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Back to Archives | Back to April 2007 Contents 

U.S. Northern Command & Defense Support of Civil Authorities

By R. Barry Cronin, Colonel, Deputy Commander, Joint Task Force North, U.S. Marine Corps, Fort Bliss, Texas

aw enforcement agencies and the U.S. Department of Defense have a long history of positive, mutually supporting cooperation. Routine sharing of assets such as firearm training range facilities, tactical training programs and facilities, and dog teams is common. Traditional cooperation occurs in local search-and-rescue operations, in natural disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew, and in response to riots in major cities.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the necessity for successful cooperation took on an entirely new perspective. Law enforcement agencies throughout the United States responded by reorganizing and redistributing assets to meet the new threat to law and order. The Department of Defense recognized the need to enhance cooperation with law enforcement agencies at all levels while respecting the legal constraints imposed by the Posse Comitatus Act1 and the U.S. Constitution. Consistent with that mindset, the department has made significant changes. Among the most notable of those changes was the creation of the U.S. Northern Command, known to military officials as USNORTHCOM.

The purpose of this article is to provide a strategic overview of the U.S. Northern Command’s organization, roles, and missions, focusing primarily on the U.S. Northern Command’s responsibilities for defense support of civil authorities and explaining the process by which the Department of Defense authorizes and the U.S. Northern Command conducts approved missions in support of its civilian law enforcement partners. The article also addresses how the Defense Department works with communities to provide emergency support to save lives and protect property at the local and regional levels.

U.S. Northern Command

Located at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colorado, the U.S. Northern Command was established October 1, 2002, to provide command and control over the Defense Department’s Acronyms homeland defense efforts and to coordinate defense support of civil authorities. The U.S. Northern Command defends the U.S. homeland, protecting its people, national power, and freedom of action. The U.S. Northern Command has a twofold mission:

  • Conduct operations to deter, prevent, and defeat threats and aggression aimed at the United States, its territories, and its interests in the assigned area of responsibility

  • As directed by the president or secretary of defense, provide support of civil authorities (typically a lead federal agency) in homeland defense operations, including consequence management2 operations.

The U.S. Northern Command’s area of responsibility includes air, land, and sea approaches and encompasses the continental United States, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, and the surrounding water out to approximately 500 nautical miles, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida. Although the U.S. Northern Command is responsible for planning, organizing, and executing homeland defense and civil support missions, it has few permanently assigned forces. The command is assigned forces whenever necessary to execute missions, as ordered by the president and the secretary of defense. The commander of the U.S. Northern Command is in charge of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which is responsible for aerospace warning and aerospace control for Canada, Alaska, and the continental United States. As such, the NORAD area of operations and the U.S. Northern Command’s area of responsibility overlap but are not congruent. NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command are two separate commands, neither subordinate to the other. The commander is commander of both NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command.

The U.S. Northern Command’s civil support mission includes domestic disaster relief operations that occur in response to fires, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Civil support also includes counterdrug operations and managing the consequences of a terrorist event employing a weapon of mass destruction (WMD). The command provides assistance to a lead agency when the Defense Department orders it to do so. Under the law, military forces can provide civil support but cannot become directly involved in law enforcement.3 In providing civil support, the U.S. Northern Command generally operates through established joint task forces that are subordinate to the command. The U.S. Northern Command can become involved in civil operations only when an emergency has exceeded the capabilities of local, state, and federal agencies. In most cases, support will be limited, local, and specific. When the scope of the disaster is reduced to the point that the lead agency can resume full control and management without military assistance, U.S. Northern Command forces will depart, leaving the local experts to finish the job.

The U.S. Northern Command comprises multiple subordinate and service component commands. The commands most involved in day-to-day nonemergency support to civil law enforcement are Joint Task Force North (JTF-N) and Joint Force Headquarters, National Capital Region (JFHQ-NCR). U.S. Army North and Joint Task Force Civil Support (JTF-CS) are the two commands primarily involved in emergency support. In addition to the military subordinate commands, the U.S. Northern Command headquarters staff also includes representatives from numerous federal agencies.

Defense Support of Civil Authorities

Defense support of civil authorities refers to Defense Department support, including federal military forces and the Defense Department’s civilian and contract personnel and its agencies and components, for domestic emergencies and for designated law enforcement and other activities.4 While most commonly understood to refer principally to response and consequence management in terrorist scenarios involving WMDs, there are additional categories of authorized support.

Although defense of the U.S. homeland is the command’s top priority, the U.S. Northern Command actually spends most of its time and effort providing military support to lead federal agencies. The next several paragraphs discuss the various categories of support, starting with routine day-to-day interaction and concluding with support provided under the National Response Plan.5

Day-to-Day Defense Department Interaction

Civil jurisdictions near military installations undoubtedly already enjoy close working relationships. Military installation security and criminal investigation organizations routinely work with local civil law enforcement organizations. In the area of crime prevention, installations coordinate with local law enforcement in order to share information regarding current trends in criminal activity. Installations also coordinate with local law enforcement to ensure adequate patrol coverage of perimeter areas, and many installations have access to local law enforcement frequencies to ensure coordinated response to incidents. Command criminal investigators routinely work with local law enforcement in order to ensure investigative coordination of crimes that involve military personnel and property, and military installation security personnel work closely with local law enforcement to identify and protect critical infrastructure that supports military installations.

The Law Enforcement Support Office at the Defense Logistics Agency at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, is authorized to transfer Defense Department equipment to federal and state law enforcement agencies using two programs.6 The first program, known as the 1033 Program (formerly the 1208 Program), authorizes the transfer of excess Defense Department property for counterdrug and counterterrorism missions.7 The second is known as the 1122 Program, which authorizes the purchase of law enforcement equipment suitable for counterdrug missions through the federal government.8 The Law Enforcement Support Office is also the Defense Logistics Agency point of contact for this program as well. In order to effectively manage the programs, each state appoints a state point of contact (SPOC) to administer the programs, and the Law Enforcement Support Office, in turn, provides the respective SPOCs with the opportunity to purchase items from any of the four inventory control points managed by the Defense Logistics Agency. In the end, the 1122 Program helps state and local governments save money on major items required for mission accomplishment.9

Subordinate Commands of the U.S. Northern Command

The U.S. Northern Command’s subordinate commands involved in day-to-day support to civil law enforcement are JTF-N and JFHQ-NCR.

Joint Task Force North

Located at Biggs Army Airfield, Fort Bliss, Texas, JTF-N is the U.S. Northern Command’s lead operational headquarters for providing support to law enforcement agencies (LEAs) by employing military assets to help police agencies detect and interdict transnational threats with a counterdrug nexus. JTF-N personnel do not participate in any arrest or seizure, nor do they collect or retain intelligence on U.S. citizens. They focus on foreign intelligence and ensure that it is properly analyzed and shared with appropriate agencies and is used to focus limited resources against our greatest threats.

JTF-N missions are always led by a federal law enforcement agency. JTF-N is not a disaster response headquarters but instead employs volunteer units to support law enforcement detection and interdiction efforts.

Under the law, transnational threats consist of “international terrorism, narcotics trafficking, weapons of mass destruction and the delivery systems for such weapons, and organized crime.”10 JTF-N specifically identifies drug trafficking organizations, alien smuggling organizations, foreign terrorist organizations, and WMDs as transnational threats.

JTF-N is authorized to accept support requests from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and any of the regional high-intensity drug trafficking areas (HIDTAs) designated by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Police and sheriff’s departments in a HIDTA may also request support through that HIDTA. All requests must have a counterdrug nexus and provide a training value to the military unit involved. Additionally, JTF-N has no permanently assigned forces and relies on volunteer units to conduct all missions.

U.S. Northern Command Spectrum of Operations
U.S. Northern Command Spectrum of Operations

The types of support that the Department of Defense can provide to counterdrug activities are clearly defined in the U.S. Code and department policy. JTF-N provides four broad categories of support to law enforcement agencies.

Operational Support: This category includes military capabilities applied to increase supported law enforcement’s ability to interdict threats and employs the capabilities ground sensors, air surveillance radar, unmanned aerial systems, Stryker vehicles, and other detection platforms. This mission category also includes aviation reconnaissance to detect cultivation or processing of illegal drugs in public lands and forests.

Intelligence Support: This support focuses on developing intelligence collection requirements, conducting analysis, and participating in the prioritization of missions. It also includes information sharing, imagery support, and training law enforcement agencies in analysis.

Engineering Support: This support shapes the operating environment by denying threat mobility and enhancing law enforcement agencies mobility along the southwest border of the United States. Defense Department engineers support law enforcement agencies by constructing roads and bridges, fences, vehicular barriers, and lights.

General Support: This includes methods for tunnel detection, transportation of law enforcement personnel and equipment using fixed-wing aircraft, aerial refueling, and one of our largest types of support, mobile training teams. Mobile training teams export certain types of expertise to law enforcement agencies emphasizing a train-the-trainer approach. The Defense Department has provided training in such skills as special reaction team operations, desert survival, trauma management, chemical weapons detection and emergency response, patrolling, land navigation, and intelligence link analysis.

Joint Force Headquarters, National Capital Region

Joint Force Headquarters, National Capital Region plans, coordinates, maintains situational awareness, and, as directed, employs forces for homeland defense and defense support of civil authorities to safeguard the U.S. capital. Located in Washington, D.C., JFHQ-NCR has participated in several real-world events, including managing Defense Department support during the ricin attack in U.S. Senate office buildings and supporting state funerals. It makes good sense to have a standing command and control element in place to support special events in Washington, D.C.

Emergency Support

The U.S. Northern Command subordinate commands primarily responsible for responding to emergencies or disasters are U.S. Army North (previously known as the Fifth U.S. Army) and JTF-CS. There are two ways that the Department of Defense provides support to civil authorities: immediate response and support for incidents under the National Response Plan. Support pursuant to the National Response Plan is normally provided under the Stafford Act and through the joint director of military support process.

Immediate Response: A Department of Defense directive defines immediate response as “any form of immediate action taken by a DOD component or military commander . . . to assist civil authorities or the public to save lives, prevent human suffering, or mitigate great property damage under imminently serious conditions occurring where there has not been any declaration of major disaster or emergency by the president or attack.”11 With respect to immediate response, the key things to remember are that there must first be a request for assistance from civil authorities. Local military commanders do have the authority to provide immediate response to save lives, prevent human suffering, or mitigate great property damage. The Department of Defense has bases and installations throughout the United States that are a part of local communities, and for those civil jurisdictions near a military base it is worthwhile to work out potential scenarios in advance via exercises and agreements.

The National Response Plan in a hypothetical scenario
The National Response Plan in a hypothetical scenario

Support under the National Response Plan

The National Response Plan, last updated May 25, 2006, establishes a comprehensive all-hazards approach to enhance the ability of the United States to manage domestic incidents. The plan incorporates best practices and procedures from incident management disciplines of homeland security, emergency management, law enforcement, firefighting, public works, public health, responder and recovery worker health and safety, emergency medical services, and the private sector and integrates them into a unified structure. The National Response Plan forms the basis of how the federal government coordinates with state, local, and tribal governments and the private sector during incidents. It establishes protocols to help do the following:

  • Save lives and protect the health and safety of the public, responders, and recovery workers

  • Ensure security of the homeland

  • Prevent an imminent incident, including an act of terrorism, from occurring

  • Protect and restore critical infrastructure and key resources

  • Conduct law enforcement investigations to resolve incidents, apprehend the perpetrators, and collect and preserve evidence for prosecution or attribution

  • Protect property and mitigate damages to and impacts on individuals, communities, and the environment

  • Facilitate recovery of individuals, families, businesses, governments, and the environment12

In a hypothetical scenario under which Defense Department assets could potentially be brought to bear under the provisions of the National Response Plan the following situation develops. An event occurs, in this example the detonation of a radiological dispersion device, or dirty bomb. Local first responders are at some point overwhelmed, and neighboring state responders are mobilized and deployed in response to preexisting compacts or memorandums of mutual support. In the event additional response forces are required, the governor has the authority to request federal support, directly from the president, who in turn directs the Department of Homeland Security, as the primary federal agency, to respond accordingly. Any additional military requirements needed by the Department of Homeland Security can be asked for through an interagency request for assistance to the Defense Department. The U.S. Northern Command is ultimately the organization tasked to identify and deploy military assets in response.

U.S. Army North

One important aspect of this process, from the perspective of Defense Department support, is the role of the defense coordinating officer (DCO). This is a key player and someone well worth knowing before an emergency takes place. Note that the DCO joins the state and federal coordinating officers in the joint field office (JFO) during an emergency. This synchronization is the key to an overall coordinated response. The DCO represents the single point of contact at an incident management location for coordinating and validating the use of Defense Department resources. The DCO works directly with the federal coordinating officer or designated federal representative.

All DCOs are army colonels assigned to U.S. Army North, one of the subordinate service component commands of the U.S. Northern Command. The command’s mission statement includes homeland defense and civil support, most likely in the form of defense support of civil authorities. Potential civil support missions include employment of a DCO in response to a hurricane, fire, or earthquake, up to and including the deployment of an entire JTF staff in response to a catastrophic disaster. In other words, the DCO is most likely the Defense Department’s first responder. As such, tasks include familiarization with existing state and federal emergency response plans, coordination with military installations in the Federal Emergency Management Agency region regarding available base support operations, and readiness oversight for all designated or dedicated homeland defense and civil support forces. The DCO should also be participating in local, state, federal, and military exercises in the region.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the DCO was an additional duty for an army colonel. As a direct result of lessons learned during that response, the position is now permanently filled in order to ensure a quicker, more efficient Defense Department response. The other critical component of this concept is the defense coordinating element (DCE), which is the five-person staff for each DCO. Like the DCO, the DCE will also be permanently assigned. The scene of a catastrophe is not the place to exchange business cards for the first time. By permanently assigning a DCO to each Federal Emergency Management Agency region, the U.S. Northern Command intends to ensure that its first responders are well known to their civilian counterparts before an emergency.

Joint Task Force Civil Support

Joint Task Force Civil Support, located in Hampton, Virginia, is specifically organized and equipped to deploy rapidly in response to an event involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosives (CBRNE). Operations are directed toward saving lives and preventing further injury by providing such services as decontamination, medical assistance, and temporary critical life support for the local population. Once the situation stabilizes and Defense Department support is no longer required, the force redeploys. JTF-CS is a stabilization force, not a rebuilding or recovery force.

There is an important distinction between CBRNE and WMD. CBRNE is any chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-yield explosion, including those caused by industrial accidents, acts of nature, acts of war, or acts of terrorism. WMD refers specifically to a CBRNE weapon, device, or material designed to produce mass casualties. JTF-CS is capable of responding to either, and the response is much the same, regardless of the source or nature of the incident.

Homeland security organizations operate on parallel lines of authority, coming together at the operational level during a CBRNE event to ensure a coordinated response. To best accomplish this, an enormous amount of information sharing is required, not only within DOD agencies, but also with other federal agencies as well as state and local authorities. The joint field office is where tasks and requirements are identified and validated, with resolution achieved at the lowest level. The state coordinating officer manages the state and local response, the federal coordinating officer manages the federal response, and, lastly, the DCO manages issues requiring response from the Department of Defense. JTF-CS acts only on mission assignments received from the primary federal agency (formally referred to as the lead federal agency) passed by the federal coordinating officer to the defense coordinating officer. The unclassified and classified worlds converge at the site of a CBRNE response. In order to help facilitate command and control, the JTF-CS Emergency Response Communications Suite and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Mobile Emergency Response System provide both secure and nonsecure voice and data systems to facilitate critical command, control, and decision-making processes required for timely, effective response.

This article has provided the reader a brief overview of the complex and potentially confusing topic of military support, with a particular emphasis on how the U.S. Northern Command and its subordinate and service component commands provide support to civil authorities. It is important for the emergency service community to understand what the U.S. Northern Command is, what it is authorized to do and when, what it cannot do and why, and how and when civil authorities can obtain support. Every year, the U.S. military responds to hundreds of requests for assistance from civilian law enforcement. The dedicated men and women of the U.S. Northern Command stand ready to provide that support when and as directed by the president and the secretary of defense. ■


1 The Posse Comitatus Act (18 U.S.C. 1385) provides that “whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”
2 “Consequence management . . . describes ways and means to alleviate the short- and long-term physical, socioeconomic, and psychological effects of a chemical or biological attack.” Chris Seiple, “Consequence Management: Domestic Response to Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Parameters (Autumn 1997).
3 According to 10 U.S.C. 375: “The Secretary of Defense shall prescribe such regulations as may be necessary to ensure that any activity (including the provision of any equipment or facility or the assignment or detail of any personnel) under this chapter does not include or permit direct participation by a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps in a search, seizure, arrest, or other similar activity unless participation in such activity by such member is otherwise authorized by law.”
4 Department of Defense Directives 3025.15 (Military Assistance to Civil Authorities) and 3025.1 (Military Support to Civil Authorities).
5 According to the Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Plan, issued May 2006, “The National Response Plan is an all-discipline, all-hazards plan that establishes a single, comprehensive framework for the management of domestic incidents. It provides the structure and mechanisms for the coordination of federal support to state, local, and tribal incident managers and for exercising direct federal authorities and responsibilities.”
6 According to 10 U.S.C. 380: “The Secretary of Defense, in cooperation with the Attorney General, shall conduct an annual briefing of law enforcement personnel of each State (including law enforcement personnel of the political subdivisions of each State) regarding information, training, technical support, and equipment and facilities available to civilian law enforcement personnel from the Department of Defense.”
7 See 10 U.S.C. 380(c)(1).
8 According to 10 U.S.C. 381: “The Secretary of Defense shall establish procedures in accordance with this subsection under which States and units of local government may purchase law enforcement equipment suitable for counter-drug activities through the Department of Defense.”
9 States that wish to apply for entry into the program or learn more about it may do so by contacting the executive agent at 703-604-7450 or going to the Law Enforcement Support Office Web site at
10 Under the law (50 U.S.C. 402), a transnational threat is “any transnational activity (including international terrorism, narcotics trafficking, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the delivery systems for such weapons, and organized crime) that threatens the national security of the United States” and “any individual or group that engages” in a transnational activity that threatens the national security of the United States.
11 Department of Defense Directive 3025.1 (Military Support to Civil Authorities).
12 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, National Response Plan (May 2006),



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 4, April 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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