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Teamwork, Planning Behind NORTHCOM Stand-up

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2003 – Army Lt. Col. Shelly Stellwagen likens it to "trying to fly an airplane while you're still building it."

Stellwagen, deputy director of public affairs for the U.S. Northern Command, described the standing up of the Defense Department's newest combatant command as a challenge that required its drafters to "fly" the command while they were "still tweaking" its working parts.

Never before had a U.S. unified command focused specifically on homeland defense. It had been a mission shared by several commands, none of which had ultimate authority or responsibility.

The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed all that, launching what Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld called "part of the greatest transformation of the United Command Plan" since its inception in 1947. The United States needed a command responsible for the defense of the American homeland - and it needed it immediately.

So it was just five short months from the time that President Bush signed the Unified Command Plan that established NORTHCOM in late April 2002 until the new command opened for business Oct. 1 at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

The establishment of the first new combatant command in many years involved far more than ordering letterheads and business cards. According to Marine Col. Eugenio Pino, one of NORTHCOM's primary architects, it meant creating an entire blueprint for the new command: what its missions would be, what staffing and other resources it needed to accomplish them, where it would be located and how it would operate, for starters. "We had to design everything," said Pino, who serves as NORTHCOM's director of training and exercises.

Pino and about 135 other representatives from U.S. Joint Forces Command headquarters, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the Joint Staff, the services, and the reserve components sequestered themselves in Norfolk, Va., for four solid months to come up with their blueprint.

They conducted a complete mission analysis to determine manpower needs. Their manning chart ultimately included a headquarters element with three subordinate commands: Joint Task Force Headquarters Homeland Security and Joint Task Force Civil Support, both at Fort Monroe, Va.; and Joint Task Force 6 at Fort Bliss, Texas.

But even as the team was conducting a mission analysis, the new command continued to get more taskings. "We recognized that we were working with a moving target, because we kept getting new missions," said Pino. "So the manning document continued to evolve, even after we stood up Northern Command."

The planning team evaluated about 13 sites to determine where to locate the new headquarters. They ultimately settled on Peterson Air Force Base, where a new building suitable for the command was already under construction, directly next to the Air Force Space Command headquarters. Another advantage of the site, Pino explained, is its proximity to NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, which could serve as an alternate NORTHCOM command center if necessary.

Meanwhile, the team also established a training, exercise and education program for the new command.

As soon as the team's basic blueprint for NORTHCOM was approved, a transition team descended on Peterson in early July 2002 to begin putting a five-phase implementation plan into effect. Less than three months later, the new command achieved the third phase of the plan - initial operational capability - as planned Oct. 1.

NORTHCOM's first year proved to be a baptism by fire. Still working out of five separate buildings at Peterson, the headquarters prepared for a move into its new permanent building as it began staffing up to meet its manning requirements.

Meanwhile, command staff began forging relationships with some 50 government agencies, some of which have representatives permanently assigned to NORTHCOM to assist with communication and coordination.

But even as it was standing up, NORTHCOM was being called on to support a full range of domestic actions. The command played a vital role in the force protection-oriented Operation Noble Eagle, support for Hurricane Lili in October 2002 and the response task force to the Space Shuttle Columbia accident in February 2003, wildland firefighting and presidential support missions. NORTHCOM also helped the FBI in its search for the snipers that terrorized the Washington, D.C., area in late 2002.

At the same time, the command was working to achieve its own benchmarks to demonstrate its ability to carry out its mission. It participated in a wide range of internal as well as interagency exercises.

Its validation exercise, Determined Promise '03, focused on a simulated plague in Las Vegas and helped demonstrate NORTHCOM's capabilities to the entire homeland security community. "But more importantly," Pino said, "We used Determined Promise '03 as an assessment mechanism to validate to our commander (Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart) that we were, in fact, capable of executing our mission."

Based on that and other validations, NORTHCOM reached the final phase of its implementation plan full operational capability by Sept. 11, 2003.

But Pino was quick to point out that the command's evolution is far from over. NORTHCOM has work ahead to improve on its 20 mission- essential joint tasks, he said, and has already planned at least two major exercises per year for the next five years to hone its skills and continue to build interagency relationships.

"Our missions continue to evolve and we need to train up to those missions," he said.

Pino said those behind NORTHCOM's establishment and its ongoing evolution "feel a tremendous sense of obligation and responsibility" because their work directly affects their homeland.

"This is important to them personally," he said. "Their grandmothers and mothers and babies live in this country, so this hits them right at home. They recognize that every decision they make, every action they take, has a potential impact on the people who are close to their lives."

The many people who pulled together and worked so hard to establish NORTHCOM in such record time "have poured their hearts and souls into this command," Pino said. "I don't think there's a prouder group in terms of what we do for a living for this country."

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