USA — Northcom Weighs Probability, Consequences of Threats

WASHINGTON — How U.S. North­ern Com­mand bal­ances its assets in pro­tect­ing the home­land is a mat­ter of gaug­ing the prob­a­bil­i­ty and poten­tial con­se­quences of threats, the new North­com com­man­der said today.

“We have to look at the capa­bil­i­ties and intent” of U.S. adver­saries, Navy Adm. James A. Win­nefeld Jr. told reporters dur­ing a Defense Writ­ers Group meet­ing here. “Cer­tain­ly there are nations with cruise mis­siles who we don’t think have any inten­tion to use them. Then, there are ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions that cer­tain­ly want to use them that don’t have the capa­bil­i­ty.”

Rus­sia has the capa­bil­i­ty to per­form such an attack but not the intent, where­as Iran and North Korea have shown intent, but evi­dence indi­cates they lack the capa­bil­i­ty, he said. Win­nefeld, who also com­mands the North Amer­i­can Aero­space Defense Com­mand, added that he is con­fi­dent in the U.S. mis­sile defense sys­tem, includ­ing ground-based capa­bil­i­ties to stop an attack.

“I’m very com­fort­able right now that if you asked me to shoot down a mis­sile at this moment from North Korea or Iran, I could do it,” he said.

North­com and U.S. Strate­gic Com­mand lead­ers “have a pret­ty clear under­stand­ing” of why the ground-based sys­tem failed a test last year, Win­nefeld said. He declined to dis­cuss specifics, oth­er than to say that it is dif­fi­cult to test a sys­tem that is still being devel­oped.

“The oper­a­tional real­i­ty we work with every day is that while we’re field­ing a sys­tem, we’re also test­ing it,” he said.

Asked about the prob­a­bil­i­ty of a nuclear ter­ror­ist attack, Win­nefeld said he could not speak to intel­li­gence gath­ered on the issue, but “as North­com com­man­der, I have to assume the threat is not going down.”

Any nuclear attack would be cat­a­stroph­ic, and pre­ven­tion is the key, the admi­ral said.

“One of my most impor­tant focus areas is to be pre­pared for it,” he said. “No one should have any illu­sions about how chal­leng­ing that would be for the nation. The most impor­tant thing is to pre­vent it from hap­pen­ing in the first place, and to be pre­pared for it to hap­pen.”

North­com and NORAD are in good coor­di­na­tion with the Home­land Secu­ri­ty Depart­ment, Nation­al Guard Bureau and state offi­cials to ensure quick respons­es, Win­nefeld said. “I’m very opti­mistic that we are head­ed in the right direc­tion there,” he said.

Win­nefeld said he also is work­ing close­ly with Army Gen. Kei­th Alexan­der, who recent­ly was con­firmed to head the new U.S. Cyber Com­mand, to deter­mine where respon­si­bil­i­ties lie in the event of a major attack against com­put­er net­works. North­com like­ly would work in sup­port of Cyber­com and its par­ent com­mand, Strat­com, he said.

“It real­ly doesn’t mat­ter, as long as we’re work­ing close­ly togeth­er so that cyber recov­ery is coor­di­nat­ed,” Win­nefeld said. Most impor­tant­ly, he said, “This has to be done with speed. This is a mis­sion that is very crit­i­cal and time-depen­dent.”

An impor­tant part of the North­com commander’s job, Win­nefeld said, is to try to pre­dict threats and how to counter them. To that end, he said, he is con­sid­er­ing the poten­tial need for a lighter, low­er-fly­ing air­craft than the cur­rent F-15 to han­dle cer­tain con­tin­gen­cies, such as those at large, out­door events.

“It’s all about the time, dis­tance and area we can cov­er,” he said. “We can’t cov­er a great, big coun­try 100 per­cent of the time.”

On anoth­er top­ic, Win­nefeld called the U.S. mil­i­tary part­ner­ship with Mex­i­co a top pri­or­i­ty for North­com and said the com­mand has a “sol­id, coura­geous, and sov­er­eign part­ner” in Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent Felipe Calderon’s gov­ern­ment to counter Mex­i­can drug car­tels.

The threat to the Unit­ed States from the car­tels “is very seri­ous,” Win­nefeld said, but he added that his main wor­ry isn’t about vio­lence com­ing across the bor­der.

“It’s real­ly more the slow, cor­ro­sive impact that drug car­tels … have on our own soci­ety and cities that is real­ly the boil­ing frog here,” he said, as opposed to the “rare, but trag­ic” vio­lence that occurs along the south­ern U.S. bor­der.

North­com is doing every­thing it can to help the Mex­i­can mil­i­tary, the admi­ral said, from advanc­ing their capa­bil­i­ties to shar­ing sub­ject-mat­ter experts and pro­vid­ing human rights train­ing.

“They are vora­cious devour­ers of that kind of train­ing,” he said. “They real­ly want to get it right, and they real­ize it’s going to take time to get it right.”

The admi­ral said he is encour­aged by the sus­tained effort of the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment to stand up to the car­tel prob­lem. “It would be very easy for them to back off on the car­tels,” he said, “and vio­lence prob­a­bly would go down.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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