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Homeland Security

American Forces Press Service

Ardent Sentry Preps Northcom, First Responders for Disasters

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 9, 2013 – A perfect storm of simulated disasters is slowly unfolding across the United States, as thousands of military and Defense Department members join their interagency partners in fine-tuning their disaster-response processes just ahead of the upcoming hurricane and wildfire seasons.

U.S. Northern Command has kicked off its annual Ardent Sentry exercise, with plans to introduce increasingly complex scenarios in the coming weeks, Joe Bonnet, the North American Aerospace Defense Command and Northcom training and exercises director, told American Forces Press Service.

Ardent Sentry is one of the dual commands' three "Tier 1" exercises, designed to train the command headquarters and its components for their mission of providing defense support of civil authorities, on request, Bonnet explained.

The scenarios challenge Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., the NORAD and Northcom commander, and his staffs to monitor disasters or potential disasters, anticipate requests for defense support that could augment civilian first responders and posture the military to move quickly when the taskings come down, he said.

"This is a really big exercise," Bonnet said. "The NORAD and Northcom headquarters and components play, the National Guard plays, [U.S.] Strategic Command plays, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency plays."

In addition, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate will lead FEMA's response, which will include participants from the FBI, Coast Guard, Energy Department and other interagency partners, he said.

The exercise incorporates a command post exercise at the NORAD and Northcom headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., and at its service component headquarters: U.S. Air Forces Northern at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.; U.S. Army North at Fort Sam Houston, Texas; U.S. Marine Forces Northern Command in New Orleans; and the newly established Navy North, part of U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

Ardent Sentry 2013 also includes field training exercises that extend from the waters south of Alaska to the southern tip of Florida.

It kicked off May 6 with one of those first scenarios: a notional break-in at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., which compromised its nuclear weapons arsenal. The 341st Missile Wing, part of 20th Air Force, which serves as U.S. Strategic Command's response task force, responded along with about 200 FBI agents to practice their procedures to recover and secure the stolen weapons, Bonnet said.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard was busy working with its Canadian counterparts, conducting a search-and-rescue exercise in the waters north of Vancouver, British Columbia.

The action will pick up next week, when the Northcom staff starts monitoring a notional tropical depression in the Caribbean Sea that continues to gain strength. Florida's governor will ask the Defense Department to deploy a dual-status commander able to command both "Title 32" National Guard troops and "Title 10" active and reserve forces and a joint supporting element in the event they are needed. South Carolina's civilian authorities soon will do the same as they begin their own internal hurricane preparedness procedures.

As FEMA readies to lead the responses and state governors mobilize their National Guards, Northcom will work with its interagency partners to prepare for a federal military response, if called to provide it, Bonnet said.

Northcom will coordinate with FEMA to pre-position equipment and resources where they are likely to be needed, and, if requested, to help to evacuate people from hospitals or nursing homes in low-lying areas or others who need help escaping the hurricane's path. It also will line up dual-status commanders and their associated joint support elements so they are ready to move out on a moment's notice.

Then, a succession of three notional hurricanes will strike. The first will remain offshore as it screams up the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The next, a Category 4 hurricane, will make landfall in Melbourne, Fla., cutting across the state toward the Gulf of Mexico before pummeling the Florida Panhandle. Just days later, a third hurricane will approach Melbourne, but will veer out to sea.

In addition to the anticipated flooding, power loss and related effects, the string of hurricanes will set off a chain reaction of other calamities, Bonnet said. A high-rise building will collapse and a train will derail in Jacksonville, Fla. A tornado in Gainesville, Fla., will disperse radiological elements. And in Tampa, a plane will hit a chemical factory.

In addition to an estimated 1,000 Florida and Georgia National Guardsmen and first responders from 53 Florida counties and their federal counterparts, Northcom will respond to requests for DOD support. A medical company deployed from Fort Bragg, N.C., and a reserve engineer company from Tennessee will work alongside their National Guard counterparts at the direction of the designated dual-status commander.

As if this won't be enough to stress the staffs, a train will derail in the Rio Grande Valley. Army North will collaborate with Mexican authorities, with U.S. and Mexican responders providing support on their respective sides of the border.

Although Ardent Sentry is one of Northcom's longest-running exercises, the scenarios become increasingly complex each year, Bonnet said.

Next year's exercise, already in the planning stages, is expected to be the biggest ever. Bonnet envisions a series of earthquakes and aftershocks that strike without notice, initially in Anchorage, Alaska, then southerly along the Ring of Fire.

"This is going to be a West Coast, no-notice, major, complex catastrophe," he said, accompanied by other fictional natural and manmade disasters that require military support.

Exercises such as Ardent Sentry are the key to ensuring the military has the procedures and decision-making processes in place to support civil authorities as needed, Bonnet said. He noted, for example, the vast difference in the military's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Hurricane Sandy last year.

"If you compare them, the difference is the exercise and training program," he said. "It is really through exercising and training that you have built and nurtured those trusted partnerships that are vital to working effectively together in a crisis."

And, "unless you work together before the crisis," Bonnet added, "you don't have an opportunity to build the relationships that allow you to do that."

With hurricane season to kick off June 1 and wildfires expected to increase during the summer, Bonnet said, late spring is a perfect time to fine-tune these procedures.

"This is our mission rehearsal for the hurricane season," he said, one that prepares DOD and its local, state and federal partners to respond together.

"These are really our trusted partners," Bonnet said. "Exercising together ensures we have all dusted off our manuals and our playbooks and refined our procedures to make sure everybody is on the same wavelength and ready to work together as required as we go into the hurricane and wildfire seasons."

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