New DOD command faces culture snag

The Defense Department launched the Northern Command last week, but the office faces major cultural and technical obstacles in communicating and sharing information — both internally and with the civilian authorities it will support.

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

Technology would play a role in easing the flow of information among Northcom and its new partners. 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 that the nation's emergency response community uses have existed for years and were highlighted after last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Verga said. The government organizations that responded to the Pentagon attack relied on wireless phones provided by commercial carriers, a situation "that's not very effective in the long term," he said.

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

A main challenge to making that happen is cost, said Verga, 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. Although 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."

Northcom officials are undoubtedly interested in technologies such as interoperable radios that would make communications and information sharing easier with its new partners, but information technology is "not that much of an enabler here," said Ray Bjorklund, vice president of consulting services at Federal Sources Inc. "It's a lot more [about] people than it is technology."

Peter Brookes, senior research fellow for homeland security and national defense at the Heritage Foundation, agreed that the consolidation and integration effort at Northcom requires major cultural overhauls, but said that by applying the lessons learned from Sept. 11, technology can make it happen.

The military has some experience in sharing technology with other federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, "but not on this scale," Bjorklund said.

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 be fully operational by Oct. 1, 2003.

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