Homeland Security: Roles and Missions for United States Northern Command


CRS Report

  • William Knight, National Defense Fellow, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
  • RL34342
  • 11 pages
  • January 28, 2008

In 2002, President Bush signed a new Unified Command Plan (UCP) establishing United States Northern Command (NORTHCOM) to provide command and control of the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) homeland defense efforts and to coordinate military support to civil authorities. As a geographical combatant command, NORTHCOM has an area of responsibility that includes the continental United States, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, and surrounding waters out to approximately 500 nautical miles, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida. The NORTHCOM Commander also commands North American Aerospace Defense Command.

NORTHCOM, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, employs approximately 1,200 DOD civilians, contractors, and service members from each service component. The Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps have service components assigned to NORTHCOM, while Navy Fleet Forces Command is a supporting component. Additionally, NORTHCOM maintains five subordinate joint headquarters to carry out assigned missions. One of NORTHCOM’s key charters is to build ongoing relationships with government agencies that play a role in homeland security and defense. To ensure integration of homeland security and defense efforts, NORTHCOM participates in the Joint Interagency Coordination Group while also working closely with both the
Department of Homeland Security and the National Guard Bureau. As a geographical combatant command, NORTHCOM also plays a key role in facilitating cooperation with both Canada and Mexico.

During deliberations for the FY2009 National Defense Authorization Act, some issues for Congress involving NORTHCOM may include DOD reorganization and the Unified Command Plan, improving interagency relationships, NORTHCOM’s increased reliance on reserve component service members, and the ongoing Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center realignment. This report will be updated as conditions require.


NORTHCOM, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, employs approximately 1,200 DOD civilians, contractors, and service members from each service component. Most U.S. military personnel also serve in NORAD positions, except in the operations directorate. Like other combatant commands, NORTHCOM has relatively few permanently assigned personnel to manage routine operations. Rather, when tasked by the National Command Authority to conduct specific homeland defense or civil support operations, NORTHCOM would be assigned forces from U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM).

NORTHCOM has several subordinate commands to execute its mission. Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps components are assigned to NORTHCOM, while Navy Fleet Forces Command is a supporting component. These service component commands provide an administrative framework to command service forces gained from JFCOM for specific contingency operations. Additionally, five Joint Task Forces (JTF) have been established to provide operational organizational skeletons to oversee forces to be assigned for actual operations. The following summarizes direct-reporting NORTHCOM components:

Army North (ARNORTH). Based at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, 5th Army assumed responsibility for its NORTHCOM mission in October 2005. Commanded by an active duty three-star general, this organization shed its traditional role of training reservists to focus on supporting civil authorities. It assigns Defense Coordinating Officers (DCO) to all 10 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regional offices to streamline DOD coordination. During crisis response, DCOs are augmented by additional personnel to facilitate NORTHCOM support.

Air Force North (AFNORTH). First Air Force is headquartered at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, and in February 2006, it was designated as NORTHCOM’s air component. The organization is commanded by an Air National Guard two-star general who serves as a NORAD air defense commander. In addition to using Canadian and U.S. aircraft on alert, the command is expanding the use of mobile ground-based air defense systems and unmanned aerial vehicles. It also maintains a joint air surveillance system with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Marine Forces North (MARFORNORTH). In the fall of 2004, DOD designated Marine Forces Reserve Command in New Orleans, Louisiana, as a NORTHCOM component. The reserve three-star Marine commander is responsible for force-protection of Marine installations and coordinating Marine forces assigned to NORTHCOM. Additionally, to assist NORTHCOM civil support planning, the command has 32 Marine Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers focused on specific FEMA regions. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 20 of the 32 liaison officers worked in various FEMA, DOD, and state operations centers to coordinate Marine support.

Joint Task Force North (JTF-N). Established in September 2004, JTF-N aids law enforcement agencies protecting U.S. borders. The Fort Bliss, Texas-based unit inherited 15 years of interagency experience from its predecessor JTF-6. Whereas JTF-6 assisted with counter-drug operations on the southern border, JTF-N now has a broader homeland defense focus as it integrates military capabilities with federal, state and local law enforcement. In addition to exercises and planning, JTFN operations include reconnaissance, surveillance, detection, and infrastructure construction missions that often leverage military units training for deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Standing Joint Forces Headquarters North (SJFHQ-N). Headquartered at Peterson AFB, Colorado, SJFHQ-N began operations in January 2004. Its mission is to maintain situational awareness across NORTHCOM’s area of responsibility. SJFHQ-N is designed to provide command and control for contingency situations, and has the ability to forward deploy elements when required. Joint Task Force Alaska (JTF-AK). JTF-AK is headquartered at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, and is tasked to coordinate land defense and DOD support to civil authorities in Alaska.

Joint Task Force Civil Support (JTF-CS). Headquartered at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, this JTF assists the lead federal agency managing the consequences of a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-yield explosive incident in the United States or its territories and possessions. It was established in 1999 under U.S. Joint Forces Command, and its coordination with agencies like FEMA is more mature. The JTF is also working with state National Guard civil support teams as they become operational.

Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region (JFHQ-NCR). Activated in June 2003, this JTF is located at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C. It facilitates planning, training, and exercising among four local service components. Additionally, it coordinates with Coast Guard District 5, the DHS Office of National Capitol Region, and other federal, state, and local agencies to
ensure unity of effort in the event of manmade or natural catastrophes.

Interagency Relationships

Joint Interagency Coordination Group (JIACG). To facilitate interagency relationships, NORTHCOM has liaisons from more than 60 federal and non-federal agencies at Peterson AFB, Colorado. Liaisons provide subject matter expertise and direct lines of communication with their parent organizations. Some non-DOD agencies represented include the Central Intelligence Agency, FAA,
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Geological Survey, as well as several Department of Homeland Security (DHS) organizations such as Customs and Border Patrol, FEMA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The JIACG also does focused planning on specific issues with potential nationwide impact. For example, in August 2006, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) met with members of the JIACG to ensure a mutually supporting effort and eliminate redundancy in
responding to potential pandemic flu.

Department of Homeland Security. DOD has 65 personnel working in the DHS, and senior officials from both organizations meet daily at the principal and deputy level. There are also NORTHCOM personnel assigned to DHS components such as the Defense Coordinating Officers in FEMA regions. Through a memorandum of understanding, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has 20 personnel
serving on the NORTHCOM headquarters staff facilitating regular discussions for maritime homeland defense roles and responsibilities.

National Guard. Although the National Guard Bureau (NGB) is a DOD organization, most national guard forces report to their state leadership unless federalized. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, NORTHCOM and the NGB took steps to improve coordination with and oversight of National Guard forces serving in state and federal roles. These steps include a formal policy on command, control, and communications; an advisory board to expedite solutions for improving information sharing; and more than 87 NORTHCOM mobile training team visits to demonstrate collaborative tools to the NGB joint operations center and state-level
guard headquarters.

International Security Cooperation

Canada. In December 2002, Canada and the United States established a Binational Planning Group at NORAD/NORTHCOM headquarters to review theater cooperation in the post 9/11 security environment. The 50-person military team dissolved in May 2006 after submitting a final report with 62 recommendations. Some recommendations, like authority for WMD teams to cross the border, will require legislative action to be effective. However, most, like protocols for information sharing between NORAD, NORTHCOM, and Canada Command, could be orchestrated under existing laws and the NORAD agreement.

Mexico. Theater security cooperation with Mexico is limited to anti-drug trafficking operations and senior officer visits with Mexican counterparts. The former is a continuation of JTF-6 interactions, while the latter has proven difficult because the Mexican defense establishment lacks a natural entry point for combatant command level engagement. Mexican defense leaders have historically interacted with the Office of the Secretary of Defense because Mexico was not assigned to a combatant command’s AOR.

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