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Northern Command to Defend the U.S.

April 17, 2002
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Northern Command to Defend the U.S.

Pentagon Reveals Shifts in Structure

by Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post

Responding to the terrorist attack on the nation last September, the Pentagon yesterday unveiled a new organizational structure that creates for the first time a command charged with defending the continental United States.

Defense officials have discussed the plan to establish the Northern Command frequently in recent months, but some of the details, such as the location of its headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, outside Colorado Springs, had not been divulged.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hailed the reorganization as "undoubtedly the most significant reform of our nation's military command structure" in more than 50 years.

Before last September's attacks, he said, the U.S. military was almost entirely focused on countering distant threats, not on defending the homeland. "The Pentagon's job had been to look out, not to look at internal threats, but to look outside," he told reporters at the Pentagon. "So our radars were pointed out, our eyes were looking out, and the people looking here were the state and local law enforcement officials, the FBI, the various first responders."

In addition to supporting civilian authorities, the Northern Command will have responsibility for defending U.S. airspace and coasts. But it has not been determined which forces, if any, will be assigned to it on a permanent basis, said Pentagon officials who briefed reporters on details of the planned changes.

The new command also is assigned formal responsibility for coordinating military relations with Canada and Mexico. Until now, the two neighbors had not been assigned to any single U.S. military headquarters. As reported previously, Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, the chief of the U.S. Space Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, has been chosen to head the Northern Command.

In another shift, the U.S. European Command is being given responsibility for dealing with Russia. The move amounts to another recognition that the Cold War is over. In the past, no single headquarters was charged with dealing with Russia or the Soviet Union, because during the Cold War the Pentagon saw the Soviet Union as so great a threat that it required a global response from the U.S. military. Even after the Cold War ended, oversight of military dealings with Russia rested with the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In a less meaningful move, the U.S. Pacific Command was given responsibility for Antarctica.

Pentagon officials emphasized that this was not a step toward militarizing the southernmost continent, which is forbidden by treaty, but a recognition that the U.S. military frequently provides help with rescue and supply missions there. Those support flights originate in New Zealand, which is in the Pacific Command's area, so that Honolulu-based headquarters was given the Antarctica account.

There had been some talk in the Pentagon that two other commands, the Space Command and the Strategic Command, which oversees strategic nuclear weapons, would be merged. But that issue has been put off for additional study, officials said.

As described by Rumsfeld, the Northern Command's basic mission will not be to fight, but to support civilian authorities in case of another terrorist attack. Essentially, it designates a place in the military that local, state and federal officials can call for help in a crisis.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, said Rumsfeld, it is likely that "there was not good unity of effort." With the opening of the new command, planned for Oct. 1, "we'll have a focus . . . that will allow us to provide what's needed at the right time to the right federal agency or perhaps a state agency."

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