WASHINGTON, October 8, 2015 —
Navy Adm. Bill Gortney said he has a
mission set that ranges “from tracking Santa to thermonuclear war.”
Gortney commands both U.S. Northern
Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Both commands are
based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and are responsible for defending the
continent from attack. And while NORAD radars look for enemy missiles and
aircraft, they also “track” Santa Claus for children around the world each
But while there are whimsical moments,
the missions Gortney commands are deadly serious. The admiral spoke at the
Commanders Series at the nonprofit Atlantic Council “think tank” here yesterday.
Gortney said sequestration represents the
most dangerous threat to his commands. “I firmly believe that,” he said.
This is, he said, because Northcom and
NORAD don’t own forces. Most of the forces for the commands come from the
services and are paid and maintained by the services, the admiral said. Under
sequester, the services’ cuts come mostly come from operations and maintenance
accounts, precisely the money needed to provide combatant commands with the
trained and equipped service members they need.
Sequestration also affects the civilian
agencies that Northcom supports -- law enforcement, customs, and the Coast
from State Actors
Gortney told his interlocutor -- New York
Times journalist Eric Schmitt -- that his commands agree with the intelligence
community’s assessment that North Korea has the ability and technology to put
nuclear weapons “on rockets that can range the homeland.”
His question is when or why would North
Korean leader Kim Jong Un use nuclear weapons. “No one really understands the
Great Leader,” Gortney said with his tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I look
longingly for the predictability of the Great Leader’s father.” His father -- Kim
Jong Il -- was only marginally more predictable.
“But we’re ready for him,” Gortney said.
“We’re ready 24-hours-a-day if he’s dumb enough to shoot something at us.”
In the admiral’s aerospace defense
mission, the big threats are Russian long-range aviation and cruise missiles from
submarines and surface platforms. “It’s a bit of a challenge for us because for
57 years, NORAD has been in a defensive crouch, where Soviet and Russian
aviation would have to come into our battlespace and we would deal with them
there,” he said.
But Russia has qualitatively a much
better military than the quantitative military the Soviet Union had, the
admiral said. “They have a much different doctrine, and you are seeing that
much better quality military and doctrine being played out as a whole of
government approach in Ukraine and now Syria,” he said.
The quality is playing out in threats to
the United States as well. “They have read our play book and they are fielding
cruise missiles that are very accurate at very long ranges, to the point where
they [don’t have to] leave Russian airspace and launch conventional or nuclear
warheads at targets and critical infrastructure in Canada, the Pacific
Northwest,” Gortney said. “[This is a] very difficult mission set for us, as it
forces us to catch arrows instead of going to where we can shoot the archers.”
As Northcom’s commander, Gortney has
responsibility for ballistic missile defense. He said his command is prepared
to deal with anything that might come out of North Korea. “In 2017, we’ll have
44 missiles in the ground, mostly in Alaska,” he said. “The problem is we’re on
the wrong side of the cost curve. We postured to shoot down not very expensive
rockets with expensive rockets.”
The bullet hitting a bullet scenario is
very expensive, Gortney said. The United States needs technology and capabilities
that operate at different parts of the cycle – to stop an enemy from launching,
or to get weapons in the boost phase rather than relying on the
bullet-on-bullet end game, he said.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
The most dangerous threat to the homeland
is thermonuclear war, the admiral said. It is something that must be prepared
for, but it is unlikely, he said.
The most likely outside threat to the
homeland the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “The danger comes from their
very sophisticated social media campaign that seeks to radicalize young people
in the West,” he said.
Gortney said those people who try to
contact the group for advice on how to launch an attack give law enforcement an
opportunity to detect them and may be dealt with. But those who are “just in receive
mode” cannot be traced, he said.
ISIL motivates citizens to attack fellow
citizens. He surmised that was the case in Chattanooga, Tennessee, over the
summer when a radicalized young man attacked a Navy and Marine Corps recruiting
station killing five service members. Chatter on the network since caused
Gortney to raise the force protection condition at installations around the
ISIL is successful at radicalizing these
people due to their narrative and the perception that they are trying to bring
about the Caliphate. “It is a war of the words,” he said. “The fact is we have
not yet been able to counter that narrative. That someone actually believes
that’s a better way of life than the one that they have in the United States or
Canada or Australia, really confounds me.”
Countering the narrative must be done at
the grass-roots level, the admiral said. Parents, friends, clergy, schools,
governmental and nongovernmental assets must be used to defeat the hateful
ideology, he said.
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