The way ahead: Opening the mission sets
NORAD/NORTHCOM
ROBBIN LAIRD
© 2016 FrontLine Defence (Vol 13, No 3)

Three years ago, colleague Ed Timperake and myself interviewed the previous Commander of NORAD/NORTHCOM, General Jacoby. This spring, we travelled to Colorado Springs to interview the current Commander, Admiral Gortney. While in Australia earlier this year for the RAAF Airpower Conference (March 2016), we briefly met with the head of Pacific Air Forces Pacific, General Lori Robinson, who has just been sworn in as the new Commander of NORAD/NORTHCOM. These conversations helped us interpret the information being shared, and we put it in context here for FrontLine readers.

During the interview at his Colorado Springs office, Admiral Gortney laid out a very clear statement on the changing nature of the challenges faced by the command. And one key item, which he proposes, is to turn NORAD from a pure air defense command into an integrated air-maritime command which will be more appropriate both to the challenges and the evolving technologies on both the U.S. and Canadian sides as well as those defining the threat envelope.

The strategic shift since our interview with Gen Jacoby has been dramatic. For one thing, the North Korean leadership change after the December 2011 death of Kim Jong-il, and the acceleration of their nuclear weapons and missiles program, have changed the strategic calculus for the United States and Canada.

Meanwhile, the re-launch of Russia under President Putin has made its global presence felt in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. The modernization of the Russian forces, and the evolving tactical nuclear force and nuclear doctrine of Russia are changing the threat calculus for the defense of the homeland.

It has been a dramatic shift in only three years. The U.S. and Canada are now facing an air-maritime environment where the threats from air or sea are real and present, and require a clear focus, recrafting of defense postures, and the shaping of new capabilities.

It would seem a good time to rethink NORAD’s mission areas and make it a very focused and integrated air-sea command to defend strategic approaches to the North American continent. With Canada looking to modernize its military forces, it might take advantage of innovations underway to shape an integrated air-naval force while facing the challenges of recapitalization.

Admiral Gortney is quick to point out that NORAD and NORTHCOM fulfills a very wide range of mission sets, “from tracking Santa to thermonuclear war.” He notes that the difference between his command the other geographic combatant commands is the reporting structure.

“NORAD is an air mission command, although the changes over time have been significant. NORAD was born in the Cold War when the air battle was going to occur above the Great Lakes and over the Seattle area. After the Cold War, the 9/11 attack shifted the focus of NORAD to dealing with a different class of threats. But it is still an air defense command.

“NORTHCOM was born because of the 9/11 attacks, for there was no commander of the homeland. But we are not the commander in charge of defending against terrorist attacks – that is the mission of the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice. We are a supporting command to them in dealing with terrorist threats.”

Global political power strugggles are creating a need for change, explains the Admiral. Originally stood up to deal with the more traditional or classic defense threats, NORTHCOM may be in for a change. “The rise of China and the new Russia are driving a reconsideration of the NORTHCOM mission, for we really do need a commander for the homeland in a more classic sense,” asserts Gortney.

He described how, from his perspective, the evolving threat from North Korea, and the evolving capabilities and approach by the Russians to the development of military capabilities in support of their strategic objectives, are changing the game.

“With the emergence of the new Russia, they are developing a qualitatively better military than the military they had in the Soviet Union. They have a doctrine to support that wholly government doctrine. And you’re seeing that doctrine in military capability being employed in the Ukraine and in Syria.”

As an example of this, he says the Russians are “evolving their long-range aviation and at-sea capabilities. They are fielding and employing precision-guided cruise missiles from the air, from ships and from submarines.”

This would seem to be a situation of great concern to Europe, Canada and the United States. “Their new cruise missiles can be launched from Bears and Blackjacks, and they went from development to testing by use in Syria. It achieved initial operating capability based on a shot from a deployed force. The Kh-101 and 102 [traditional and nuclear, air-launched cruise missiles] were in development, not testing, so they used combat shots as ‘tests,’ which means that their capability for technological ‘surprise’ is significant as well, as their force evolves,” explained the Admiral.

Russia’s air and sea-launched cruise missiles can carry conventional or nuclear warheads – “this means that a tactical weapon can have strategic effect” in North America, he says, adding that Russia can launch from their own air bases and reach into North American territory.

“The challenge is that, when launched, we are catching arrows, but we are not going after the archers. The archers do not have to leave Russia in order to range our homeland. And with the augmentation of the firepower of their submarine force, the question of the state of our anti-submarine warfare capabilities in the North Atlantic and the Northern Pacific waters is clearly raised.”

What does all this mean for NORAD? Restricting its mandate to air defense “limits our ability to deal with the multi-domain threat,” suggests the Commander. “It is an air and maritime threat, and you need to go on that tack and defense through multiple domains, not simply the classic air battle.”

The nuclear dimension is clearly a key part of the dynamic strategic environment facing the U.S. and Canada, and is an important element of how the Command needs to shape its approach going forward.

With regard to the Russians, the shift in their doctrine, whereby nuclear is being woven into their concept of conventional deterrence, clearly requires a response.


F-22 Raptors from 11th Air Force, 3rd Wing, based at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska intercepted a pair of Russian Tu-95MS strategic bombers in 2007. Both “Bears” belong to the 326th Heavy Bomber Air Division and are operated from Ukrainka air base. (US Air Force)

“Both the Chinese and Russians have said in their open military literature, that if conflict comes, they want to escalate conflict in order to de-escalate it. Now think about that from our side. And so now as crisis escalates, how will Russia or China want to escalate to de-escalate?

“They’ll definitely come at us through cyber. And they’ll deliver conventional and potentially put nukes on the table. We have to treat the threat in a global manner and we have to be prepared to be able to deal with these through multiple domains, which include cyber, but that’s not in NORAD or NORTHCOM mission sets.

“We clearly need the capacity to have the correct chain of command in order to confront this threat; and if you look at where we are today with NORAD or NORTH­COM, we are only dealing with an air defense threat and managing to that threat.

“We are not comprehensive in a manner symmetrical with the evolving threat or challenges facing North American defense,” states the commander with some concern.

With a new leader in North Korea who is both pushing out new capabilities and to say the very least not transparent in what he is thinking about the use of nuclear weapons on behalf of his regime, there is another dynamic shaping the North American defense challenge.

“I own the trigger to deal with this threat in consultation with the National Command Authority,” confirms the Admiral.

“We are prepared to shoot in our defense. We have invested in a ground missile defense system in Alaska; we have 44 interceptors in all. We have a sophisticated system of systems in place, but we need to improve its robustness,” he says, noting that the system has fallen victim to  political fits and starts over the years.

“I testify along with the head of the Missile Defense Agency with regard to our system and the ways to improve it. We need the maintenance and modernization of the system and the tests in order to assure ourselves that it’s going to work, and I have high confidence in the system at the current time.”

However, the commander recognizes  that the required robustness is on the verge of losing ground to potential adversaries. “We need improvements in the sensors; we need investments, and research and development to get us on the correct side of the cost curve, because both the theater ballistic missile defense and ballistic missile defense of the homeland have been on the wrong side of the cost curve.

“We’re shooting very dumb rockets down, inexpensive rockets, with very expensive rockets, and we’re only doing it in the case of ballistic missile defense in mid-course so that the debris doesn’t fall on the homeland. What we need to do is invest in those technologies that keep them from being launched, detect them, kill them on the rails, kill them in boost phase, start knocking the count-rate down instead of just taking a single rocket and shooting it down in mid-course.

“It’s about the kill chain, and shaping a more effective missile defense kill chain which is integratable in the overall North American NIFC-CA type capability, which can integrate air and sea systems, which is important to deal with the evolving threat environment.

“But one has to think through our deterrence strategy as well. What deters the current leader of North Korea? What deters non-state actors for getting and using a nuclear weapon? What will deter Russia from using tactical nuclear weapons in the sequence of how they view dealing with conventional war?

“It is not my view that matters; it is their view; how to I get inside the head of the 21st century actors, and not simply stay within yesterday’s set of answers?”

Admiral Gortney sees Canada and its approach to defense modernization as a key part of shaping an effective response or deterrence strategy. “For 58 years, we have had a bi-national command, NORAD. The current government faces a set of tough problems, not the least of which is due to past governments not addressing re-capitalization. “Clearly, they need to recapitalize their air and maritime force, and preferably one that can work together from the ground up as an integrated force.

“I think NORAD needs to become a multi-domain command, and Canada’s forces could flow into that command and out of that command as a key enabler.” To do so requires shaping a more integrated air and naval force.

“The challenge for us, is to shape what we in the U.S. Navy call the NIFC-CA or Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air battle network solution for North American defense. In simple terms, we need to shape a more integrated air and maritime force that can operate to defend the maritime and air approaches to North America as well as North America itself.

Illustrating the 10 and 2 o’clock challenge. (Source: Second Line of Defense)

“We can look at the evolving threat as a 10 o’clock and a 2 o’clock fight, because they originate from the ten and two. Right now, the ten o’clock fight is primarily an aviation fight. They’re moving capability there, but it’s nothing like what they have at the two o’clock fight, which is more of a maritime fight.

“This means that, as the NORTH­COM Commander, I can only defend North America if I can reach deeply into the U.S. European Command area of operation. I need EUCOM to handle the two o’clock fight for me. Thus, it is critical to net and synchronize our operational plans so that we are not just fighting in isolation, and this shift is a pretty significant change for us here at NORAD and NORTHCOM.

“One way to think about it is that I’m a module in EUCOM’s bigger picture,” explains the Admiral. With EUCOM responsible for the neutralizing the threat from Russia, NORAD and NORTHCOM support when called upon “and then we are a piece of that defense effort.” EUCOM supports NORAD and NORTHCOM when it comes to the defense of the North American homeland.

As General Robinson looks to transition her new Command going forward, it will be interesting to see if the modification to a multi-domain capability to more effectively answer today’s multi-modal threat will occur during her watch.

New NORTHCOM/NORAD Commander: General Lori Robinson

The former PACCOM Commander, General Lori Robinson, assumed command of NORTHCOM/NORAD on 13 May 2016. She is the first female Combatant Commander for the United States. The more important point is that she is coming from a command where the direct threat to North America from North Korea has been growing.

As the PACOM Commander, she has worked closely with the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and U.S. Army, as well as key allies to dealing with the evolving threats and challenges in the Pacific, which are also key elements in dealing with the NORTHCOM/NORAD challenges.

During her presentation at the Royal Australian Air Force Air Power Conference in Canberra earlier this year, she talked about a number of the theater security challenges (dealing with rogue nations, resurgent Russia, and assertive China), and it is obvious that such challenges will follow her to the new job.

Admiral Gortney recommended the need to deal with the 10 and 2 o’clock threats to North America by shaping a reformed NORAD, one able to integrate air and maritime forces, General Robinson is well positioned to lead such a crucial effort.

U.S. Air Force General Lori Robinson receives the NORAD Command guidon from Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Jon Vance, ­signifying acceptance of command, at Peterson AFB, Colorado. (DOD Photo: 13 MAY 2016)

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Robbin Laird is an international defence analyst based in Virginia, USA.

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