S. Northern Command and its presence will deter aggressors and make them question whether an attack would really succeed.

"I think that is a good investment in terms of our time and our resources," he said.

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