By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo., Jan. 28, 2013 – Ask the commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, and he’ll tell you that beyond the technology, systems and processes that drive the dual commands, it’s people who form the foundation of their homeland defense mission.
“We have the watch,” Jacoby says of the two separate, but inextricably linked, commands he leads. Together, they fulfill what he calls “a sacred trust” in protecting the homeland.
Nowhere is the magnitude of that mission -- and the close personal and organizational cooperation required to fulfill it -- more evident than in the NORAD and Northcom Current Operations Center.
When terrorists struck the United States on 9/11, which led to the standup of Northcom the following year, the NORAD command center was located deep within nearby Cheyenne Mountain. Its focus was aimed outward, on missile launches and enemy aircraft approaching the United States and Canada.
“We were standing with our backs to the fire, looking out against the threat,” explained Army Col. Joseph Southcott, a command center director. “But now we are in the fire, looking 360 degrees, because it is all around us. In fact, we are looking in more ways than anybody could ever have thought of.”
Located in the lower level of the Eberhart-Findley Building that houses the NORAD and Northcom headquarters, the “N2C2” is a bustling operation that maintains an around-the-clock watch, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
It’s the hub where every spoke in the two commands’ missions converge: NORAD’s mission of maintaining aerospace warning and control and maritime warning for North America and Northcom’s mission of conducting homeland defense, civil support and security cooperation in defense of the United States and its interests.
Twenty-seven to 30 people man the center during every eight-hour shift, each studying as many as three computer monitors at a time while listening to the chatter of air traffic control feeds.
Each staff member is selected for expertise in specific domains -- air, missile and space, land, maritime and cyber -- or in integrating these perspectives into a “big picture” for command decision-makers, Southcott explained.
Serving as NORAD’s and Northcom’s eyes and ears, they ensure the command leadership is prepared for what Southcott calls a “quick-twitch mission” that demands an immediate, decisive response, such as a missile attack or menacing or suspicious aircraft than need to be intercepted.
“These are the ‘no-kidding’ events, the things that you have to be ready for the second they happen,” Southcott said.
To keep on top of events that could affect North America, the N2C2 staff monitors satellite and sensor feeds to detect missile launches, such as the one North Korea conducted last month. They track space junk to identify items that could threaten the United States or are in jeopardy of falling out of orbit and crashing back to Earth. They follow Federal Aviation Administration reports to identify an errant aircraft among an estimated 60,000 daily civilian flights.
In support of the maritime mission NORAD adopted in 2006, they keep tabs on suspicious ships approaching the U.S. and Canadian coasts or operating in their sovereign waters.
Since the standup of Northcom, they also keep watch over Washington, D.C., and anywhere the president travels. They keep tabs on U.S. military operations along the Mexican border or in support of Mexican troops as part of U.S.-Mexican theater security cooperation agreements.
They also now watch for hurricanes, earthquakes and severe storms that could affect U.S. security or could cause civil authorities to call for military assistance.
Southcott calls these “slow-twitch missions” -- ones Northcom tracks closely to be ready to respond to, but typically gets called on only when and if local and state first responders need military help or capabilities. “You can prepare for those, but you have to wait for them to happen, then wait to be asked to help,” Southcott said. “So that means we have to always be watching.”
A domestic events network, created after 9/11, enhances these efforts by tying together the myriad agency partners that would play a role in an air-related problem or incident. The network, operated by the Federal Aviation Administration, provides a 24/7 open phone line that links all of the air traffic control centers in the United States and other governmental agencies.
Southcott said he’s been amazed at the close collaboration across the staff and mission partners, all recognizing their role in painting the most complete situational awareness picture possible.
“The integration of the domains is really what drives what we do. It’s the linkage, the interaction,” Southcott said. “When events happen, it amazes even me how much cross-talk is happening between action officers on the floor, each making sure the other knows what is going on.”
Southcott called the collective capability they bring a combat multiplier that far exceeds the sum of their individual contributions.
“That’s what makes this place so strong,” he said. “It’s all of us coming together, bringing their varied backgrounds and expertise to the effort. And when the stuff hits the fan, it’s everyone pulling hard, rowing hard together and sharing the common goal of defending the homeland.”