The Defense Department is lagging behind with its plans and allocation of resources to defend the U.S. waterways,
according to a top Pentagon official.
“I do not believe that we have yet developed a mature concept of operations for the effective execution of a maritime mission within the Northern Command area of operation,” said Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense.
NORTHCOM is responsible for the defense of the continental United States, Alaska and Hawaii. McHale has called consistently for strengthening maritime security since he took office in early 2003.
While the Defense Department has been focusing on developing strategy and concepts of operation for maritime security, the U.S. government has not “begun to resource or provide the operational capabilities that will turn that strategic mission into an operational reality,” McHale said at a recent National Defense Industrial Association conference.
“It seems to me that it is in the maritime domain that we have the greatest potential to substantially improve our homeland defense,” he added.
One of the nation's biggest threats at this point-weapons of mass destruction-will most likely be acquired overseas, and components may be transported to the United States through the nation's maritime domain, which is NORTHCOM's territory, said McHale. A concept that McHale has been pushing, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's support, is a layered defense similar to that which the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, provides for U.S. skies.
This concept anticipates that forward-deployed naval forces will network with other assets of the Navy, the Coast Guard and intelligence agencies to identify, track and intercept threats long before they reach the United States. “The goal of such a maritime NORAD is to extend the security of the United States far seaward, taking advantage of time and space purchased by forward-deployed assets,” he said.
The first layer of that defense would be “huge intelligence,” said McHale. The Coast Guard already co-sponsored an initiative to develop a maritime domain awareness concept, McHale noted. “We have discreet collection systems from human to space-based assets that have not yet been brought into a common operating picture of the maritime field,” he contended. The intelligence community, today, relies primarily on traditional analysis, basically well-informed individuals looking at massive data and inculcating it with threat indicators, said McHale.
“I believe that process has to be dramatically enhanced in the 21st century with computer-assisted capabilities,” he added.
McHale said that, over the next six months, he anticipates that the Navy and the Coast Guard will work on their intelligence sources and derive a shared understanding of where potential threats lie in the maritime domain. This approach is going to require new surveillance capabilities, sensor systems mounted on unmanned aerial and under-water vehicles and new space-based platforms, said McHale.
“If we try to defend everywhere, we will defend nowhere,” he said. “When we talk about the layered maritime defense, many of those layers are electronic in character. Many involve surveillance and not physical presence.” The threat needs to be identified first, so that “we can then mass our interdiction capabilities, including our boarding parties to ultimately go aboard ships,” he added.
To turn the concept of a so-called maritime NORAD into reality, the commander of NORTHCOM, Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, will have to start focusing on resource requirements, said McHale. Keating-the first Navy officer to head the command-is expected to reassess what he needs to execute his maritime mission, and report his findings to the secretary of defense within the next few months, said McHale.
NORTHCOM has an unmet and “primary” requirement to develop a capability to remotely detect nuclear and radiological devices, according to McHale. “We have such capability today, but there is the potential to substantially improve on that capability,” he said.
To be able to distinguish between friendly vessels and those carrying WMD, the United States needs computer-assisted pattern analysis “in order to differentiate threat vessels from a much larger universe of innocent ships,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Navy's prized acquisition, the littoral combat system (LCS), or a platform with many of the same kind of capabilities, would be instrumental in NORTHCOM's maritime security mission, said McHale. In order to defend the seaways, forces “need the ability to engage in littoral combat, the ability to mount appropriate sensor platforms, the ability to potentially launch UAVs at sea, and the ability to provide a staging area for a boarding party,” he said. “It seems to me instinctively that the LCS has great potential. The combatant commander may or may not agree with that assessment, and his call will prevail.”
NORTHCOM needs to take a “hard look” at what kind of ships would be required to support the homeland defense mission. “I do not believe you can execute a mission without resources,” he said.
Commanders will have to determine whether LCS, or some other platform, would be appropriate for combat close to the U.S. coast, he said. “The LCS is designed to support war-fighting missions close to somebody else's coast, but many of the characteristics associated with that make the LCS an ideal candidate for consideration for homeland defense missions,” he explained.
Meanwhile, maritime defense is an ideal candidate for extended Naval Reserve missions, he stated. The Defense Department also has to ensure that the Navy and the Coast Guard integrate their capabilities. The Navy and the Coast Guard recently completed a memorandum of understanding designed to provide for the rapid use of Coast Guard assets in support of the Navy. A similar understanding still has to be reached to be able to transfer Navy capabilities to the Coast Guard, said McHale.