Northcom, NORAD ‘Inextricably Linked,’ Commander Says
By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 11, 2010 U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command are “inextricably linked” and share an “indispensible partnership,” the commander of both commands said here today.
Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee on the commands’ missions, ranging from supporting law enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border to monitoring Russian military planes and ships off U.S. borders.
Renuart also underscored his belief that the two commands should continue to share a commander, saying the two are “inextricably linked” in their mission to protect North America.
The commands operate with an integrated headquarters staff, Renuart told the senators. “Our commands have forged an indispensible partnership operating within a common security environment,” he said. “The synergies that exist between these two commands enable us to conduct our missions with a sense or urgency in the face of very real threats.”
Northcom’s mission is to protect the United States against any threats by air, land or sea with responsibility for Canada, Mexico, the surrounding territories, and 500 miles out at sea. The command, which was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, also works with civilian agencies to provide civil support against natural or manmade disasters.
NORAD is a binational U.S.-Canadian command charged with aerospace warning and control and maritime warning for North America. NORAD has flown more than 55,000 air surveillance and security missions over the Washington, D.C., area since 9/11, Renuart said. Last year, NORAD launched fighter aircraft 14 times to identify unknown aircraft operating near U.S. and Canadian airspace, said he added.
Last year, the general said, a NORAD representative was included for the first time at the U.S.-Russia Prevention of Incidents Over the High Seas staff talks. The representation is expected to continue this year “to reduce the ambiguity of Russian military flights near our borders and promote safe flight operations within the international airspace,” he said.
NORAD operations in Alaska “will remain a key avenue for positive interaction with Russian military counterparts during the reset of relationships between our nations,” the general added.
Russia has increased its long-range training flights, but they do not appear to be threatening, Renuart said. “We’ve had a couple instances in the past year where Russian planes flew too close to the Aleutian Islands,” he said, adding that the Russian military is increasing its flight training after neglecting it for several years due to a weakened economy.
NORAD is developing a risk assessment as recommended by the General Accountability Office to determine the types of units, personnel and aircraft needed to maintain U.S. air sovereignty, he said.
“Day to day, we are focused on deterring, preventing and defeating attacks against the United States,” Renuart said, adding that Northcom monitors an average of 12 to 20 potentially dangerous events each day.
The commands’ spectrum of missions includes supporting law enforcement, particularly along the U.S.-Mexican border, but also with major events such as the 2010 Winter Olympics held last month in Vancouver, British Columbia. The commands also supported U.S. Southern Command in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Haiti in January.
Northcom shares intelligence with federal, state and local agencies to prevent attacks in the United States, exchanging liaison officers with several intelligence agencies. Following the mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, in November, the command established a daily terrorism and force protection information-sharing group to improve how threats are identified, assessed and acted upon, Renuart said.
Northcom also works with the Missile Defense Agency in protecting against ballistic missile threats, Renuart said. The immediate challenge in that area is balancing a real-time defensive capability with the missile agency’s requirements for research, development, testing and evaluation, he told the panel.
Asked for his opinion of the new, phased-in ballistic missile defense system, the general said he is confident in the system and that “initial indications look very promising” that it will improve U.S. defenses. A software glitch that caused a test of the system in January to fail is being fixed, and the test will be repeated “in the not-too-distant future,” the general said.
Renuart noted that two of three brigades being created under his purview to respond to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosives attacks have been cancelled as a result of the Quadrennial Defense Review. Instead, he said, the one brigade in existence will grow by 700 troops, and two smaller units will operate command and control, joint reception and some lifesaving capabilities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will work with local governments in its 10 regional offices to set up locally based response units in lieu of the two additional military brigades, he said.
One of Northcom’s biggest missions is to support law enforcement through its subordinate command, Joint Task Force North, which coordinated 61 missions last year, Renuart said. The task force employs joint air, ground and maritime sensors along the northern and southern U.S. borders and coasts, detects, monitors trafficking of drugs and weapons, and trains civilian border agents in military skills.
Along the Southwest U.S. border, Northcom used acoustic and fiber-optic sensors and robotics to explore, map and characterize subterranean tunnels used in trafficking, Renuart said. In the past year, Defense Department support has resulted in stopping the construction of two unfinished tunnels, he said.
Northcom has shared military lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan to combat violence and illegal activity on the Southwest border, Renuart said. Last year, there were 7,000 drug-related murders, “mostly cartel on cartel,” he said of the illegal drug trafficking operations.
“We’re working aggressively to build interagency capacity to help Mexico deal with this,” Renuart said. “Especially in the local police and governments, there is an element of corruption that is significant and is the means by which the cartels influence the government to leave them alone. There is a substantial effort by the Mexican government to replace them, but it takes time.”
More and more, Northcom is working with Mexican servicemembers sent to replace Mexican law enforcement officers along the border, he said. Working with the Mexican military, Northcom’s work resulted in more than 40 prosecutions in the past two years for people trafficking weapons, including .50-caliber weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, from the United States into Mexico, Renuart said.
“This is a hemispheric problem, and something we need to continue to work at,” he said.