Northcom faces obstacles at launch

The Defense Department's new Northern Command is scheduled to start up Oct. 1, but Northcom faces major cultural and technical obstacles in communicating and sharing information — both internally and with the civilian authorities it will support.

The command will include representatives from all the armed services, and it is charged with ensuring homeland defense capabilities and supporting civil authorities when directed by the president or secretary of Defense.

Technology would play a role in easing the flow of information between Northcom and its new partners, and Peter Verga, special assistant to the secretary of Defense for homeland security noted an example while speaking Sept. 26 at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Problems with the communications tools use by the nation's emergency response community have existed for years and were highlighted during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Verga said. The government organizations that responded to the Pentagon attack relied on cellular phones provided by commercial carriers, a situation "that's not very effective in the long term," he said.

"One of the things the DOD is very good at is fixing technical problems like that," Verga said. That means improving municipal governments' capabilities by transferring technologies the military develops to the state and local level, he added.

One of the main challenges to making that happen is cost, Verga said, citing another frequent problem: When a large city buys new technologically advanced radios for its first responders, a smaller city steps up to buy the old models. While that may be an upgrade for the smaller municipality, the radios cannot interoperate and a communications disconnect remains.

"There are technical solutions to it and there are procedural solutions," Verga said. "It's something we have to do a lot of thinking about."

Peter Brookes, senior research fellow for homeland security and national defense at the Heritage Foundation, said that the integration efforts at Northcom and the proposed Department of Homeland Security require major cultural overhauls. However, he noted that by applying the lessons learned of Sept. 11, "technology can be an enabler" to make that happen.

Northcom will have about 500 people at its headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs, Colo., Verga said, adding that the command is scheduled to have full operational capability by Oct. 1, 2003.

Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart, current commander of U.S. Space Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, will head Northcom.

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